A Walk in the Woods, the film based on Bill Bryson’s book of the same name is out now, depicting Bryson’s thru-hike of the 2,175-mile long Appalachian Trail. We sent OAG’s Will Robson to hike a section, spiders and all
“So, let me get this right. You, the great outdoorsman, have no means of lighting the stove and now you’ve got the anti-bear food bag stuck up a tree?”
Gilly’s harsh but accurate summation adds to the gathering gloom as we sit under our flimsy shelter at Elkwallow Gap, on the Appalachian Trail, deep in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.
Our first night on the legendary trail is long and fitful, with every cracking branch a bear closing in. At least they won’t get our food.
Keeping food out of paw’s reach
The Appalachian Trail (AT) runs up the eastern United Sates, from Georgia to Maine. ‘Thru-hiking’ the whole AT takes an entire summer, at an average of 20 miles a day. It’s not for dilettantes; 85% of those who set off south from Mount Katahdin in Maine give up within three weeks. Maine is notoriously unforgiving. Black flies, mud and endless rocky climbs soon sort out those who thought themselves tough enough.
Which is why Gilly and I skipped Maine and started our trip slap bang in the middle of the AT, at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, home to The Appalachian Trail Conservancy – the body set up to administer and support the 30 trail clubs that keep the whole 2,175 mile trail marked and clear, and maintain its 250 shelters.
Prepping for the trail
We planned a four-day, northbound section hike on the AT, starting 65 miles south of Harpers Ferry at Thornton Gap, at the northern end of the National Park. We needed a base camp and checked in to the legendary Tea Horse Hostel, a no-nonsense hiker oasis run by Laurel.
At Laurel’s suggestion, we headed to The Outfitter at Harpers Ferry, picking up supplies and kindly wisdom from ‘Baltimore Jack’, who’d thru-hiked the AT seven times. Injury had forced him to stop and take a part-time job in the store, and his big lesson was that less is more on the trail.
Laurie Potteiger runs the AT Conservancy centre in Harpers Ferry, and we stopped by to see her logging in a couple of young SOBO thru-hikers at the half way point. ‘SOBO’ means they are southbound. Around 80% of AT thru-hikers are ‘NOBOs’ and they’d all come through Harpers Ferry weeks back, as the trail and weather in the south had been easier than the Pennsylvania and New England trail to the north. Those coming through now were the elite of hikers – they’d walked a tough 1,000 miles already, when most had given up, and were now hiking machines. Not exactly how we were feeling after our first day.
After a pretty uncomfortable first night at Elkwallow Gap, team morale was low. Ray Jardine, the modern day ‘father’ of ultra light hiking, writes that no matter how fit, tough and prepared you are, after two to three weeks on the trail the moment will come when you sit down and wonder why the hell you’re doing this. That moment possibly arrives sooner for some if their boyfriend has forgotten the lighter. Luckily, starting our hike in a national park has its advantages, and within half a mile we come across a rest stop where the trail meets the Skyline Drive road through the park. So we breakfast, as only Americans know how.
Yesterday’s afternoon drop off meant we only covered five miles before camping. Today we push onwards, wanting to see how far we can get without smashing ourselves.
We stop by Gravel Springs Hut to refill with water from the spring. It looks clear and pure, but we put in a purification tablet just in case. The hut’s logbook has entries from sectionand thru-hikers. Many talk of multiple bear sightings and, having initially been terrified at the prospect of an encounter, Gilly is now peeved that we haven’t seen any. I suggest she takes off the bell she’s attached to her pack to warn bears of our approach.
The logbook acts as a bush telegraph for the SOBOs still on the trail. Moving as individuals or partnerships for a time, hikers go at different paces, as well as dropping off the trail to resupply, or have a rare ‘zero day’, to wash gear and themselves. The logbooks let them know where people are, as they play catch up and swap news.
Spiders, snakes and bears
The AT is regarded as pretty safe. It runs along the Appalachian mountain chain and is never too far from human habitation. So it’s perhaps no surprise that it’s other humans who represent the biggest danger. A handful of hikers have been murdered over the last 40 years; more than have been killed by black bears, who wisely avoid human contact whenever possible. There are no grizzlies here, which is a good thing as they aren’t afraid of anything.
Navigation on the AT is almost too easy. At least, it is on this section. The way is marked with white ‘blazes’, and you’re never left at a trail junction wondering which way to turn.
Some thru hike without a ‘proper’ map, relying on trail guide notes marking distances and places to re-supply. This seems unwise, but as navigation is so straightforward, you can see why some might think the weight of carrying maps of each section isn’t worth it.
After only a couple of days we’re starting to feel the creeping claustrophobia that led to the AT being dubbed the ‘Green Tunnel’.
Even on the high ridges, it’s hard to get a really good distant viewpoint; such is the density of the mixed forest. While hiking in the early morning, the mist in the trees is eerie, and dewdrops hang from spider webs thrown across the narrow trail. Gilly’s counted four types of (large) spider so far. “And those are just the ones you’ve seen,” I counter. We walk in silence for a while.
Gilly comes face to face with the locals.
Dropping into Tom Floyd Wayside shelter we come across a young couple from West Virginia. They’re frying strips of a football-sized mushroom. They seem totally at home in the woods and casually point out a Timber Rattlesnake slithering alongside the fire pit. Luckily they’re a protected species or it would be supper, they inform us in a slow drawl.
The trail’s many species
Our first night in an official trail shelter comes soon after crossing the Interstate Highway at Manassas Gap. Light is disappearing fast and it’s pretty crowded. It turns out to be a microcosm of the AT hiker genus.
First we meet the ‘college grad’ thru-hiker SOBO species. His mac ’n’ cheese is on his spirit burner cat-stove in minutes. He doesn’t say much and is soon ‘sacking out’. In the morning, I ask him why he uses hiking poles. “They help,” he says, heading off on another 20-plus mile day. This may be the most succinct yet complete hiking advice I’ve heard.
Then there is the ‘retired’ species: two guys slack-packing their way down the trail for a week. One drives ahead with the heavy gear and meets his buddy at an agreed shelter, swapping as they go. They have a lifetime of hiking stories to tell a captive, tired audience.
Stumbling through the dark comes the (relieved) ‘urban bohemian’ species; a young couple in berets with a didgeridoo and guitalele. They left New York on a whim and are living off what they find on the trail. Tonight, that happens to be noodles, kindly supplied by someone slightly more prepared. They put on a concert in gratitude and are still asleep when everyone else leaves in the morning.
But the AT welcomes all-comers, with thru-hikers first in the hierarchy of course. It’s usually easy to tell them apart on the trail, but not always.
Appalachian Trail thru-hikers soon get themselves a trail name, and we meet ‘Dragonfly’ skipping down the trail, pink crocs dangling from her pack. She’s 17 and has walked 1,000 miles so far: “Mom and dad are OK as long as I phone in when I can.”
The next night we’re at Rod Hollow Shelter. Like many shelters, it’s in low, heavily wooded ground, close to a water source. It’s cold and dank and we’re in our sleeping bags soon after supper.
Hours later a cheery voice wakes us out of the inky blackness: “Room for two more in there?” We see only one head torch.
Will, whose trail name, as of 10 seconds ago, is ‘Nighthawk’, has a furry travel companion,
a husky called Solo. There’s some scuffling in Nighthawk and Solo’s corner as Solo is invited into his master’s sleeping bag. Dog beats down, any day. Must remember that.
Solo the husky keeps guard as he enjoys the dog walk of all dog walks.
Nighthawk is one of the AT’s ‘contemplator’ species: a drummer in Philly band East Hundred, he’s on a two-week section hike to work out his, and the band’s future. Solo has a special pack but it’s been rubbing him on the chest so Nighthawk’s carrying the dog food. Solo doesn’t look remotely guilty, and as we walk through the woods together he’s tracking down the smells and sounds around him, no doubt wondering when this dog walk of dog walks will end.
After ten rocky, hilly miles, we reach Bear’s Den, a hostel just off the trail and five miles south of Harpers Ferry. Our trail hike is done and we say farewell to Nighthawk and Solo who are heading into the Pennsylvania section of the AT.
In four days we walked just under 60 miles. At that pace we wouldn’t make it to Springer Mountain in time, but Baltimore Jack and the other thru-hikers we met remind us that the first few weeks are the toughest. The body hardens up and the mind adjusts to the journey itself becoming home, for a few precious months at least.
Would we try and ‘thru-hike’ the AT one day? Who knows, but it’s heartening to realise that for many Americans, the wilderness is still such a powerful draw. Never mind that some would struggle to hike from one side of Kim Kardashian’s butt to the other.
- Fly into New York JFK or Washington Dulles airport and you can be on the Appalachian Trail within hours.
- Catch an Amtrak train to Harpers Ferry from Washington, or a train from Grand Central Station in New York to the Appalachian Trail stop at Pawling, upstate New York.
- The best way to plan where and how you join the AT is to consult the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website.
- It also has information on hiking basics and useful tools such as distance calculators.