In the spring of 2012, Shepherdstown resident Annie Wisecarver decided to celebrate a milestone event—her 50th birthday—by setting off on a six-month, 2,000-mile-plus hike. You might have heard of the place: the Appalachian Trail.
More than 80 years old, the A.T., as it’s commonly referred to, traverses 14 states across nearly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. Around a thousand people per year, give or take, finish the entire journey—otherwise known as a thru-hike—which takes around five months and involves quite a bit of planning and focus.
In the last decade, numbers have increased, especially among solo female hikers. No stranger to adventures, Wisecarver was eager to join the ranks.
We recently grabbed a cup of coffee—Annie being fresh off a more current trip to Southeast Asia—and reflected fondly on an East Coast adventure that whispers to many folks in the Panhandle—since the A.T. is practically in everyone’s backyard.
Chalmers: Why do you travel?
Wisecarver: The reason I travel is to just widen my perspective and connect with people. When I go somewhere, I try and stay where the regular people of that place live instead of a hotel or the ex-pat area where all the Westerners are. I delve into the culture, the art, food, history—and just do my best to hang out with the people and see what they’re doing, go to their markets, live how they’re living.
Chalmers: Talk to me about the challenge you were facing at the onset of this experience.
Wisecarver: Sure. Well, the duration of the trip was from March 9 (2012) to September 17—and that’s the typical window that you want to hit if you’re going to thru-hike. Regardless, you want to finish before mid-October, because it becomes so cold in Maine, and then it’s very dangerous to try and summit Mount Katahdin—the end of the trail. So, five or six months is typical, and just about 2,000 miles of hiking and camping. The A.T. is, of course, world-famous for its elevation changes all the way through.
Chalmers: As you approached your 50th birthday, what had you been doing up to that point?
Wisecarver: I’d been raising kids, truthfully, and working. I would take some short backpacking trips or take the kids camping, but I didn’t really start doing this type of thing until after they were grown. But raising the children was the big adventure in my life—I have four successful adult kids. That was a daunting task. But yes, I’d backpacked before, so I knew what I was getting into, to an extent.
Chalmers: That makes sense. So, then, when did you actually make the big decision?
Wisecarver: About nine months prior, I was actually planning a different trip, but then one day while riding my bike, it just hit me to hike the A.T., and then I couldn’t let it go. From that point, I started prepping—basically by reading other people’s blogs (other hikers who’d done it), looking at their gear list and reading about their experiences. I also started prepping food. I was eating mostly raw/vegan, so I prepared food for all of these food drops—hikers can have boxes mailed to various pick-up points and post offices along the way. Sort of a gift box to yourself. And, of course, I started training for it. Hiking Maryland Heights and just walking really long distances with my backpack on.
Chalmers: Nine months of prep and training notwithstanding, how much does such an adventure cost?
Wisecarver: It depends—it can cost a little or a lot. I actually sold my truck, gave up my apartment, put my notice in at work, and everyone knew I’d be gone in nine months. I put a few things in storage, and decided to figure it all out when I got home. They called people like me “no-keys” because we didn’t have a key to a car or apartment, etc. But overall, I think I had about ten-thousand dollars dedicated to the trip, and I did burn through almost all of it—which is one of the worries when you’re on the trail. Am I going to have any money when I get home?
Chalmers: But like you said, it depends on what type of experience you want.
Wisecarver: For sure, some of the younger folks didn’t mind roughing it a lot and taking minimal showers, staying in hostels or tents the whole time. But I had a different plan—I wanted to stay in a hotel from time to time, go to a restaurant, get a private room in a hostel. Have a few creature comforts here and there and enjoy it. You have to manage what you need and what you want—because you can run out of money very quickly, especially if you party a lot. Just like you have to do the same with what you carry.
Chalmers: So by March 9 (2012), you found yourself in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest, in front of Springer Mountain, at the start of the trail (for those doing a northerly hike).
Wisecarver: Right. I’d mailed some equipment to the hostel where I was going to stay near the trail-head, so that was all there for me when I arrived. The next day, they made us a big breakfast, sang me happy birthday, and took us out to the trail. [Sidenote: Ranging from rustic to quite nice, hostels are typically under $20/night or a little more for a private room—but much cheaper if you’re in a bunk room—more around $10 or less. When in certain towns, some hikers will often split a hotel room.]
Chalmers: Tell me a little about the early going—any surprises physically, or otherwise?
Wisecarver: Not really. You definitely have to get your hiking legs—maybe start with 8-10 miles, but you start with what you can, and then you build up. I was someone who liked to get up early, hike, and then get set up at the end of the day when there’s still plenty of light—eat my food, get situated, find my water source, write in my journal, and then go to sleep. Some of the younger folks you get to know want to make fires and hang out, but I was like: I’m going to bed. Obviously, it depends on where you are in life. When you’re in town, you can socialize a bit more. And a lot of these trail towns do a great job accommodating hikers and really creating opportunity. It’s really changed since the early days of thru-hiking. But I was pretty much a hiking machine about a month in; it was still difficult every day, but I was averaging around 15 miles a day, depending on the terrain and conditions and my energy level. I think my longest day was 23 miles.
Chalmers: Elaborate on some of the people you met as your trip evolved.
Wisecarver: Well, you bond with them pretty quick because of the nature of the experience. Not only is it extremely taxing physically, but you’re having this shared moment with people—who are all there for their own reasons—but also together. I actually didn’t think I’d meet as many people as I did. I certainly had plenty of hikes to myself, but visiting the towns and experiencing those cultures and people was also very appealing to me. I didn’t have a need to race through the A.T. like some of the younger hikers. But you also morph in and out of various groups—communities in a sense. You get to really know these people for a time. And then, maybe it dissolves as people hike their own hike(s). There are also journals at every shelter and even in some towns—and people are always writing in them—anything really—updates, trail news, poems, whatever. It’s like a primitive but also really endearing way to communicate, especially if you’ve separated from certain people for a while.
Chalmers: Were there points along the way where the novelty had definitely worn off?
Wisecarver: Rainy and cold were the worst conditions—not only is it dangerous but you’re just miserable, and all you want to do is quit. Plenty of those days. And you have to be careful where you stop and how long you stop for because it’s very easy to talk yourself into quitting. An example: my son picked me up in Harpers Ferry [almost the halfway point] and brought me back to Shepherdstown to see everyone, and I started thinking about quitting. But fortunately, the trail also pulls you if you’re away from it too long, and that happened to me. [Additional sidenote: only around 25 percent of thru-hikers actually complete the trip.] I also want to point out that, that same year, there were two other people from Shepherdstown, who I met, and who also finished the hike. So to have three of us just from Shepherdstown complete the A.T. in one season is pretty cool.
Chalmers: What about just normal day-to-day challenges?
Wisecarver: Well the A.T. just beats you up. It’s just up, down, up, down. You’re constantly ascending and descending—it’s murder on your knees. And Pennsylvania is a nightmare—the nickname is Rocksylvania. And then you get up into the whites—the mountains in New Hampshire, which are some of the most gorgeous parts of the trail—but those are big mountains when you get into Maine. On top of that, your spirit pretty much mirrors the weather. But then you get to a town, take a shower, lay out your gear to dry, go get a good meal and maybe a cold beer, and you’re feeling better about it all. I also tried to take very good care of myself—every night I put balm on my feet, and was careful about preventing blisters. I also didn’t drink a lot when in town—and tried not to eat too poorly. At 50, I also wasn’t going to really do anything stupid—so my age was a benefit in that regard.
Chalmers: Did you have any genuine fears out on the trail—especially when alone?
Wisecarver: You know, I’m generally not afraid of much. I actually feel like I’m in more danger in a larger group of people. I felt really safe on the trail—there might’ve been a few nights when I was camping alone. But with bears and stuff—they typically aren’t going to come near you. They mostly go after food that’s left out and typically away from humans. There are some misconceptions about the bears. Truthfully, the biggest danger on the trail is Lyme Disease. A lot of people had to get off the trail because of it.
Chalmers: What would be some advice you might have for folks considering a thru-hike or a long section hike on the A.T.?
Wisecarver: Well, if you don’t like to be dirty, stinky, or tired, then it’s probably not for you. But there are ways to stay clean fairly regularly, if you’re committed—but you still get dirty and stinky. I also had extra socks—that’s a luxury. I changed them every couple days. Also—are you picky about what you eat? After a while, you’ll just eat anything. And then entertainment—do you need to be listening to music all the time, or reading? I carried a journal but that was mostly it for me. It’s a level of self-comfort that you have to be able to access—also a tolerance for discomfort, as well as just spiritual highs and lows. I will say, cell phone service was pretty good the whole time, so I imagine now it’s a huge part of the hiker experience.
Chalmers: Okay, so what would be some “trail terms” that hikers come to understand, and even rely on?
Wisecarver: (Laughs). So, a trail angel is just anyone that gives you assistance on the trail—it could be a cooler of drinks, a bag of snacks or sweets, or even a ride into town. Some let you stay and shower in their home. Some are even grilling food. They really are angels. Some will send messages to your family, updating them. Certain angels have also become famous among hikers. All of those things could fall within the category of trail magic—anything that just keeps you going. “Leave no trace” means exactly that—don’t leave any sign that you were there. Leave it the way you found it. Cowboy camping is basically when you just sleep outside without your tent. I might’ve done that a couple times. And then a “zero” is a day or more when you don’t hike at all. But again, you have to be careful, especially in a town, because the idea to quit can creep in. That said, zeros are very important, for various reasons, but you just have to be careful. Finally, slackpacking is when someone—maybe an angel—takes your pack to a point ahead of you and you hike without the weight. I never did that.
Chalmers: Talk to me about your trail name.
Wisecarver: Well, almost everyone ends up getting a trail name. Mine was Shanti—which is Sanskrit for “peace.” I was also blogging about peace initiatives and talking a lot about what we can do to practice it in our communities. I actually called my hike a journey for peace. I would leave messages in the journals that I thought would just resonate with everyone. But I also took on an alter-ego named Ms. Scandalous after a while, which I only revealed in my final journal entry at the end of the trail.
Chalmers: Ultimately, did you achieve what you’d hoped to achieve—and thus, was it a worthy 50th birthday present to yourself?
Wisecarver: I didn’t really have any major epiphanies. I just wanted to have a journey—something where I could keep walking, meet people, experience places. Be with myself and nature. But sure, when I finished, it was emotional. I guess it reinforced my belief that life and people can be magical, and we’re all kind of in the same boat. And that we really can get by with so much less. You can simplify your life and get rid of so much stress by just getting rid of “stuff.” So, yeah, I guess it was a pretty great birthday present to myself.Article by Mike Chalmers