Friday, June 13, 2014

Into the Woods: Day-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

May 25, 2014

I left the interstate for the backwoods (or so it seemed) of Maryland on a Sunday afternoon, easing my way along curving two-lane roads surrounded by green. Twice I had to ask directions, the first time flagging down a car going the opposite way and the second time idling outside a yard to call to the owner. Finally I spotted the turn for my destination, a conference center situated on two hundred acres an hour and a half northwest of Washington, D.C.

I had signed up to hike the Appalachian Trail in four states. It was a six-day program designed for 24 of us older people. The activity was rated “Challenging,” but what did that mean? Was it simply an oxymoron? How fit did I have to be in order to hike the Trail in a group of senior citizens?

I had been fascinated with the Appalachian Trail for a year, hooked initially by Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s tale of hiking alone on the Pacific Crest Trail. I’d subsequently collected and read more than 25 books about the AT and had spent a weekend backpacking in the woods of Georgia in a guided group. I’d registered for this group hike in Maryland months ago.

In this instance, “hike” meant that we would day-hike, leaving the conference center every morning at 8:30 to be driven to a different trailhead. We would hike until 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. and be picked up by the vans at the other end. The hikes for the week were from 6.5 to 9.7 miles each.

Our meals were provided, including lunches we packed ourselves from a food selection laid out every morning on one of the round dining tables. Breakfast and dinner were buffet style.

Supper the first night was two kinds of fish, broccoli, mac and cheese, and pumpkin pie for dessert. A salad bar was a staple for those with better constitutions than mine. I’d suffered intense stomach cramps before the trip and had barely eaten in three days.

Every evening after dinner we were treated to a program. The first night it was a talk by a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Before that talk began, we took turns standing in front of the group to introduce ourselves. Each of us put a push pin in a U.S. map to mark our town or city. My group for the week consisted of three couples who signed up together, five single women, and a few couples who did not know one another before their arrival.

Before registering for the trip, I’d wondered about my ability to take on this series of hikes. I wanted badly to experience the Appalachian Trail, so I signed up and then began walking at home. In March I started weekly physical fitness sessions with a trainer. “Get me ready” was my simple plea. She worked on my core strength as well as that in my arms and legs, with less than two months to make me hike-worthy.

Maybe you’ve sized up the other members of a group and compared them to yourself for reassurance. I already knew my co-hikers were nice people, but what was their potential to climb mountains, compared to mine? Some were experienced hikers. I didn’t want to be the one they waited for once we got on the Trail.

You know how this goes. You look at your hike-mates and think, landing on one: If he or she can make it, surely I can. We all do it, but in reality—and in a group as fit as ours--it is difficult to tell another person’s level of stamina. You might be dead wrong, as I was. Every day some of those folks passed me like I was standing still. Okay, I was standing still.

Stay tuned for the next installment: hiking the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, a state known for rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Our first hike would begin at Caledonia State Park and end at Pine Grove Furnace, a distance of about 8.5 miles.

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