Editor’s Note: Brett Elliott of Danville has set out on a five-month quest to through-hike the Appalachian Trail. Every month, he will be updating North Star readers on his adventures in this column.
I will be in Damascus for Trail Days, an annual Appalachian Trail celebration full of vendors, food, and music. Since my last update, I’ve experienced a month of trail life…and I love it. It’s such a wonderful community atmosphere. Life on the trail boils down to basic human needs: food, water, and shelter. It brings out the best in people. Hikers care for fellow hikers. It’s hard to explain or understand until you experience it. After 32 days on the trail, I have a lot to share. By the time you read this, I will likely be several hundred miles north in Virginia.
Food is something at the center of most hikers’ attention. I’m burning an incredible 5,000-6,000 calories per day. There is absolutely no reasonable way to carry that many calories on one’s back. Food needs to be efficient in terms of how many calories they contain per ounce. They also need to be packable and not messy. Taste is also an important quality. Foods that are at least 100 calories per ounce are desirable.
Before beginning, I purchased roughly 65 freeze-dried meals. These include brands such as Mountain House, Backpacker’s Pantry, and Alpine Aire. These meals come in a foil pouch and all that needs to be done is add boiling water, stir and wait 10 minutes. Presto. I enjoy the taste of them, and it saves me from making my pot dirty. I have these meals in what is called a mail drop. My first package contained 20 meals, which I mailed to Franklin, North Carolina before departing for the trail. Written on the box is “Hold for AT Thru-Hiker, ETA 5/14/21.” I take 4-5 meals out of the box, then reseal it and ‘bump’ the package to a future town I will be visiting. Between these drops, I buy food supplies at any store that is convenient, occasionally regular grocery stores.
Let me familiarize you with some trail lingo. A ‘zero’ is when a hiker takes a day completely off from hiking. You hike zero miles. These are necessary every so often to refuel your body and mind, and to heal both of those things as well. I took my first zero at a Super 8 Hotel in Erwin, Tenn. after an arduous week and 23 days on the trail. A ‘nearo’ is an abbreviation for ‘near-zero.’ This is when you hike for part of the day, usually 10 miles or less. A ‘tramily’ is short for trail-family. Hikers flock together and quite often hike, camp, and spend time together in town. Trail magic and trail angels are two very important terms. Trail magic is when people provide things for hikers, most often food. This usually occurs at road crossings and trailheads. Out of the goodness of their heart, people set up a tent or table and give away food and drinks to hikers. Quite often it is hot food. Trail angels are people who perform trail magic. Trail angels quite often provide rides into town as well.
Hikers on the trail most often receive a “trail name,” an alias, quite often related to their line of work, walk of life, or something peculiar about them that occurred on trail. It sounds corny, but you can become a different person on the trail. I received my trail name within my first week of hiking: Tapper. A name I might have suggested, and others liked and took off with. I find it very fitting as it pertains to my maple line of work, i.e. tapping trees. So I am no longer writing to you as Brett, but Tapper. My tramily that I have been hiking with included Doc, Slim Shady, Gare-Bear, Skittles, and Semi. Other names on the trail include Triple-H, Donuts, Meat Suit, Holy Roller, Cinderella, Hawkeye, and some that are rather off-color. The possibilities are endless.
I have been fortunate to receive a good deal of trail magic in my hiking journey so far. Most memorable was the 19th annual Red Truck, Green Truck, Brown Trout Feed the Hikers Weekend in Deep Gap, North Carolina. Three former thru-hikers get together every year and make food for hikers. A secret beef stroganoff recipe was particularly good, as well as free beer. I’ve traversed over some of the most beautiful terrains this country has to offer. The Great Smoky Mountains and the Roan Highlands stand out as highlights. Overall, the weather has been amazing. Out of the 32 days, only 4-5 would I consider miserable. It has been unseasonably cool for the south. There have been many nights in the 30s, with a couple in the 20s. I’ve seen snow, sleet, and hail. On my second day in the Great Smoky Mountains, I awoke to 37 degrees, rain, and 65 mile per hour wind gusts. I had a legitimate concern for hypothermia. I waited out half the day in my sleeping bag before hiking 12 miles. The first snow I saw was shortly before Fontana Dam, N.C. It was 33 degrees, wind whipping, and snow flying. I thought it was pretty cool. Most recently on May 7, I spent the night in the Roan Mtn Shelter at an elevation of 6,246 feet, the highest elevation shelter on the entire Appalachian Trail. It was 35 degrees inside the cabin that night, with an entire white blanket of snow on the ground outside.
I have been fortunate to stay pretty healthy. I need my body to do incredible work every single day. My feet have not been a problem. I’ve had on and off hamstring, quad, knee, and ankle pain. Doc and I are convinced the trail will be a series of bodily ailments to Katahdin. My biggest health problem so far was a case of norovirus I contracted at a hostel in Hot Springs, N.C. This is something that is pretty common on the trail and spreads easily between hikers. It usually runs its course within 48 hours, but let’s just say the symptoms are inconvenient for trail life. I won’t go into detail as to which symptoms were the worst for me, but I only hiked 5 miles one day. It took me a solid 4-5 days to return to normal and get my appetite back. I took steps toward bettering my health in Erwin, Tenn. by receiving my first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. I can get my second dose anywhere on the trail after June 2.
Nature is simply awe-inspiring. The Roan Highlands in Tennessee were particularly beautiful. Open old pasture over 5,000 feet. Incredible views in every direction. The trail is just a faint squiggly line in the green. Rock outcroppings gave it the feel of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. There has been no shortage of views. I make a point to stop and take it in. I like to hike fast and challenge myself, but I don’t let opportunities slip away. It is easy to get caught up in the vastness of the trail, which is quite daunting. I picture myself on Mount Katahdin almost every day. But smaller goals are very important. I take it town by town. I buy enough food to get me to the next town, 2-4 days away, then reset and do it again. State borders are nice milestones. Leaving Georgia felt amazing. I flip-flopped between North Carolina and Tennessee countless times before finally crossing into Virginia. I’ll be in Virginia for 544 miles. This will include the Grayson Highlands as well as Shenandoah National Park. I count my blessings every day for the opportunity to do what I’m doing. I have to pinch myself now and then. But this is the most real thing I’ve ever done in my life. I cannot wait for what the miles ahead will bring. Hopefully good fortune, good weather, good health, and lots of trail magic!