My name is Jennifer Everett and I'm a senior at Lehighton High School. I spent a few weeks of my summer interviewing Appalachian hikers who were staying in the basement of the Palmerton Borough Hall to explore journalism as a career. I spent a few hours each night getting to know adventurous strangers, with a strong inner drive to succeed in completing the 2,178 mile long, Appalachian Trail. I was told by a hiker that only 10 to 15 percent finish the entire trail. I wonder how many of those finished it out of the many I interviewed.
When you begin the trail, you are no longer the person you were before. Therefore, you gain a new identity, a new name. They are called trail names and are often related to a story or fun fact about yourself. Some trail names of the people I interviewed were Doc (though he wasn't even a doctor), Rusticus, T-bone, Chance, Salty Dog, Sneaks, and Ink just to name a few. The trail names are often given to you from other hikers. It is seen as a form of bonding for the hikers.
I met two hikers one night in July at the Palmerton Borough Building. It had rained all day and I figured the hikers would be too tired and miserable from the constant rain to answer questions from a high school student. Surprisingly, I was wrong. I walked down into what seemed to be a lively party. Everyone was sitting at the table laughing and telling stories. I introduced myself and met Double Vision and Jukebox Hero. They were younger, so I felt more comfortable talking to them. Both of them had just graduated college and had been waiting tables. They decided to hike the Appalachian as a spur of the moment adventure. With not a bit of experience, and next to nothing in supplies, they were determined to do it anyway. They told me an endless list of funny stories and people they had met so far on their journey. Double Vision told me how they attended a church service one day, just for free cornbread and hot dogs. Jukebox Hero then shared with me that they would spend hours in fast food restaurants, eating and dancing to the music on the radio. As they made jokes about each other, and told stories of staying in people's homes, they opened a more meaningful side of their trip to me. Both admitted they were pushing themselves mentally and physically while on their adventure. They never realized what they had in their backyard at home, in Tennessee, but discovered it while on the trail.
The hikers prepared for their trips by reading blogs by post-Appalachian hikers. Websites such as whiteblaze.net have message boards and allow users to give advice and exchange new uses for different belongings. Many hikers I interviewed read this to see what items they would need to buy and the many uses of them.
For those who may look at the activity of hiking as an inexpensive one, they may be greatly deceived. People told me they spent anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 on the trip. With the expenses of about $20 on food daily, an occasional hotel, and equipment, it all adds up. Some people became surprisingly creative to save money. I met one man who made flip-flops out of shoe soles, string, and a soda cap. However, all of the hikers I met began on different financial circumstances. Cup of Joe and Paul Man, a couple from Maine sold their house, cars, and left their jobs to begin a new chapter of their lives; they decided to begin that new chapter with the challenge of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Many of whom I met were new graduates and were already deeply in debt, and figured why not? One graduate told me his financial back up plan was calling his grandmother for money.
When choosing food to carry it comes down to two simple questions, "How many calories does it have?" and "How much does it weigh?" When you're burning 7,000 to 8,000 calories a day, it is important to take in correct nutrition. A hiker's pack can weigh anywhere between 20 to 30 lbs. Can you imagine that on your back 24/7? Common foods hikers carry are tortillas, granola, peanut butter, bagels, cheese, powdered milk, and Little Debbie Treats. There are a few different ways to obtain food while hiking the trail. Some hikers had family send food to post offices for them to pick up. The only problem with that is, they might have to hike down to a town when it is inconvenient. It is just as easy to stop into towns at your own pace. Very few hikers use the dehydrated food packages because most often, it took two of them to make them full and were quite expensive. One other way to get food is by finding it on the trail, known as Trail Magic. Treats like fruit, vegetables, baked goods, and soda are left on the trail by local residents for the hikers passing through. These people are often called Trail Angels.
As far as preparing for the hike physically, of the 25 hikers I spoke to, absolutely none of them tried to gain muscle or endurance before the trip. I'm sure a stair stepper could have been helpful, but none of them complained about it being difficult. One woman told me, "Experience doesn't dictate if you finish." As I said, only 15% finish. It sounds like completing the Appalachian Trail is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. Hikers begin at Springer Mountain in Georgia and finish at Mount Kadahtin, in Maine. So where is the halfway point? Even though it is in Pennsylvania, the "mental" halfway is Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Damascus, in Virginia even celebrates Trail Days every May.
So how do hikers stay in touch, while in constant motion up or down the east coast? On the occasion of being able to use a computer, hikers use email and websites such as Facebook, Picasso, and Trail journals. Trail journals is a site created just for the hikers. I, myself even used the site to check on the progress of some of the hikers I interviewed. Some brought cell phones along, while others preferred to use payphones when possible. I met one woman who used a device called SPOT. It is a small, hand-held appliance in which she pressed one button and her husband at home could see her exact location on Google. However, there are hikers who still write traditional letters. Many said that they began to enjoy the peacefulness of writing to their families and evolved their writing skills along the way.
"The trail is just rocks and trees, it's the people on it that give it life." I wrote these words down as Kea, a man from New Zealand, 43, told me about his experiences. He was not the only one that told me that the most memorable part of hiking the Appalachian was the people you meet. Everyone had an instant bond because they were all sharing this experience, this moment of their lives together. They weren't doing this for anything more than pure enjoyment and self independency.
There are a few problems that people encounter while hiking the trail. The answer I heard most was the rain. It was an extremely wet summer and hiking in wet clothing made the experience quite uncomfortable. Another annoyance was mice. They would chew holes through your backpack, into your clothes, food stash, and most often chewed through the bladder of their water backpacks. The blisters from new boots, and the need to get new boots constantly were a given for the activity. Mosquito bites are just another part of nature that most often times must be dealt with; however I'm sure the lack of fruity fragrances on the hikers helped quite a bit. Hopefully, this coming summer it will be dryer and more lovely weather for the hikers.
One of my most exciting nights happened unexpectedly. On a Tuesday evening, I was leisurely eating cake at my best friend's birthday party. I thought I was going to take a night off from interviewing, but ten minutes to seven, I changed my mind. As I was passing the post office in Palmerton, I spotted a young hiker with red dreadlocks. Excited, I pulled over and frantically explained my senior project and offered him a ride to the borough building. His trail name was Shenanigans, real name: Ben. I was talking so fast during the two-minute-ride, I don't think he understood a word I said. As we crept down the stone steps, into the basement of the borough building, it occurred to us that no one was there. I quickly offered a warm bedroom with a soft mattress in my home, instead of a cold, lonely basement. To my surprise, he agreed to come home with me. I imagined that he was starving, so I stopped at a Subway and picked him up a five dollar foot long for what turned out to be an hour and a half interview. He revealed to me that he has been hiking ever since he was a little kid and had thought about hiking the Appalachian one day, since the age of 10. He was a summer camp counselor for numerous years and was an experienced hiker. Ben is even an outdoor guide at his school out West and leads rock climbing trips. He told me that his wallet was unfortunately stolen shortly after his journey began, but has enjoyed every last bit of it. Even after the shower and washed clothing, a stench was picked up each time he walked into a room. If you disregard the undetachable smell, Shenanigans was a very polite guest. His only request was to use our computer to email his parents with an update of status and health. Ben seemed forever grateful at the simple offer of popcorn and a new toothbrush. Associating darkness with sleep, my friendly hiker retired to bed at 9 p.m. The next morning, I cut up apples with peanut butter to get him ready for another day on the trail. My night had turned into such a delightful surprise, that I was almost disappointed driving Shenanigans back to the trail. We took pictures at the Appalachian Trail sign and exchanged a "thank you" to each other. Ben began the trail on April 5 and finished on August 22. I learned this from his trail journals account and would like to share with you a quote that sums up his experience. "The great experience was every step that lead up to this moment. All the strangers that became close friends, the times where I was speechless looking at the mountains, perfect strangers opening their homes to me, slogging through endless rain and the sheer joy of finding out what is ahead. This is what the trail is. And so my journey on the AT has come to an end, but my spirit for adventure and the unknown has been woken up and is restless…on to the great unknown! "
Palmerton Borough is famous to the Appalachian hikers. They graciously provide a zip lock bag of treats for the hikers staying there. The care bag put together by a local Girl Scout Troop includes a toothbrush, toothpaste, granola bar, and a stamped postcard donated from local businesses. A warm shower, books, and sturdy, wooden bunk beds which were maid by a local Boy Scout Troop are offered as well. The hikers were very thankful for the items and noted that Palmerton was the only shelter that provided goody bags.
Society is caught up with a fast pace, work for the money lifestyle. We pick up our Starbucks and sit at our office desks, dutifully and come home to complain about a million things that aren't perfect in our lives. We never wear what we want to, never have the right hair, boss, house, and so on. Society has lost it's simplistic outlook on life. You live to be happy, and we're happy by the love and understanding of ourselves. Maybe it takes a six to seven month hike on the Appalachian Trail to realize that. To wear the same clothes every day, drink water every day, and showering only occasionally changes your appreciation for what you have. As I asked these people a variety of questions, I could see the optimism in their eyes. Their mind rewired to a simpler, peaceful outlook on life. This was a new beginning for them and I wished them the best on their new triumphs as they returned home in October.