An Introduction to the AT
An Introduction to the AT
By: Bryan “Ice Man” Wolf
I’ve heard it spoken of as romantic, miserable, magical, adventurous, life changing, and testing. I’ve spoken to those who have dreamt of the experience forever and those that have experienced it with little to no previous knowledge of its existence at all. In journals and books it is a place of community as much as it is a physical journey. Now it is even portrayed as a place of great comic relief on the big screen. In my personal opinion, the Appalachian Trail is all of these things and more.
How did you first hear about the Appalachian Trail? Were you raised with a great awareness of the outdoors and knowledge of its possibilities? Many were turned on to it by a book or happened to be channel surfing while National Geographic was playing a documentary on the trail. Not one of these things can ever explain what the AT is or what it could be to you. The truth is, to sum up a 14 state trail that is about 90 years old takes much more than any one story, including my own.
And who am I to know the AT so well? I’ve backpacked close to 2,500 miles on the AT, including my 2,175 mile winter thru hike in ’06/’07. For me the trail has become like a close relative, one that I visit often, that I know well, and that has seen me grow while traversing life’s ups and downs. Because of the AT I have memories that live in my mind stronger than a lot of other moments in my life. I can still replay many of these instances vividly in my head.
On Mt. Success in New Hampshire, I would fall waist deep into a bog. Then, on Mt. Greylock, the wind would push us backwards over the icy mountain top. Later still, while in the Shenandoah, I would fight through the stinging pain on the top of my foot that sent a shock through me with every step. The worst of the moments may have been at the Overmountain Shelter where the wind blew the snow and negative temperatures through the cracks in the shelter walls while I tried to shiver myself to sleep.
Then, of course, there were the good times. We ended our day earlier than planned after the Mt. Success catastrophe, which led to the most stunning of shelter views on the entire trail at Gentian Pond Shelter. Our departure from Greylock led us to Dalton, MA, and to one of the most gracious of trail angels. The next day after that night at Overmountain, my best friend and hiking partner would meet his future wife. What of the Shenandoah pain you ask? No good came of that. Sometimes the trail is just cruel.
Today I spend more time with the AT than ever. As part of a local outfitter, I’ve prepared dozens of people for a thru-hike and hundreds for overnights. I’ve mailed them care packages, written meal plans, answered late night calls after worrisome days, hiked with them, dropped them off and picked them up from the trail. I give what advice or help I can, to help tip the scales that send over 75% of hikers home from their journey earlier than expected.
If by chance this article is your first impression of the AT, what is it you should take away? Thus far, I’ve more or less described an existential experience between each person that interacts with the AT and the AT itself. Should I describe trail conditions or trail logistics? Or should I fill your head with the beautiful and magical encounters that I have experienced out there? If you could, would you brave entering into this fairy-tale-like world to see it for yourself?
Perhaps my generalizing is intentional. Perhaps this horrible ankle twisting trail is already overcrowded. To be honest, I enjoy the solitude of sitting atop a mountain peak alone, knowing that the soft breeze is all my own. My instincts suggest that I sway you from the trail. Find your own trail, your own family, and your own fairy tale. But I can’t honestly in good conscience say these things, because the trail is to be shared. I know that generations will enjoy the exploration of setting out for a journey in the woods. Both the young and old will learn more about themselves in a few miles than in the past few years, and I also know that the trail will provide so many with the most imperfect, perfect experience.
So if your heart pulls you to a quiet place in the woods, if your feet just want to move, and if you are ready to listens to nature’s lessons, perhaps you can find what you are looking for on the AT. If so, maybe our paths will cross on that long line from Georgia to Maine, or perhaps before your trip we can sit and I can help prepare you for that next great adventure!
Published in the 2015 Tri-State guide to the Outdoors