Oh, The People You’ll Meet.

I met David, a 26-year-old combat veteran, on May 27th, 2022, just four days after his six years of service as an Army medic ended. He’d come to the Appalachian Trail to sort through his experiences and to think about what came next. I didn’t ask what war was like, what he’d seen. It was evident he’d seen enough during a couple tours in Afghanistan. I mention the date we met because because it’s common on the trail to make fast friends. In fact, within 20 minutes, I learned everything I’ve just mentioned and have his number and will touch base as he continues north, bound for Maine, with a group of friends around his age.

— — —

Seven weeks ago on a different section hike with three good friends, I met Billy Goat, a trail-wise, fast-moving, native Dominican thru-hiking southbound from Maine to Georgia. [Hiking southbound (SOBO) on the AT is far more difficult than hiking northbound (NOBO).] For four days covering 50 miles, we hiked with (but mostly behind) Billy Goat. We’d end up at the same campsites or hostel and have pleasant conversations about the day, the trail, and her future plans to open a spa and salon when she finished her hike. On our last day, we wished her well.

Billy Goat in her final 120 miles of the Appalachian Trail’s 2,190 miles

This is the way of the trail. Your hike parallels another traveler’s for a couple days or more until you move on or fall back. Then, someone else—or perhaps a group—will fill the void. In essence, you’re on your own while also in community with a rotating cast of characters, each with a story about why they came to the trail.

The community on and surrounding the trail defies easy description. It’s too diverse. In spite of this, a commonality exists across these people who would not likely interact in the world. On-trail, manual laborers mix with business executives, the jobless with the employed, and recent college graduates with old folks like me. The trail is the great leveler. It extinguishes the boundaries within which we operate off-trail because here, everyone wakes up with the same routine: eat breakfast, break camp, begin walking.

I’ve posted before about trail names, which thru-hikers adopt or are given. Consider some names of the people I’ve hiked with: Faceplant, Stealth, Terrapin, Double-Vision, Quiet, Dog Tags, Bandana Man, Lost Boy, Rainbow, Oomo, Hot Dog, Cheesehead, Frying Pan. Consider the hostel owners, Lisa and Gordon Simmons of Hostel Around the Bend, whose presence with guests can only be described as “chill,” a term my students use. Consider the shuttle drivers Sherpa Al, Grateful, and Suches. Think about the word “tramily,” the conflation of “trail” and “family,” and how it captures the intimate communities that form fast and solid.

Dog Tags at the Nantahala Outdoor Center

In the brief time we interact, hikers drop pretense. Before I knew her name, Tracy — a young, engaging community wellness expert with a Masters of Public Health from Yale — shared about her exciting work while at the Nantahala Outdoor Center where she was learning wilderness first aid. Sprite (for the soda), a mild-mannered sixty-year-old, confided that he worked in food services in a federal prison. (I didn’t ask which side of the fence he was on, but I got the sense that he didn’t go home after his shifts.) There was Terrapin, slow and steady, with whom I walked several days. A leukemia survivor, manufacturing executive, and turnaround specialist, Terrapin’s job was to create efficiencies by laying off swaths of people. I can’t forget Albert, the contractor, tired of hard-living, who came to the trail to get sober. He’d saved $4,000 for the trip, “Cheaper than a treatment facility,” he told me. “Besides, all they talk is that god-crap,” he added after a long drag off his joint.

I’m enriched by having met all of them and wish I’d had time to ask more questions, to know them better.

— — —

On my most recent section hike—the 150 miles between Springer Mtn, GA to Stecoah Gap, NC—Terrapin and I rounded a bend on my 12th day and ran into Billy Goat. She’d covered more than 400 miles since we last met and had just finished the challenging Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We hugged, marveled over our meeting again, and exchanged stories of storms, bears, and navigating blown-down trees. With less than 120 miles remaining in her thru-hike, Billy Goat was full of conflicting emotions, and tears formed as she expressed amazement at her accomplishment, relief to be so far in her journey, and tender from the mental toll the trail can take.

After we parted, I received a text from her that evening: “An amazing treat to see you again. The highlight of my week and just the boost I needed to finish my hike.”

Billy Goat and me, reunited.

While so much is troublesome these days, I find solace in the quick-and-fast connections hikers make on the trail. They give me hope that there are ways to close the gaps between society’s factions. The people we meet — especially those who are least like us — provide opportunities to learn one another’s stories and to discover that, while we all hike our own hikes, we are ultimately on the same path.

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The Final AT Series Post: One Son, Two Sons, Three Suns, and We’re Done.

As the last of in a series of posts about my experiences on the Appalachian Trail this summer, this entry attempts to capture some of the beauty my two older sons and I passed through during our recent three-day, 43-mile trek. I had the honor of seeing them discover for themselves the mental and physical challenges of the Trail, along with its distinct personality. There are numerous long-distance trails in our country, of which I’ve hiked portions of only three, but…there’s only one Appalachian Trail. I consider myself lucky to have spent ten days and just shy of 130 miles on it.

I’ll be back again next summer with the plan to hike the entire trail in sections.

Climbing crags near Mount Rogers, VA

Day One – 11.9 miles; Elevation Gain – 2,963 feet

Our adventure began the day before when we dropped off a car in Damascus and drove to a Econo Lodge to rough it for the night. (We delayed our start by one day due to lightning storms that dumped 3/4-inch of rain during the night.) After a hearty breakfast, we drove to the Route 603/Fox Creek Trailhead and set out southbound for Damascus.

The day included passing through Grayson Highlands, which is famous for its wild ponies. We were lucky that a colt drew near and allowed us to pet it.

Day Two – 16.4 miles; Elevation Gain – 1,755

The day ended at a grassy campsite where the boys threw off their packs as I snapped their picture, gently ribbing them for not setting up camp first. I never saw Elliott’s reaction until I zoomed in. Sometimes, fathers can’t win.

Nighttime brought a full moon, such that no stars shone with distinction above. We did not need headlamps after it rose.

Day Two – 16.4 miles; Elevation Gain – 1,755

Our longest day began with passing the Thomas Knob Shelter and beginning a series of ascents and descents that challenged our legs.

Day Three – 14.7; Elevation Gain – 2,348

The final day, the third sun, we hoofed it to Damascus in time for McLean to return to work the next morning.

More pictures to follow

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The AT Series: Missing My Father

Time alone on the Appalachian Trail changes people. I know this from my experience and from those of the hikers I met along the way. In the woods, the persona I project in my workaday world cracked and I became vulnerable. The trek moved me closer toward confronting thoughts and feelings I’d suppressed, and I cried at least once each day. I missed my father.

The trail created space for me to grieve, even though Dad passed away almost three years ago. He was a fine man, a good and also flawed father, and a model for how to be in this world. Each time I remembered how proud he was of my brother and me, how much he loved us, and how often he said so filled my eyes. How may people will love you like that? (See “A Eulogy for Our Father.”)

As Dad slipped away into Alzheimer’s, I spent time with him on our front porch watching hummingbirds and talking about whatever passed through his mind. I recorded our “porch talks.” It was interesting what he remembered and what he did not.

“Porch talks” with Dad. I recorded hours of our conversations over nearly a year and will one day edit the recordings for my brother Duncan, our mother, and my sons.

One afternoon after a long period of silence, Dad said, “I miss my father.”

“You’ve never talked much about that,” I said, surprised by this turn in his memory, hoping he’d elaborate.

“I’ve thought about him every day since he died,” Dad continued, staring up into the 100-year-old pin oaks in our neighbor’s yard, as if tilting his head back would prevent the tears rimming his eyes from overflowing.

I remember wondering what that felt like and if I would have the same experience. I remember worrying that I would not.

His father passed away when Dad was 16, just a week before he was to return to boarding school. I can only imagine how lonely that must have been, despite their relationship being more formal than ours. While Dad kept his grief to himself, I knew from pictures he held onto and from occasional comments about what he learned from his dad that theirs was a good relationship and that my father knew he was loved.

Father’s Day is fine, neither here nor there. It deserves to be a national holiday, but it’s not necessary for me because I did learn how it feels to miss someone so much that you think of them every day. When I listen to his voice on the recordings — which remains hard for me — I can see him as if he were with me at that moment. When I’m attuned to those thoughts, I have the opportunity to remember my own role as a father and how I want to practice the same kind and gentle love he had for Duncan and me.

In just a few days, I’ll return to the Appalachian Trail for four days and fifty miles with our two older sons, McLean and Elliott. (We’ll miss the youngest because of an important swim meet. Good luck, William!) It will be the three of us; however, Dad will be there, too.

Our sons were fortunate to know their grandfather and to love his quirks: how he would take a bowl of ice cream to eat in bed before sleep, how he’d grow frustrated by politicians on TV and talk back to them as if there were in the room, how he’d make a deep sound of pleasure as he ate Cinnamon Toast Crunch or watched a sunrise at the beach.

I see much of Dad in my sons: They’ve inherited his compassion, interest in other people no matter how different they are from themselves, and his ability to apologize when wrong along with the grace that Dad extended to others when they made mistakes.

This Father’s Day, as we’re packing gear and clothes for our trip, I’ll remember to follow Dad’s example: not to “teach” my sons but to let them find their way, to listen and be curious and to avoid talking too much as if I always have the answers. I’ll strive to be humble and grateful for the many gifts life has brought our way. As Dad would say on occasion, “Not everyone is as fortunate as we are.” Most of all, I’ll love my sons the way my brother and I were loved: not perfectly but always unconditionally.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I miss you.

George W. Campbell, Jr., 1940-1918

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The AT Series: Gravity Wins…Sometimes

After both knee replacement surgeries, I returned to consciousness with a yellow tag on my wrist labeled “Fall Risk.” Fair enough. I was wobbly and anesthetized. But to this day, friends and family joke that I need to wear that tag before any activity, including getting out of bed, brushing my teeth, and teaching, to name three.

I get it: I have a history of falling down many times in life, completely sober.

Often, I fall without incident; however, sometimes I fall hard. For example, I fell off a mountain bike on the first day of a family vacation in Alaska, from which I broke two ribs and a shoulder bone, spent several hours in the ER, and didn’t get to go sea kayaking amongst the whales. (Pity me, please.) Whether skiing, playing soccer with my sons, or even body surfing, I’ve torn most ligaments in right knee, dislocated both shoulders, shredded my left Achilles tendon, been concussed several times over. (Feel free to write for a complete run-down. I have a perverse pride in my seven orthopedic surgeries and weekend-warrior scars.)

I cannot explain my battle with gravity other than, perhaps, a innate mixture of stubborn bravado, poor coordination, and an unwillingness to accept the passage of time.

But these days, I cannot afford a big fall. My right wrist needs surgery, I never had my last shoulder injury fixed — the bone sticking up against the skin looks cool — and aging has made me less nimble. So, before my seven days on the AT, when people asked what my biggest fear was, I didn’t name bears, snakes, or other hikers. “Injury,” I said.

The trouble with most hiking trails is that rain turns roots, rocks, and mud into tricky terrain. As the body tires, my feet do not lift as high, and obstacles snag my lumbering boots. Given all this, I considered wearing a helmet for the week; however, vanity won, and I went with a simple ball cap to wick sweat and to protect my precious remaining nine hairs. (There were eleven, but I combed this morning.)

As expected, I fell. Unexpected: I fell only once. That’s two fewer times than my last backpacking trip that lasted only two days. Even better, my fall was injury-free, save for a slight cut.

So how did I beat gravity?

I watched every step, placed my boots in the best position I could to bear my weight and the backpack’s, and used poles for balance. Plus, I learned not to multi-task while moving. In my younger days, I could hike and simultaneously check my watch, take in a view, or look to the side to find what creature scurried off at my passing.

No more.

If I want to drink water, I have to stop. If I want to check the altitude, I have to stop. And if I want to appreciate a boulder or a flower or a red salamander, I have to stop. Sure, this slows me down, yet herein lies a valuable lesson: I can fly through life — moving, moving, moving — and reach destinations sooner, or I can move more deliberately, stopping now and then to savor a moment. It’s cliché to say, “Focus less on the destination and instead enjoy the journey.” Nonetheless, I agree.

The benefit during my trek was that I noticed more sights and sounds, worried less about miles covered, and I beat gravity. While this fundamental force ultimately wins the war — everyone goes ten toes up, six feet under — I’m grateful that I’ve found a battle plan that keeps me upright for now, more often than not.

Take a moment to stop and watch

What about tomorrow? I’m not going to fall for that trap. Tomorrow can take care of itself.

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The AT Series: Trail Daze

A common practice amongst long-distance hikers is to record their journey, day by day. I carried a yellow, waterproof, pocket-sized notebook and planned to fill it with observations: names of people, places, and things; overwrought descriptions of scenery; and insightful depictions of my states of mind. None of that happened.

I couldn’t write in part because I was too tired and also because I couldn’t find words to capture the experience. I wondered what, if anything, I might bring back from my trek to share. Even now, as I think through what I want to post to close out this blog series, I’m unsure of what the experiences mean. Call it trail daze. Different from brain fog, trail daze is more of a trance, a state of awe for moments that cannot be named. One can try, but words won’t do.

I didn’t document my journey except with photographs and daily, GPS-recorded miles covered. Using those, I’ve pieced together the following account of my time on the Trail. I’ll limit words in favor of more pictures in hopes that you may see and hear portions of my trek and enjoy a vicarious take on the journey.

Day One: 12.3 miles; 3,471 feet elevation gain

From the first ascent of five steps over a stile to the campsite I reached around mid-afternoon, I felt good despite more than six hours of hiking. At first, I had the site to myself; however, an hour later, “Gunn Slinger” — Curtis Gunn, a professional cyclist — arrived and set up camp 15 yards away. He encouraged me to adopt a trail name, a practice I thought reserved for thru-hikers. With some hesitation, I dubbed myself “New Knees” for the right and left knee replacements hammered into place in 2015 and 2016. Gunn Slinger commented that he was happy to be present for my christening. We spoke a bit but mostly allowed one another to enjoy the experience.

Sunset at the end of my first day.

Day Two: 13.2 miles; 2,552 feet elevation gain

The toughest climb of the day occurred at 6:30 am when I tried to stand after climbing from my tent. Yesterday’s exertion left me sore. I wondered if Rigor Mortis had set in; however, I recovered enough before strapping on my pack to take the first steps northbound.

Perhaps the second toughest climb of the day was up to Big Bald (5,516 ft) from which you can see waves of mountains in every direction. The biggest pleasure of the day? Meeting Clay (red shirt) and rejoining Gunn Slinger when we ran into “trail angels” Sonya and Grant, two day-hikers who regularly tote soft drinks, beer, wine, potato chips, oranges, and more to various spots along the trail near their mountain home in Wolf Laurel. This is “trail magic” — gifts for hikers left by benevolent souls. For the first time in years, I enjoyed my first soft drink (Mountain Dew) and a bag of potato chips (sea-salt somethings).

The day ended at Spivey Creek, a wooded site, where I set up camp and enjoyed solitude.

Spivey Creek Campsite

Day Three: 12.7 miles; 1,942 feet elevation gain

I reached the low point of the trip at the start of the third day. It rained hard during the night (enjoy the video below of rain pouring down on the tent in the morning). When I opened the fly, water flooded the tent, drenching my clothes, sleeping bag, and more. It is not pleasant to put on wet clothes, no matter how efficient their “wicking” may be.

That morning, I tore a ligament in my left index finger while lifting my pack. (While it was painful and swollen, the benefit was that I became adept at pinching, buckling, and strapping gear with my thumb and middle finger — a more wholesome use of the middle finger.) With one bar of service, I did what any brave-but-feeling-defeated person would do: I called my spouse to complain.

Unfortunately, the reception was sketchy, and all Lauren heard was “I’m injured” and “Spivey Creek.” This kind soul, this partner of mine for 27 years in marriage, drove 1.5 hours to find me, imagining the worse. Unaware that she was coming, I packed up and trudged onward. Fortunately, I did not go far — perhaps a mile — before I got a call from Lauren who was at Spivey Creek looking for me. We reunited on the trail, and I felt like I should go home with this amazing person who’d driven so far to find me. She asked, “Do you want to finish?” I did. She said, “Carry on” and “I’m proud of you.” Such selflessness.

The day got better. First, I met my soon-to-be good friend and trail mentor, Faceplant. We ate snacks at the same place, and he told a story of a woman looking for some guy named “Malcolm.” Sheepishly, I identified myself and told the story. “She’s a keeper,” he said.

Second, the solo trek proved uplifting, as all hikes do. A few hikers passed me on their way to Uncle Johnny’s, a hostel popular with thru-hikers. Originally, I thought a hostel would cheapen my experience; however, the allure of drying my clothes and gear proved strong, and my pace quickened up and down the mountains until I came to the final three-mile, 1,500-foot descent to the Nolichucky River.

I had the pleasure of seeing Clay again, as well as spending more time with Faceplant. He provided an invaluable medicated blister bandage — hikers help hikers — and offered useful tips for long-distance trekking: lighten my pack, carry less water, eat more calories, treat blisters immediately, and — should I faceplant — use Loco Tape to repair my glasses. Thank you Faceplant, aka Alan Stuart.

My gravel bed for the night with gear drying out, hung from the rafters beneath an aluminum roof. Hikers spoke of incoming storms and of waiting them out at Uncle Johnny’s Hostel. I didn’t have that luxury.

Day Four: 13.2 miles; 3,573 feet elevation gain

Water seeks the path of least resistance, the lowest point in the terrain, so leaving the Nolichucky involved a wicked ascent from the riverbed. With dry clothes and gear, my pack felt light, and I moved uphill toward the aptly named destination for the day: Beauty Spot. A man who’d driven a road to the 4,420 summit and who was Facetiming his girlfriend when I arrived was kind enough to take my picture after finishing his call.

I set up camp at Beauty Spot Gap, just a short descent from Beauty Spot, with fellow hikers Double Vision, Clay, and Stealth, whose pit bull “Dozer” was great insurance against bears coming after our food supply. (Inscribed on Dozer’s dog pack: “Yes, I bite.”)

Preparing dinner at Beauty Spot Gap. This was the final afternoon before the monsoon began the following day.

Day Five: 9.9 miles (5.7 miles plus 4.2 miles “slack-packing”); 2,198 feet elevation gain

Double Vision, Clay, and I decided to make a short trek of the day — a bit more than 5.5 miles — to Cherry Gap Shelter given the impending weather. We hiked our own paces — each day, I hiked alone, passing/being passed by at most 4-5 people a day — and each of us arrived at Cherry Gap before the rain.

En route, I met Jonathan, a local Trail Angel, who shared that he had food, soft drinks, and a garbage bag in his pickup “two miles from the shelter.” After setting up camp, I set out to secure a few soft drinks and snacks for the two men and myself. “Two miles” turned out to be three miles, and I never reached Jonathan’s truck because I turned around at 2.8 miles thinking I’d missed a side trail to Jonathan’s truck. While disappointed I didn’t produce any trail magic for Double Vision and Clay, I was grateful to “slack-pack” (hike without a backpack) and to stretch my legs with only my body weight.

The rain set in soon after I returned to the shelter. It wouldn’t stop for the remainder of the trip.

Day Six: 10.4 miles; 2,208 feet elevation gain

Remember as a child how you would sometimes get caught in the rain and, without care, you’d walk home at a slow pace thoroughly drenched until water overflowed from your shoes? Welcome to Day Six, a ten-mile slog through rain that never let up. Most of the day went through wooded terrain with tree cover so thick that you could hear the rain pummeling the leaves above while only a fraction of the water made it to the forest floor. (See the video below.) At first, I wore my supercalifragilistic Outdoor Research raincoat; however, I got hot in short order and stripped down to a thin, long-sleeve, Capilene shirt.

As I moved up and down various peaks — Little Bald Knob, Piney Bald, Iron Mountain — my body hummed from exertion; however, by the time I reached the Clyde Smith Shelter, five hours after setting out, the temperature had dropped into the lower 50’s, and my hands and upper body felt cold. Sean, Clay, and I arrived separately and took to the shelter. We unrolled sleeping bags, disrobed, and climbed into our sleeping bags to rest and warm up. I cannot remember being so close to hypothermia. It took more than hour to feel as if my body returned to 98.6-degrees.

As the rain grew even harder, more people arrived. Faceplant showed up, and ever cheerful, he brought some light into the otherwise gray space. I met Oomo but was too tired to say, “Huh?” (Oomo: A Tale of Aventures is an early work of Herman Melville, author of that “whale book.”)

Oomo, whose birth name is Pete, spent time writing in his journal, something I admired, especially given the blank pages in my own. We talked only a bit but have since struck up email correspondence about great reading and writing. Perhaps I’ll read Oomo.

As the final day before the ascent of Roan Mountain, I conked out early and only once had to ask some whippersnappers to keep their voices down. It’s the teacher in me.

Below: the gray scene in the Clyde Smith Shelter.

Day Seven: 12.4 miles*; 3,409 feet elevation gain

Today’s mileage was actually 14 miles; I left the shelter without my water filter. A mile northbound from camp, I deliberated going on without it; however, I had only a half liter of Gatorade-powdered water. There was no choice. So it goes on the Trail: momentum and setbacks. It was disappointing to add two miles before the longest, highest ascent of the journey on another chilly, rainy day; however, the obstacle is the way, said Marcus Aurelius (in so many words), and those extra miles added to my satisfaction by day’s end.

Roan Knob proved less daunting than I’d anticipated because 33 switchbacks (give or take) kept the uphill grade to a reasonable climb. Drawing closer to my journey’s end, a sense of “I made it” set in. After 6-1/2 days of many miles under full load, I grew giddy at the prospect of meeting Lauren, my son Elliott, and our dogs meeting me on the descent from Roan Knob to Carvers Gap.

We coordinated our reunion by phone, and after it became clear that I was going to beat them to the gap, I slowed my pace to enjoy the final scenes and sounds of the woods. The stretch reminded me of hiking Acadia National Park in Maine with the fog and rocks and weather. I realized my hiking had come full circle, as my love of hiking began in Maine.

I hiked this day in a nano-puff vest beneath my full rain jacket, which proved wise because the air cooled to the lower 40’s as the hike ascended above 5,000 feet up to 6,100+ feet. I became grateful for the cold and rain because it kept the number of day hikers to a minimum. Roughly a mile from the finish, I rounded a corner and there was my welcoming party coming up the hill. Spent and delirious with satisfaction, I closed my journey by nearly running down to Carvers Gap.

Total miles hiked: 85.7. Total elevation gain: 16,133. Satisfaction: 100 percent.

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The AT Series — Meet “New Knees”

Gosh. Keeping a blog on this section of the AT is proving too difficult, so I’ll post on Instagram as @ncwalker01 and Malcolm W Campbell on Facebook. I’m recording stories and look forward to sharing them.

One quick one: AT hikers adopt a trail name. At the first campsite on Monday night, Gunn Slinger camped nearby and told me that I should adopt one.

I wasn’t keen on a new name for a week; however, Gunn Slinger enjoyed his name, so I gave it a try.

With two knee replacements and this being my first long-distance hike, “new” worked, as have my metal joints. So, thanks Gunn Slinger, I’m now anonymous, simply New Knees when I arrive at a campsite.

More on Gunn Slinger in another post. He’s a former professional cyclist: Curtis Gunn. Google him and then think of my trying to keep up. (It ain’t happening.)

So, off I go onto Instagram and FB for posts as I can and a return to the blog when I’m home…37 miles later.

See you around the bend, New Knees

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In my grandfather’s footsteps…

My mother’s father owned this book and inscribed his name inside the cover in 1924. He was too busy as an attorney and in his other pursuits to spend a lot of time hiking with us in the summers on Mount Desert Island; however, I do remember a few.

photo of a book

After his death in 1980 and then my grandmother’s in 1994, his seven children and numerous grandchildren were able to select a few items as keepsakes. This book appealed to me then, and it does today. It covers a dizzying array of outdoor sports, from golf to sailing to riding a horse and also includes a brief chapter entitled, “Points on Camping Out.” There are two: how to build a fire in the woods on a rainy day, and how to tie a Diamond Hitch plus a Homemade Cinch. Not a word about titanium tent stakes. (See “A Weighty Matter.“)

Hancock Griffin, Jr., circa 1930’s.

There is also no mention of backpacking, which makes sense. The Appalachian Trail was just an idea in 1921 and not begun until 1923. (Trail completion was in 1937.)

Nonetheless, a picture fell out of the book that I didn’t put there and neither did my mother. It is from a winter hike in Acadia National Park in 1977. Since then, I’ve logged hundreds of miles on that stunning island.

If you haven’t been, lace up your boots, drive to Maine, and follow my grandfather’s footsteps.

Mom and me, December 1977

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The AT Series: A Weighty Matter

Many devoted long-distance backpackers — of which I am not — talk about gear weight with the same passion a violinist might display when speaking of a Stradivari. These are people who weigh their toothpaste on kitchen scales, zeroing in on cutting a couple ounces to avoid one extra squeeze remaining. I respect that dedication and appreciate that I have neither a kitchen scale nor a desire to talk about one. In fact, as someone who passed the “Pandemic 15” en route to the “Pandemic 23,” I have no desire to talk about weight at all.

But there lies the rub:

You cannot plan a long-mileage trek without addressing weight. If my pack is too heavy, I’ll pay for it in many ways. If my pack is too light, I’ve probably forgotten food or water or clothing. Unless I find the right balance, there’s a good chance I won’t finish my walk. So, let’s talk about weight.

Camp Stoves
The “vintage” Peak 1 Apex, circa 1775, versus the Whatchamacallit, circa yesterday.
Vintage Apex weight without fuel: 14.2 oz. Whatchamacallit: 2.5 oz

Those in the know pay a premium for ultra-light gear. The thinking goes: It pays for itself on the trail in more miles covered per day, less stress on the hips, knees, and feet, and a faster recovery each morning when you break camp and set out again. I was not in the know. For example, I planned to bring my Peak 1 Apex stove above, only to discover that a part I need is unavailable because Peak 1 discontinued the stove in 1894. But as much as I’ll miss its companionship, I now have a feather-light stove, and I’m sold on the difference in weight. The matter is resolved, yes?


One must also consider the spork (spoon + fork = spork), a genius marvel of engineering invented by Obadiah Spork during the Revolutionary War. (I learned this on Wikipedia.)

show spork
Invented by Marcus Spork during
the American Revolution, the spork
is essential ulta-light gear.

Everyone needs a spork, so I went to REI last week. “Where can I find a spork?” I said. The salesperson led me to a remarkable selection and stuck around, too, not allowing me to browse for the right spork. Alas, I made the mistake of asking the difference between the $50 and the $3.99 sporks. “Isn’t a spork a spork?”

“Absolutely not. This one is titanium,” he said with the reverence one reserves for speaking of spiritual matters or sports cars.

“Of course,” I said, as if I’d forgotten titanium. “I’m short on cash. Perhaps the $3.99 spork will do.”

He sighed. “Sure, they’re your knees, after all.”

I left the store $50 lighter.

He’s right, of course. Shave a few ounces here and there, and they’ll add up to a pound. One pound on flat ground exerts up to three to six pounds of force on your your hips, knees, and feet. For example, if you weigh 170 (hypothetically, of course), you may put an additional 510-1,020 pounds of stress on your weight-bearing joints. (These numbers are correct. I found them on TikTok.) Going up or down, as the Appalachian Trail inconveniently does, adds even more force.

The bottom line? You can cut weight in your first aid kit, fire-starting materials, water filter system, sleeping bag, backpack, clothing, toothpaste, and much more.

I hope to travel light. AT thru-hikers — those who hike the trail’s 2,190 miles — carry packs as light as 10 pounds. A good backpacker’s pack weighs fewer than 20 pounds. And my load? Right now, I’m at 30 pounds…but there remains weight to drop. The first step? Replacing my knife, spoon, and fork with my $50 spork.

Feel free to weigh in with a comment.

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The AT Series: A Good Traveler

Pondering Planning

Nine days remain until May 24, when I begin my seven-day/70-mile walkabout on the Appalachian Trail. I’m excited and want this adventure to begin, but I have much to do. Time is abundant, time is fleeting, and while I ponder this paradox, I put off planning as time tocks away.

For guidance, I return to Lao-Tzu, only to end up frustrated that the dude died between 2,521 and 2,621 years ago (give or take) and is not here to explain his paradoxes.

One verse addresses travel:

A good traveler has no fixed plans
and is not intent upon arriving.

The Tao te Ching
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

What the heck do I do with that?

I remain without plans, other than initial necessities.

For example, I’ve done the math, a remarkable feat for an English major: a minimum of 10 miles a day. That’s fixed if I’m intent upon arrival, which I am. Even before the journey begins, I’ve run afoul of Lao-Tzu.

I want to walk the line between planning and not planning.

Planning thus far:

  • I’ve picked my path: Devil Fork Gap northbound to Carver’s Gap: 67.2 miles. (I’m rounding up.)
  • I purchased the map below, perused it, put it away.
  • I stuffed all my old gear into two backpacks to sort through and am yet to dump the contents into a pile from which to pull what I’ll need.
Every piece of camping gear tossed into two backpacks.

Yet to be planned:

  • What to bring?
  • How much weight do I carry? (Return for future post: “Weight Matters.”)
  • Where to sleep each night?
  • Where to re-supply three or four days in?
  • Who’s going to pick me up?

I have no contingency plans: Where can I get off the trail if injured or too exhausted to finish? What if the spring I’m counting on for water has run dry. Far more frightening: What if I come upon a thru-hiker whose trail name is Mirage, and he spends five miles trying to convince me that I can see him but he isn’t real? How do I politely leave Mirage behind?

I have much to do, Lao-Tzu, and as much as I admire the intent of your quote, your plan won’t work for me.

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With A Nod To Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi gave me this one. I Googled the quip in quotes, and it appears that I’m the first to say it. So, I’ve got that going for me…which is nice. (A nod to Caddyshack.)
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