My Next Hike: From Bluegrass to Maple Syrup

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Max Patch, NC

5b327564d1591e216da93ec2e914db24My next hike has the potential to be the longest of my life.  Maybe it will be short, who knows.  My next hike is the culmination of my entire existence to this point, the culmination of my experiences in the mountains, the places I’ve lived and worked, and my interests and skills.  My next hike is a dive into culture as much as nature.  My next hike is the Appalachian Trail, in its entirety (hopefully).  I set out on Sunday, February 19th from Amicalola Falls State Park, GA over Springer Mountain, with no intention of stopping until Mt. Katahdin in Maine.  From the birthplace of bluegrass music to the land of maple syrup.  2,190 miles, ~5 months, along some sections of trail I’ve hiked multiple times and some I’ve never seen.  I could not be more excited.  This is the pinnacle, the ultimate feat for hikers and backpackers.  Long distance, along America’s most beloved trail.

The Appalachian Trail means a lot to me.  It has been the focal point of many important moments in my life.  While working at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, attending college at Virginia Tech, or working with Camp Walt Whitman or the AMC in New Hampshire, the Appalachian Trail has always been there.  Now, it’s time to pay tribute to these life experiences by linking them together and filling in the gaps in one shot along the AT.  I can take my life, and therefor a piece of my hometown, Stamford, CT, a birthplace I share with the AT’s progenitor Benton McKaye, back to the trail.

The fact of the matter is that the Appalachian Trail is as much of a cultural experience as it is a nature experience, if not more.  These are the oldest mountains in the world, checking in at 480 million years.  They are filled with history and wisdom.  It begins by traversing through Appalachia, the birthplace of Old-Time and Bluegrass music.  Through some of the most contested and bloodiest lands of the American Civil War.  As it continues north it plows through the lands of the American Revolution.  It begins to pass through the old stone walls, skeletons in the forest of a time gone by when agriculture ruled New England before the 1880’s when everyone fled to the nitrogen rich soils of the Midwest.  The trail ends deep in New England, where Sugar Maples bless us with life’s sweetest sap, turned to maple syrup.  A classic New England treat that is under threat due to climate change.  Most importantly, the trail is entirely encompassed in lands once occupied by North America’s first inhabitants, who would still be here had they not been brutally forced west.  Traces of their ancient east coast existence still live on in the name of rivers, towns, and mountains.  Their trail markers, trails that predate the Appalachian Trail, still dot the forest in the artificial shape of some trees, another example of how humans can leave a lasting impact on the land and leave a legacy of their existence, history, and way of life.  Not to mention the culture that has developed along the trail itself.  The culture of those hiking it, who have given up most creature comforts to immerse themselves in nature and history, in both solitude and uninhibited social interactions.  The culture of the towns nearby, that have an unusual dedication to the trail and the strangers who hike it each year, whose businesses and residents go out of their way to help others accomplish their dream.  Along the Appalachian Trail, hikers will probably have to use the words “thank you” more than ever, as it is impossible to complete it without the help of others.  The history and culture is not lost on me, and its one reason why I’m excited to be immersed in the trail and to contribute to it in my own way.

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cold rain on Moosilauke

In terms of nature, this trail has a lot to offer.  The Southern Appalachians feature some of the most biodiversity known to man, including but not limited to 158 different tree species, over 500 different kinds of ferns, and over 2,300 types of identified fungi with scientific estimates being that there may be over 20,000.  The Southern Appalachian range lays claim to the most abundant and diverse community of salamanders in the world, as well as record species counts for arachnids and millipedes both.  Mt. Washington and Franconia Ridge, NH are the only known homes of the Dwarf cinquefoil. This species, among others in the alpine zone, grow in some of the harshest temperatures and winds known to man. Such severe weather causes them to grow to only centimeters in size over the course of hundreds of years.  This is also the location of the east coast’s most renowned stretch of above tree line trail, offering views for miles and miles along a trail most otherwise called “the green tunnel.”  The entire AT corridor is speckled with American Chestnut saplings that all will unfortunately die due to a fungal blight before they reach maturity.  The American Chestnut used to dominate the eastern deciduous forest before the entire species succumbed to blight in the early 1900’s.  The American Chestnut was a provider, it fed both humans and animals alike and supplied the most excellent timber.  However, its story is proof that any dynasty can be toppled. However, the AT corridor is home to an incredible amount of intensive research in an attempt to revive this grand species.

It is clear that the Appalachian Trail is an amazing place and a national treasure.  However, it is a difficult time for me to attempt the Appalachian Trail.

Now, with the current state of political, cultural, and environmental affairs, I feel more compelled to civic and environmental action than ever.  However, I am setting off on a journey that, for the most part, will cut me off from the news and from my ability to contribute to the activism.  Things I care about deeply, such as civil rights, public lands, renewable energies, the study of climate change, and the Environmental Protection Agency (to name a few), are under attack by the current presidential administration, and I feel like now is the time to stand up, make my voice known alongside others as an American citizen, and protect these things.  These are all things that are beneficial to our country, our citizens, and our species, yet its looking evermore like they are in danger of being defunded, dismantled, and violated by the current administration.  Now is a critical time for action, and I feel guilty about leaving.  It’s conflicting, because I ask myself, “should I bail on my thru hike and hit the streets to fight for a cause, or should I refuse to allow the current political situation to stop me from my plan and goal?”  This thru-hike is years in the making.  I had to plan financially, find work that would help me fund my thru hike, but refuse work that would not allow for this window in time.  I had to create this opportunity for myself, so it feels silly to give it up.  That’s why I’m just going ahead as planned.  And while I imagine there could be ways that I could integrate civic action into my thru hike, protest and political engagement is always needed and will be especially so over the next 4 years, so as long as I stay engaged and motivated I can probably contribute to that conversation in a meaningful way after my thru hike.

But in terms of engagement, I plan to do my best to promote the causes of my friends who have chosen to hike with an additional goal.  As mentioned in Hikers Who Help – Nick Luchetti and Donnie Kirk – People In The Outdoors, Nick Luchetti is hiking the Appalachian Trail to help raise money for childhood cancer patients and Donnie Kirk to raise awareness about domestic violence towards women.  I have taken up their causes as my own, and plan to use whatever resources and outlets I have to support and promote those two individuals and their efforts to positively contribute to these issues and this world.

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how to trip plan

I am excited for my journey along the Appalachian Trail.  For someone who identifies as a “backpacker,” this is the ultimate arena.  This is what separates that casual weekend camper from those who seek the backcountry because it’s necessary for their soul.  While I am experienced, there will be unforeseen obstacles and moments of self doubt.  I still don’t think I understand the magnitude of attempting to hike over 2,000 miles, and despite my love of hiking, I’m sure it will take an emotional toll on me.  Probably a physical toll as well.  I am nervous about ticks.  Despite the presence of bears, snakes, electrical storms, cliffs, cold rain, and other human beings, ticks are a hiker’s greatest enemy and have the ability to destroy a human’s mind and motor skills with lyme disease.  I must stay vigilant about checking for them on my body.  But it is not the obstacles and dangers that I focus on when attempting something like this.  It is the chance to do something different, to immerse myself in nature and culture, to challenge myself, and to express my passions, that drives me.  It is the opportunity to stop into town and visit with old friends who live and work nearby to the AT.  It is the opportunity to make new friends.  I can link together the stories of my life, on foot, along the spine of the world’s oldest mountains and one of America’s most beautiful landscapes.  At the same time, if I can complete the entire trail, it will propel me into my future in a number of meaningful ways.  It is a privilege to hike this trail, and I’m proud that I may become a small part of its large history.  I plan to soak it all in, and hopefully listen to some bluegrass and eat some maple syrup along the way.

Who knows how far I will get, but before I even start this hike, I want to thank the numerous trail clubs and crews, organizations, non-profits, government agencies, and individuals that help maintain this amazing trail.  Without your work, the Appalachian Trail wouldn’t be a reality and folks like myself wouldn’t be able to attempt it.  Ultimately, I want to thank everyone else who supports my crazy endeavors.  Whether traveling indefinitely to Asia or attempting the AT, I’ve realized how much people around me are willing to sacrifice something to encourage and support my dreams.  Whether giving me work just so I can make a few dollars to save, agreeing to take the effort and time send me packages when I need them, picking me up and dropping me off along the trail, these are all deeds of pure generosity.  I want you to know that I appreciate them, and I hope someday I can pay you back in some form.  But I am forever grateful.

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Newfound Gap, TN/NC

 

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