Thursday, 3 May 2012

Handy Hints to Hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT)

My first experience of solo traveling was around Australia for a couple of years when I was 'finding' myself. That was when I wrote the first thing that I ever got published 'Ten Handy Hints to Backpacking' which got a double spread in the West Australian.

Many years later, I really haven't changed that much so lets see if I can pull out ten handy hints for the AT..

1/ Look after your feet
You're here for a hike, a long one so be good to them. Break in your walking shoes before the trip because you are going to be overweight.. perhaps physically, definitely packwise, not as fit as you will be in a months time, confronting big mountains with the enormity of the trip before you so the last thing you need is blisters early on. Try to keep your feet dry and as soon as you feel some rubbing get some tape on them. Yes you heard me right.. tape; bandaids are pretty useless as they quickly rub off. Your feet are going to get sore from all the rocks and roots you walk on so give them a rub every now and then and talk to them if you think that'll work.
Ointment such as dencorub or tiger balm.. anything you can think of to make them happy and they'll repay your kindness.

2/ Blazing
A blaze is a marking, usually painted on a tree, post or rock which is used as a navigational guideline. The trail is extremely well trodden and well marked by predominately singular white blazes. Double white blazing means there's something of interest coming up, usually an intersection, switchback or change of direction. However there are a lot of other trails and side routes which you will come across which will also be well trodden and marked. The most common secondary blaze is a blue one and that is used to indicate a side trail to water or shelter or a shortcut around a mountain. Blazes come in many colours but if you're sticking to the AT then you get to ignore the other ones. Blazing is also a term to distinguish what type of hike you are walking and the definitions are as follows
White Blazing - The purists, traditionalists. They walk every single step of the trail and revel in their superior accomplishment
Blue Blazing - Will walk probably just as many miles as the whites but they take the 'shortcut' trails contouring certain summits instead of peaking them
Yellow Blazing - Involves going on roads (the yellow lines) sometimes skipping portions of the trail to the disdain of the white blazers
Pink Blazing - Chasing a girl on the trail
Green Blazing - Hiking whilst under the influence of a certain green substance
Slack packing - Involves getting shuttles out of town then walking with a daypack back into town. Can be used to speed up your trail due to walking downhill instead of up (towns are usually in gaps) with a light pack.
Section Hiking - Walking a portion of the trail due to time or fitness constraints. A lot of people section hike the entire trail over the course of a few years

3/ Nothing is essential
That's right anything you might think is essential someone has probably done the trail without. But Trev, I hear you say 'What about boots?' nada, two ladies walked the entire trail (albeit slowly) barefoot.. 'What about clothes?' and I counter with the hike naked day sometime in June. 'What about food?' ok, you got me there but the reason for this point is that minimalism is the way to go. Work out your comfort zone and work back from there shedding unnecessary gear that will lighten your pack. There are 'hiker boxes' along the trail at hostels littered with expensive gore-tex clothing and other hiking paraphernalia that people realise they dont need and end up ditching.
This one is personal though and everyone has their comforts that they'll happily endure the weight of (like clothes etc..) but do you really need that machete for wood collecting?
That and there are 'Outfitters' (camping stores) liberally strewn all over the trail starting from Neels Gap (31 miles in) that can supply you with anything and everything you need for the trail so it's better off starting light and then finding out what you really need.

4/ Embrace your Foreignness
You're Australian, an Aussie, the yanks love Aussies, well the four they know anyway (for the record thats Paul Hogan, Steve Irwen, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman). Deepen your voice, embrace your inner Ocker, words such as Hey, Howdy, Hello, Hi shall never pass your lips instead they are universally replaced by G'day. You need to sprinkle some slang into every sentence you can, gallah, yobbo, fair dinkum, gammin, bloody, missus, sheilah, hell if you cant think of one make some up, they don't understand you anyway.
Vegemite is your condiment of choice and enjoy the effect it has on those sugar loving softies. Tell them tales of the multitude of deadly creatures we own and don't forget to embellish them.. "yes the Death Adder is also called the three step killer because it has enough poison to kill 100 elephants", "You've never heard of dropbears? Well they kill soo many people they try and keep it quiet.."
Bonus points if you can toss in some Aussie rhyming slang (Hit the frog and toad) or quotes (Flat out like a lizard drinking)

5/ Learn surburiginal
This one is a bit of a subsection of the previous entry but anyway.. It may be different down south but up here in Darwin there are a lot of suburbs that sound like completely foreign words to Americans.. Tiwi, Alawa, Millner, Parap, Wanguri, Malak, Wagaman, Nakara etc.. These words can be blended together into sentances to show off your great understanding of the local indigenous culture and language. For example "Sure I speak Larrakia lingo... 'Alawa tiwi wanguri parap nakara' it roughly translates to 'My feet are sore, bloody mountains'. I'm sure southerners could even use city names like Wollongong, Wagga Wagga etc.. I mean most Americans knowledge of Australian towns doesn't get past Sydney and Melbourne and for many it doesn't get even there. As an aside, surburiginal works quite well on the aforementioned Sydney and Melbourne folk. I mean lets face it, generally all that they know of Darwin is that it will be "Fine, sunny with the chance of afternoon showers" 

6/ Trail Names
Your introduction to trail names will happen early on in the trail. Mine was within a few steps of landing onto the trail and meeting 'Rock-Scar' and 'Ten-Gallon'. Trail names can have a meaning for example Rock-Scar had hit his head on a rock and had a scar from it, they can be self named like mine 'Walkabout', or you can be named by other hikers for personal traits.. ie: Bush-Goggles so named for once he hits town no female is safe from his gaze.
I was a bit skeptical about trail names in the beginning but I've come to embrace them as they are a great ice breaker and are a lot more identifying (and easier to remember) for when you're talking about other hikers.
Some of my favourite trail names that I've come across are as follows
Bush-Goggles - He was already named 'Stew-ball' when I met him but after watching him in town i had to rename him :)
Lightning and Lady Bug - Hit by lightning 6 times (with scars to prove it) doesn't stop him going outside.. Lady is his partner.
Day Glow - named after his fluorescent shirt
Yogi and Boo boo - hiker couple, bear lovers

7/ Trail Magic
What is it?
It is the magical moments when you come across people that just want to help hikers in any way they can. Trail magic could be a lift into town and then the driver giving you $20 out of the blue to go and buy lunch with.
A more common version of trail magic, and it's a kind that has happened to me fairly regularly along the trail is when people set up a bbq at a road intersection with the trail and feed the hikers as they come past. So far I've seen complete spreads put on by church groups (two by baptist churches) with oodles of food (but no alcohol) and drinks, bbqs with kegs and moonshine set up by former thru-hikers (people that have walked the trail), support vehicles for a group that also have snacks that they give to other hikers and one time just a car making scrumptious turkey sandwiches in the middle of nowhere.
Trail magic is a thing of beauty that has never failed to put a smile on my face and now whenever I come to a road intersection I invariably check out any parked car with hope in my eyes and a rumble in my belly.  

8/ The American Way
You are in the Great U,S of A. Food is sweet (literally) processed and cheap (thanks Aussie dollar)!! People have strange sounding accents and say weird things like Y'all, Howdy and old men call you 'Sir'. They walk the street carrying guns and despite everyone acknowledging that metric is simple they still use the imperial system, yes my 1.5 Lt water bottle also shows that it is 1 quart, 1 pint, 2.7 fluid ounces. No-one can work out what the temperature converts to in centigrade which can catch you out if you dont realise that a 20 degree night means it's going to be below freezing (for the record 32^ F = 0^ C). Pavements seem to be an optional extra in rural towns which are the domain of 8 cylinder pick-up trucks (big utes).
Still, enjoy the wacky place you find yourself in. Southern hospitality is real and people are quite friendly and gregacious once you show you aren't a threat (and dont carry a gun). The towns are beautiful and varied with strange 'genre' towns like the Bavarian 'Helen GA', circus like tourist towns 'Gatlinburg TN' and idyllic, picket fenced, flag marked, neo-colonial style buildings of Erwin TN.
Food, cigarettes, beer hell pretty much everything is cheap, especially coming from Darwin and the states are varied enough that they all have their own delicacies for you to try. A personal favourite of mine is the breakfast bowl from a servo at 'Hot Springs NC' which contained grits (porridge like), scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, cheese and something else all mixed up together in a bowl. 'Biscuits and Gravy' is really quite nice and they are sweet scones with a white pepper sauce.
In short there's lots to discover in the ol USA and the best way is to chat to the locals to find out whats happening.

9/ Trail Food Syndrome
Do you read the back of packages and get excited when you see a high fat content?
Have you ever tried to work out the percentage of calories per ounce? (Bonus points if you can then convert it into grams)
Whilst shopping do you look at a box and wonder how small you can compress it once you get the food out of the box?
If the cooking instructions is anything more complex than ‘add water’ do you think to yourself “useless”
Are you convinced that ‘Iced Frosting’ will make a good lunch as it’s over half the calorie RDI in one tub?
If you answered yes to 2 or more of those questions then you have ‘Trail food syndrome’. The RDI (regular daily intake) for an average adult is around 2000 calories, this they will burn off over the course of the day going about their business. Most people will fill the RDI easily with a couple of good meals, some snacks and a few drinks. On the trail however every extra kilo you carry makes your work harder. The more you carry, the slower you go, the greater your exertion conversely the more food you need.. A kind of catch 22.
The average hiker is burning a lot more than 2000 calories a day and as weight is at a premium shopping becomes an exercise in not “what will taste good?” rather a more prosaic mindset of “how am I going to get the calories?”
This usually involves eating a lot a processed food as they are generally light and keep well rather than water inundated fresh food. As a bonus you will lose weight as a side effect of the trail and this is whilst eating anything you want.. Chocoholics rejoice!!

10/ The Hiker Grapevine
News travels quickly along the trail. It isn't a homogeneous progression of people walking from South to North. People take days off (zero days), they slackpack certain areas, they skip sections etc.. and of course people love to gossip so a good story moves quickly up and down the trail.
This combined with trail names and hiker logs means that it isn't that uncommon for people to have heard about you before you've even met them. Ahh so you're that aussie 'Walkabout' hmm. This should be kept in mind when it comes to your conduct as you don't want to be known as the guy that leaves trash at campsites or couldn't find the tent zip after a night of excess and ended up with a wet tent (Tree Hugger you've been immortalised).
There's a group of hikers ahead of me as I speak called the 'wolf pack' that I haven't met that are supposed to be pretty rowdy at nights and I heard that they were refused entry into one of the hostels in Erwin based on their reputation alone.
The grapevine is also good at keeping tabs on people and how far they are ahead or behind of you which is great for motivation to put in extra miles or for those pink blazers out there.

So that's my list of hints and info about the AT, I'm almost a fifth of the way through so still have a long way to go and info to find out

Til then Walkabout out

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