Should You Attempt to Thru-Hike the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails?
“To be or not to be. That is the question.” Of course, those words are famous to all of us with just a morsel of knowledge of the Bard. And it’s all in the realm of fantasy, except for a few select people around the globe. Especially us Americans, for whom suspicion of royalty runs through and through our very DNA.
But several years ago, I faced a question of direct relevance. Upon reading Bill Bryson’s bestselling narrative, A Walk in the Woods, like so many people, I began to ask, ‘Hey, can I do that’? Of course, what I was thinking about was attempting to thru-hike the 2,181 mile Appalachian Trail which runs from north Georgia to northern Maine, through wilderness and mountains. What’s more, I never had even spent a night outside. My parents thought I was flat-out delusional.
But as I’ve so often pointed out, wilderness seems to virtually run in the American DNA. Probably the main tangible asset I brought to the table was a long history as a streetwalker, having lived and walked extensively in many major cities. But actually what I brought to the table intangibly may have been even more important. I really, really wanted to do this. Why? For starters, the idea of such an open-minded journey just sounded liberating. And I have an inherently curious mind. Walking through fourteen states on foot seemed like a great way to learn about my home country.
However, I sported significant drawbacks as well. For starters, I am nearly 7-feet tall and have a long history of losing weight. How in the world am I going to avoid hemoragging weight? The answer, I found out, is you don’t avoid it. You struggle with that issue. Related to that, is the problem of cold–and especially cold, wet–weather. How will I stay warm at night up in the mountains? And I quickly learned the answer to that–there will be nights you suffer.
At the end of the day, however, I never wanted to do anything more in my entire life. The Appalachian Trail just seemed like me. It was full of an amazingly diverse community of energetic, intelligent, individuals pursuing a lofty dream side by side with myself. This proved to be very synergistic.
But the fact remains, I was woefully unprepared for the demanding task of thru-hiking by any measure. My great height made finding the right equipment (one person tent–forget it) especially complex. And from the very beginning I did, indeed, seem error prone more than normal. I had an elementary fear of bears, cold weather, and getting lost. Losing 33 pounds made more susceptible to both crushing fatigue and hypothermia. But, all is well that ends well–or so they so. I made it all the way to Mount Katahdin and was so flush with excitement upon completion that I was unable to shut up about the whole thing. Finally, I decided to write about it. Of course, any new author wonders whether they can even write an entire book. But hiking the Appalachian Trail proved to be such a rich journey that I ended up having to agonize in cutting the manuscript down to manageable size. That first book, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail sells as well as it ever did, five years after publication. My advantage was that b/c I never had hiked before, I had no ego to protect. I was able to candidly point out my shortcoming and weakenesses, and even personality flaws.
Later I walked the even longer Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), in which I lost 43 pounds. In that book is a photo in which I appear to be some sort of concentration camp refugee. My mother begged me not to put it in there. But again, I felt like the reader deserved the entire story, and that’s what I told in Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail. It came to my attention recently that one of my ex-comrades on the PCT had written an Amazon book review. I was very appreciative that he gave the book five stars. Also, I took no offense that he admitted in the review that there were times that he wondered whether I even belonged out there. All I can say is that sure made two of us. The review can be accessed with this link.
Hopefully this story will help shed some light on the decision that many of you now face on thru-hiking. I would never actually try to talk somebody into doing it. However, if somebody said, “I really want to do it, but don’t know if I’m capable,” then I would then say, “Put your game face on and head north.” For the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails were the journeys of my lifetime. There is no freedom quite like it.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), as well as Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2011). Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.