Walking memoir, of sorts.
By Hope S. Philbrick
I decided to go on a multi-day 30-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.
The trip is set for later this year.
Why? There’s never really just one reason for doing something—not for me, anyway—and the motivating factors in this case are estimated to number somewhere in the dozen range. The top three that come to mind as I write this are: (a) because I’m a travel writer, going new places and doing different things is part of the job, (b) to do the thing a deceased in-law wanted to do but never did, and (c) because a few years ago, after a day spent hiking to and from the start of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, a gung-ho hiker lady I met over dinner at the Len Foote Hike Inn said that she most loved hiking in the Shenandoahs. I decided then and there that I’d do it someday. There’s no time like the present. The U.S. National Park Service is celebrating its Centennial, after all.
You might assume my husband is joining me on this hike, and he certainly would like to, but he isn’t for a different dozen or so reasons, including the fact that he has to work and is not a travel writer. I think it’s safer to hike with at least one other person, so I teamed up with my travel-writing colleague Jill Gleeson. (Her motivations are well documented: read them on www.gleesonreboots.com.)
I am now 51 years old—I absolutely love it when I admit that to anyone who then says, “I can’t believe it! You don’t look it!” (Of course, I assume the intended meaning is that I look 40-ish not 80-ish)—and though I’ve never trained for a hike before (I’ve always just done it), I figure I can’t get away with that anymore. I’m too old. So my months-long ease-into-it training began on August 1st with the goal to walk one mile. I walked 5.26 miles because (a) I’m an over-achiever, (b) I was in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and (c) walking on the beach is super easy compared to mountain hiking.
It should be pointed out that in elementary school whenever the physical education teacher would say, “Okay kids! Let’s run a mile and then we’ll play kickball,” I’d walk, at a pace designed to coincide with the full length of the class. Neither the run nor the promise of any ball game enticed me, at any age. I’d rather take any number of pop quizzes, tests and exams than participate in gym class. I could take P.E. pass/fail, it wouldn’t affect my GPA as long as I managed to do just enough, and my grades were most important to me. My greatest source of exercise was carrying books.
The first time I hiked part of the Appalachian Trail was the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I was working as a camp counselor at a YMCA summer camp in Vermont. Hans, another camp counselor, was leading a hiking trip and needed a female counselor to join the group since some girl campers had signed up for the trek. That summer was my first visit to New England; I heard the hike would include trails in both Vermont and New Hampshire, so signed right up. (I’ve always loved to travel.) I’d never hiked but figured it’s just walking, right? I had no idea what I was in for. After lugging the heaviest pack I’d ever carried—it was loaded up with a tent, food and gear to share among the group, plus my own sleeping bag and essentials—up a trail steeper than the average staircase for a full day, my leg muscles were screaming by the time we reached our first campground destination. Why would anyone ever do this? I wondered about hiking. When we finally reached the summit—the next day? It seemed like a week—I had an ‘aha’ moment. OK, I figured, maybe it’s worth the effort to climb up a mountain to see such a view. At least the hard part is over! It will be so much easier to hike down! I was never more wrong in my life. Down is way harder than up. For one thing, your muscles are already ready to die. For another, you have knees and they do not like it.
I would never hike again, I figured. Why on earth would I?
Fast forward a few decades and I’ve hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail in a few different states. Why? Again, there are many reasons, including (a) to avoid dramatically increasing in size since I’ve become a food, wine and spirits writer and sometimes consume a few too many calories, and (b) to ensure the content of Getaways for Grownups appeals to a diverse audience. I try to mix up travel itineraries: some trips may be all about food, others aren’t, and many are a mix of dining and activity for my “Eat & Burn” series. Also, (c) because it’s there: The Appalachian Trail has an inherent romanticism about it. It’s a walk in the woods. It’s a 2,180 mile-long distance, yet you can feel connected to it—by living in a state it touches, by walking any part of it, by knowing other people who’ve hiked it or dreamed of doing so—which makes it somehow seem more do-able. People do hike the entire length of the trail (sometimes all at once and sometimes in portions, but either way counts). I may never hike the whole thing; I’m not sure I would even want to. But I think it’s cool that I, who once calculated the speed required to walk a mile slow enough for it to last nearly an hour yet fast enough to finish before my next class, am now—at an age at least 11 years beyond my childhood imagining of the oldest I could possibly get!—going to tackle a multi-day hike on the same trail that challenged me many years ago. The mere fact I’m doing it seems to prove to myself that I’m healthier than I even imagined I’d be, despite my inherent laziness and fondness for books.
It will be an accomplishment…even if the portion of the trail I chose sounds appealingly easy since I won’t need to lug a tent along. It’s an inn-to-inn hike, which sounds far more elegant than camping and thus perfect for discerning grownups like me.
UPDATE: I did it! Read the full report.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
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