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Correction to This Article
The Travel article misspelled the name of a place on the Appalachian Trail in Maine. It is Mahoosuc Notch. The article inaccurately described the Neels Gap section of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. It does not have a railway or river passing through it. Another section, the Nantahala Gorge in North Carolina, has a railway and river.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail Takes Freedom to New Heights

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By Jan Stowell
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's more than 2,175 miles long and passes through 14 states from Georgia to Maine. It climbs mountains, plunges into river valleys and even finds its way into town from time to time. It provides ample opportunity to sprain or fracture things best left unmolested. It gets hot. It gets cold. There are bugs -- all sorts of bugs, many of them sworn to evil. Ultimately, it rigorously tests, both mentally and physically, one's sheer locomotive drive. What's not to love? But in fact there is much to love, and you doubtless know already that I'm writing about the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, the most celebrated footpath in America. You've been threatening to through-hike it for years. So no more excuses.

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Here is a very short primer to a very long walk.

Daydream about it. Get your imagination on the job and start by envisioning sunny mountaintops, clean air, birdsong, solitude, companionship, rushing streams, campfires and astonishing, Olympian good health. Imagine freedom. Spend less time picturing rain, pain, mosquitoes, rain, ticks, hunger, rain, bears and hydrophobic, homicidal bears of which, as far as I know, there aren't any. Do this every day, as it will fortify you against the merciless punishment to be suffered until your blisters have healed to callus and your muscles have ceased to ache even in your sleep.

Take the time. The economy being what it is, this may be your best opportunity to find six otherwise unproductive months to call your own. And you should count on six months. Many hikers -- perhaps most, even -- do an A.T. through-hike in less time, but not often in much less. Besides, you're going to clock-watch on the trail? Doubtful.

Go north. In 1997, I hiked the A.T. from Maine to Georgia, and it was perfectly wonderful. Not only that but, as it turns out, I'm a compulsive liar. Yes, hiking south was wonderful, but not perfectly so. For one thing, the trail in snowy Maine typically doesn't open until June. The summer solstice, then, will pass quite early in your hike and you will spend the majority of your months on the A.T. walking into diminishing, rather than increasing, daylight.

Depending on how fast you hike (itself dependent on how quickly you harden into trail shape, over which you have some measure of control, but also on how long your legs are, over which you don't), you will probably pass the last of the northbounders long before you arrive at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., the symbolic midpoint of the trail. After that, you may find yourself more alone than you'd bargained for. I did.

Also, if you begin your hike in Maine, you are not only still flabby, you are still flabby in Maine. It is an extraordinarily beautiful state. It is also the most demanding piece of the entire A.T. and, possibly, the sole repository of every spare boulder that the Almighty failed to use on Day 2. There is a place called the Mahoosic Notch, which . . . let's just not even talk about it.

Flip-flop. An alternative to traveling strictly north or south is, in through-hiker parlance, to flip-flop the trail. Begin, say, in Georgia, and hike north to Harpers Ferry. Find a ride to Maine and then hike south to Harpers Ferry. It's a good strategy for late starters, as Baxter State Park (where Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail, is) closes in mid-October. An added bonus is that a flip-flop largely guarantees a warm-weather hike over the entire A.T. Except for when you get snowed on in the southern mountains during spring. I'd been meaning to mention that.

Pack light. Weight is your unappeasable enemy. It never comes to the negotiating table and can be defeated only by your getting strong and getting light. If you take nothing else from this primer, take that. Short of injury or illness, there is no surer way to drive yourself off the trail than to be burdened, day after painful day, beneath a pack that you fear has an anvil in it somewhere.

Just 30 miles north of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the A.T., is Neels Gap. It's a busy layover, with a road, a railway and a river passing through it. It's also where an estimated 10 percent of intended through-hikers bolt for home, most of them simply because they got worn down before they ever got built up. Felicity Keddie of the Walasi-Yi Center there recently told me that, on behalf of exhausted hikers, the center annually ships home seven to nine tons of unwanted gear. Speaking of which . . .

Gear. Whatever. Go to your local outfitter and buy the best and lightest that you can afford. Beyond that, I'll mention only this: hiking poles, one for each hand. Buy them. Use them. Love them. They stabilize you on descents, provide purchase on ascents and, where the ground is flat, put your otherwise-freeloading arms aerobically into the hike. I'd as soon do the A.T. on a pogo stick as go without poles.

Food. One of the daily joys of long-distance hiking is eating. In fact, you may never again enjoy food as much as you will on the A.T. This is principally because you will be hungry every minute.


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