“Hey man, I’ve got an idea,” I said with a coaxing voice. “How ‘bout going out to hike on the Appalachian Trail with me?” It was the spring of 2005, and I had the Bill Bryson syndrome.
Like so many other mortals, I had read Bill Bryson’s bestselling narrative, A Walk in the Woods. For me, this book had contained revelation. I had never known there was this whole parallel community that sets out each spring with the idea of hiking the entire 2,178 mile trail in one hiking season. Yeah, it sounded cool. After all, I had a long history as a streetwalker.
But there was also a huge problem. I was 44 years-old and never had even spent a single night outside. That’s why I was pleading with friends to accompany me. But they all had more excuses than I did supplications. I was destined to head off into America’s great wilderness trail alone. Fortunately, I was to quickly learn that this was a blessing-in-disguise.
Planning such a far-ranging journey involved many more decisions than I had ever imagined. There were the obvious questions—tents, sleeping bags, backpack, shoes. These were all complicated by a most unusual personal characteristic—I am nearly 7-feet tall. Then there were the endless discussions with store personnel over countless minutiae—water filters, stoves, hiker foods. Usually I just ended up following the advice of the latest person I was talking to.
I’ve never been a particularly big spender. But this was a once-in-a-lifetime journey, and I was determined to spend anything it took to improve my chances for success. By the time I was ready to set off that April, my equipment costs were around $2,000.
My 70 year-old mother dropped me off at Springer Mountain on U.S. Forest Service Road 42. Fortunately, there were many other hikers getting their backpacks in order, and saying goodbye to loved ones. One trail veteran had advised me to choose my own trail name. This advice would seem especially prescient after I met thru-hikers with such illustrious names as Snot Rag, Shit Bag, Rat Puke, to name but a few. “Hi, my name is Skywalker,” I introduced myself to several of my new colleagues on the first day. For obvious reasons, the trail name stuck.
Most everyone will tell you that the toughest two states on the Appalachian Trail are the last two states (New Hampshire and Maine). But the next most difficult two are the first two—Georgia and North Carolina. So a thru-hiker needs to arrive with his or her game face on.
The forests in the southern Appalachians are still dormant this time of year. Given my long limbs and thin frame, I felt especially vulnerable to cold, wet weather. This led to my first big mistake.
On my fourth day on the trail, I ran into my first foul weather. It was cold and rainy, with little visibility, and getting worse the higher I climbed. Because of my height, I had not been able to fit in any one-person tent. Thus, I had been amenable to the suggestion by one trail veteran to use a tarp. But with weather this severe, I knew it would be difficult to find a good place to set up the tarp; and even if I could, it would not keep me either warm or dry. Thus, I decided to try to make it all the way to Unicoi Gap, which would be twenty miles for the day. However, the higher up I got, the more diabolical the weather became. I began to get lightheaded, and feared hypothermia setting in. Finally, in a fit of paranoia, I decided to abandon my backpack. I shoved the backpack, with all the equipment I had been shopping for all winter, into the bushes, and set off trying to clear Blue Mountain and reach Unicoi Gap. Finally, at dark I reached the road and hitchhiked into Helen, Georgia. At first light the next morning I climbed back up Blue Mountain and was relieved to see my backpack had not been ripped to shreds by bears.
Wild rumors would circulate in the hiking community of me being carried off the mountain, and quitting the trail. But I had been planning this journey for several years, and it did not shake my determination to make it all the way to Maine.
“I really think you should start sleeping in the shelter, until the weather gets warmer,” one hiker suggested, after seeing the fits cold weather gave me. Indeed these three-sided shelters (an average of one every nine miles) are a unique feature of this national scenic trail. They weren’t exactly the Hilton Hotel, but they would give you shelter from the very worst elements. I resorted to sleeping in them every night until the warmer weather arrived. Additionally, I finally got rid of my flimsy tarp and bought a two-person tent. This would give me more protection and independence.
While plenty of challenges and blunders lay ahead, none of them matched the crises of the first two states. Ultimately I completed the trail in 171 days, losing a total of 33 pounds. The secret of my success may have lain in the fact that I had considered myself such an underdog at the outset that I proved to be very disciplined and task-oriented. At times, a thru-hike seemed like a classic Calvinist pursuit.
Pacific Crest Trail
All along the Appalachian Trail, hikers talked about the Pacific Crest Trail PCT). In fact, it has virtually become a rite of passage for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to begin planning their next big hike on the nation’s other great national scenic trail.
At 2,663 miles, the PCT is actually 489 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail. The hiker traverses a wider variety of terrain and faces greater extremes of weather. A PCT thru-hike is a greater logistical challenge.
The good news is that the PCT now has its annual Kickoff Party the last weekend of April. Trail veterans give seminars on critical areas of interest, such as water sources in the desert, snow levels in the high mountains, ice-axes, bear canisters, etc. On Sunday morning, hikers are served one final delicious meal and then fan off into the desert together in their tanned desert shirts and wide-brimmed hats.
“Make sure you wear a pair of shoes at least a size more than normal,” I had repeatedly heard before beginning the PCT. Never was any advice more prescient. My feet are just under a size 14. The largest size that REI had in the light-trail running shoes that are preferable in the desert was a 14. Like many hikers, I considered REI to be the center of the hiking universe. If they didn’t have them, nobody would. Maybe the shoes would stretch. So went my reasoning. What I was to learn was that it was my feet that stretched. In 110 degree weather, with a 130 degree surface, hikers feet turn into kangaroo feet.
Within a few days in the desert, my feet felt like a furnace inside the snug shoes. I was barely able to limp into Idyllwild, California. There a rogue nurse practicioner convinced me my feet were practically gangrenous; she proceeded to cut all the calluses of the balls of my feet to get at the blisters. I ended up having to take 16 ‘zero days’ to let my feet heel. Finally, I simple typed Vasque Blur, Size 15, into the Google Search Box. Immediately it showed that Dicks Sportings Goods carried them. I had them overnighted to Idyllwild, and my shoe problems for the next 2,400 miles were solved. But what a heavy price I had paid for my REI-centric view of hiking equipment.
My other crisis on the PCT was an old foe. Weight loss. I’ve fought it my entire life—but never more so than on the PCT. Because the distances are greater between trail towns, and given the greater length of the PCT, hikers expend 6,000-7,000 calories per day. It is virtually impossible to carry that much food. I was down twenty pounds by the time I was out of the desert, thirty pounds after the High Sierras, and 45 pounds entering Washington state with 500 miles to go. It was time to play a wild card.
All along the Appalachian Trail, and now the PCT, hikers had commented on my emaciated figure. “You ought to consider carrying olive oil,” several had suggested. “It’s the food with the highest calorie/weight ratio.” Indeed, that was the elixir hikers always strive for. But olive oil. It sounded awful. However, it was increasingly clear that my situation was reaching desperate proportions. I was losing strength late in the day, and the lack of body fat left me unable to stay warm at night, especially in the high elevations of the northern Cascades.
I began pouring olive oil on everything I ingested. To my surprise, it was merely bad. Not awful. Better yet, it had a body to it that most hiker foods lack. In fact, I knew it was working when my flatulence returned to pre-hike levels! It allowed me to actually gain two pounds in Washington State and complete the Pacific Crest Trail. What a thrill.
Camino de Santiago
I often joke with hikers that the Camino de Santiago is their reward for having gutted it out first on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails. First the root canal, then the fun. This is at least partly true.
The Camino de Santiago attracted 500,000 pilgrims per year during medieval times. Most pilgrims were indigent and illiterate; it was the highlight of their life to visit the reputed site of St. James’ grave in Santiago de Compostela. While that element is still present, many modern pilgrims are motivated by more secular concerns. After all, Europe is the world’s least religious continent. The Camino has become wildly popular again, after a 500-year hiatus.
A modern pilgrim walks 800 kilometers (500 miles) in about five weeks. In fact, that is approximately an Appalachian Trail pace. Further, the pilgrim is faced with a 4,300 foot climb the very first day out of St. Jeans Pied de Port in France over the Pyrenees. And later on in the journey, there there is another 3,300 foot climb to O’ Cebreiro in Galicia. So the modern pilgrim still faces an element of struggle.
One of the great things about the Camino is its profoundly ecumenical nature. Not only do pilgrims come from all over the world, but there are many many pilgrims in their fifties, sixties, and even seventies. For them, a journey on the Camino de Santiago is like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails were for me—the journey of their lifetimes. It is always an inspiring thing watching humans give it their very all to achieve a deeply-held goal. That was certainly the case with the Camino.
Having said that, the modern Camino is a very balanced endeavor. Pilgrims rarely carry tents; nor are they forced to haul lots of food and water around. Their backpacks weigh about half that of an Appalachian Trail hiker. Pilgrims sleep inside every night at albergues. The price is 5-7 Euros per night, making it not just the best way to see Europe, but also the most economical. These albergues have hot showers and washing machines. And instead of facing daily rations of awful hiker food (noodles, noodles, noodles), pilgrims generally eat one three-course meal per day off the pilgrims menus in restaurants at a cost of 10 Euros. My best assessment is that walking the Camino ranks somewhere between an isolated, harrowing journey on the Pacific Crest Trail on the one hand, and a conventional, ‘handheld’ trip on the other. It is the most balanced way I have ever found to travel. That is why I went back and did it again in 2011 (and had an even better time). It is a great community.
One interesting thing was my own personal role on the Camino. On the Appalachian Trail, I was constantly bleating for advice and succor. On the Pacific Crest Trail, I required less wet nursing, but was still one of the less intrepid hikers. However, on the Camino I proved to be a leader of sorts.
Like any long journey on foot, many people were having problems. The most common one was sore feet and blisters. As mentioned before, this was the journey of a lifetime for many pilgrims. They had seemingly prepared for it like an Everest expedition. A lot of the northern Europeans arrived in heavy hiking boots. I had quickly learned on the Appalachian Trail, this was a no-no. The terrain in the meseta section of the Camino resembled the desert. A pilgrims feet swell, which makes it desirable to wear light-trail running shoes. When I saw people barely able to hobble around albergues, I often gingerly approached them to say, “Honestly, you might try walking in those sandals you’re wearing.” Most looked at me befuddled and angry. They had paid good money for their boots and done intensive preparation for the Camino. Now some daft American was telling them to ditch their boots, for a pair of sandals. But sure enough, I lost track of the number of times I came upon pilgrims walking along in sandals with bandaged-up feet, and a pair of heavy boots tied to the back of their backpacks.
But courage and character were not in short supply on the Camino. My 18 year-old nephew and I consistently underestimated the determination of seemingly underprepared, post-middle-aged pilgrims who were not terribly impressive physical specimens, to complete their journey to Santiago de Compostela. All the jokes about this being the ‘European Divorcee Trail’ or Europe’s Singles bar ultimately gave way to the fact that most pilgrims were heavily invested emotionally in the journey. It was a beautiful thing to behold.
Middle Age Halo
I am a middle-aged person of average ability. Yet America’s two great long-distance trails, the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, as well as the Camino de Santiago have allowed me to do something that most people would consider a bit extraordinary. I have followed the largest mountain range in the East through 14 states. This was followed by an even longer trek on the PCT through the southwestern desert, and then the very highest elevations in the entire American mainland. The final trek on the Camino followed the northern arc of Spain through its many storied regions.
I am immensely grateful for having had the opportunity to undertake these three long journeys. People often speak of mid-life crises. But in fact, these long-distance journeys have given me new life in middle age.
About Bill Walker
Bill Walker was a commodities trader at the Chicago Board of Trade and London International Financial Futures Exchange for fourteen years. He later taught English as a Second Language in five Latin American countries.
He is the author of Skywalker—Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), as well as Skywalker—Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010). His most recent narrative is The Best Way—El Camino de Santiago (2012). He is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height. His two websites are www.skywalker-pct.com and www.thebestwaycamino.com