A few years back a friend of mine invited me to join her on a camping trip in Red River Gorge, Kentucky. I knew very little about climbers and their lifestyle. We stayed at a campground well known to the climbing community, thrusting me into a whole world I never imagined existed. I met many "dirtbaggers", which are climbers who have no job, but instead dedicate all of their time and resources to climbing. I was fascinated with their stories, and dedication to their passion. I loved the way they interacted with each other and seemed to speak their own climber's language. I had stumbled upon a subculture of people who ignore the commonly accepted standards of everyday life, and instead do what they love together. I was intrigued! I went searching for other subcultures like it.
This led me to a healthy passion for backpacking, and I have really enjoyed learning the culture. I am lucky to live very close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which contains 900 miles of wonderful, winding trails through the the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains. The Appalachian Trail stretches 2180 miles, from Georgia all the way up to Maine, and 70 miles of it are contained within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you are visiting the park, this 70 mile strip of the Appalachian trail is particularly interesting because of the "thru-hikers" you will surely encounter. Thru-hikers are people who are attempting to complete the full 2180 miles of the Appalachian Trail. I am considered a "section-hiker", as I am only hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail. On my most recent backpacking trip in the Smokies I traveled 30 miles, sticking primarily to the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to document the thru-hikers and their culture. I wanted to hear their stories, and immerse myself in their lifestyle.
This is the Appalachian Trail. It is indistinguishable from the rest of the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of the park's portion of the Appalachian Trail straddles the Tennessee and North Carolina state line, following along a mountain range ridgeline, 6,500 feet up at times.
200 miles south of here, at the trailhead on Springer Mountain in Georgia, hundreds of thru-hikers are starting their long trek north on the Appalachian Trail, but only one in four will finish. It is most common to start the trail in March and April, but some daring and experienced thru-hikers start their long voyage north as early as February. These thru-hikers will likely experience very cold weather, ice, and snow once they hit the Smoky mountains in early March. They are the hikers I met on this trip in mid March, just days after they were pummeled by snow and ice.
This is Dirt and Z-drag. It is common for long trail hikers to have trail names. A trail name should not be the choice of the hiker, but rather the recommendation from another hiker. Dirt is a committed long trail hiker, this being his third thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail alone. He has done many other long trail hikes including the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada along the west coast. Z-drag is an experienced adventure enthusiast and has also done various other long hikes. He is very passionate about kayaking and whitewater rafting. His trail name, Z-drag, comes from a rescue kit that uses pulleys and a rope to assist in remote rescue operations.
"Where does your name Captain Underpants come from? Oh wait... I see." Captain Underpants, Ali, and Gossamer are from Georgia. This is their first long hike, and they are loving every second. "So far it's like we are exploring our backyard" says Gossamer.
Shelters are a welcoming site to most thru-hikers. There are over 250 of them along the entire Appalachian Trail, one every eight miles on average. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park holds twelve of these in its boundaries. Most of these shelters have room to sleep 10 to 20 people who reserve a space in advance, though most hikers seem to ignore this park requirement. A park ranger commented that it was near impossible to enforce these rules during the park's busiest time of the year, and that he recently witnessed around 75 hikers camping in an area set up for only 10.
Hikers share coffee before setting off on their daily hikes, which can be anywhere from 5 to 30 miles depending on the person. Most thru-hikers also carry a tent for times when shelters are overcrowded. Using a small tarp on the ground or strung up to a tree also seems to be a popular choice for thru-hikers, as they require no poles and are lighter than tents. Some thru-hikers prefer to camp outside of the shelters because inside, rodents are notoriously known to chew through gear in search of crumbs.
Most shelters have a logbook for dwellers to write a message or memory in. Thru-hikers often leave messages behind for other thru-hikers they've met along the trail.
This is 38. He is 38 years old, and manages a bustling Exterminator business outside of Detroit, Michigan. This is his first long trail hike, and he has planned this trip carefully for three years, dreaming of the moments he is now experiencing. He is on a four month leave of absence from his job and plans to finish the trail within that time, while the average thru-hiker takes six months. He says he invested heavily into the lightest gear, and trained beforehand to ensure finishing in under four months, as the exterminator business would suffer greatly if he were gone any longer. The typical thru-hiker's pack is 25 to 35 pounds. 38's pack weighs only 17 pounds.
Rocket and Patawon are both 19. This is their first long trail. Staying in these shelters has proven to be fertile ground for great conversation and new friendships, as everyone is cutting loose after a long day of hiking. Some people share whiskey, while marijuana also seems to be popular on the trail. I found myself becoming a moderator between Rocket and another section-hiker in an interesting debate about whether or not debate itself is a worthy skill. Rocket was part of a debate team in high school and believes the skills he learned are more about manipulation than arguing facts.
Hikers use headlamps regularly after the sun goes down to see their way around the shelters and camps. Rocket tends to a painful blister from his new hiking shoes.
Each shelter has a large stone fireplace inside, though it's been tough to find dry wood lately due to the recent snowfall. Most thru-hikers are in bed by 8 or 9pm to be ready for an early start in the morning, 5am for some.
This is Linguine. He started four weeks prior and is just now getting his "trail legs", a hikers term for the point in a long trail hike where their legs and body are well adapted to the long miles and elevation changes they experience daily. With trail legs comes more stamina, and increased speed. Linguine has lived all over the country, most recently in North Dakota. He left there amidst the breakup of a long term relationship and headed for his home state of Pennsylvania, not sure what his next step would be. On his way south he saw signs on the highway stating that he was passing over the Appalachian Trail. It triggered a childhood memory of his friend bringing him to a remote lake in Pennsylvania that the Appalachian Trail passed alongside. He drove straight to Springer Mountain in Georgia, parked his car in the long term parking lot and started the hike with minimal to no gear, consisting partly of his work clothes and work boots, and a second-hand pack. He laughed as he spoke about several experiences where other hikers treated him as if he was a bum because he lacked expensive clothing or gear.
Linguine had no previous long hiking experience, but learned the ways of the trail quickly. One particular skill he was still working on was pack weight. When he first started on the trail he estimated his pack was 80 pounds. He guesses he's got it down to 50 or 60 pounds by now, but his pack still towers over his head.
The Smokies were named after a natural phenomenon that adds a bluish haze to distant hills and mountains that gets richer as distance grows. This is what creates the iconic imagery of the Smoky Mountain landscapes. The blue haze hanging in the air is actually water, a byproduct of the thick forests thriving below.
Charlies Bunion is a mountain that the trail passes over, and is a popular destination in the park. It offers breathtaking 360 degree views from its summit. It is also accessible to day hikers, as it is only a four mile hike from the Newfound Gap parking lot. Wang Yu Chao, or Jerry, is a day hiker I met at Charlie's Bunion. He is a foreign exchange student from China, visiting the park because he wants to see as much of America as he can while studying here. When I asked him how he chose his American name, he replied "Tom and Jerry!" He had grown up watching reruns of it, and other vintage American cartoons in China, but Tom and Jerry was his favorite.
There is a popular guidebook thru-hikers use called "The A.T. Guide" that lists many wonderful things they can choose to see just off the Appalachian Trail. This lookout tower on the summit of Mt. Cammerer, is only half a mile off the trail. It was built as a fire watch tower in the 1930's and was manned by a fire ranger for 30 years. Hikers left behind extra Chef Boyardee, Busch beer, and graffiti.
I met many section-hikers as well. There is a wonderful comradery present amongst all of the hikers I came across. It is as though they share a common understanding between themselves that they are each out here because they choose to be. Hikers also share a mutual affinity for being outdoors and getting away from the stresses of real life. Friendships seem to flourish on the trails. This is an element that I found extremely compelling in the climbing community, and it exists the same way here, in the backpacking community.
The appalachian Trail was finished in 1937, and took over ten years to complete. By now some areas of the trail have been worn deep from many years of continuous use, up to four feet in some places.
Throughout the park there are thousands of flowing mountain brooks, and on a regular day's hike you are bound to cross many. Because thru-hikers are never far from a water source, most carry no more than 2000ml at a time to keep their loads lighter. All hikers carry a tiny, lightweight water filtration system capable of removing 99.99% of bacteria.
I first passed Mustard taking a nap on the side of the trail, and he later caught up with me. Mustard is doing the hike in three sections, and has already completed Pennsylvania to New York. He's been on this portion for four weeks now. He left the trail on a resupply mission to town yesterday, and is sporting a brand new pack, lightweight jacket, and plenty of food. He told me a story about how he and a fellow thru-hiker had given a good portion of their food to a starving dog they found on the trail, causing his earlier than planned resupply mission. Linguine had told me the same story a few days earlier, and it turns out they are buddies. They had hiked together for days, but parted ways because of Linguine's new trail legs and blitzing speed.
Mustard decided to try a more modular approach for a pack. He went with a basic frame that he straps all of his gear and supplies onto. He hopes he likes the change because his old pack is in a dumpster back in town.
Hoho's first long trail was the Pacific Crest Trail. Thats where he met his current girlfriend, who recommended he do the Appalachian Trail next. He lives in San Diego, where he worked as a civil engineer. He built a bridge while at his previous job, which he had to quit in order to pursue the Pacific Crest Trail. He said he plans to get another civil engineering job. Eventually.
Will and Roadrunner are married. Will says he dreamt of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail since he was a boy. As soon as he retired they achieved his dream together. They enjoyed it so much they decided to tackle the Appalachian Trail next.
On my final hike out I notice the shimmering lights of civilization on the distant horizon. I had been living so absolutely in the moment, that I almost forgot it was there... See you soon, I guess.