“You wouldn’t part an old man from his walking stick?” – Gandalf, “The Two Towers”
I’ve always been a “tripod” ever since I was a kid hiking the woods behind my suburban house. I would quickly pick up a downed length of basswood or cedar and adopt it as my hiking stick and off into the trees I’d go. It wasn’t long before I felt unable to venture into the woods for a hike without having one. That is still so today.
Hiking Stick Grips (Photo credit: Randy Cox)
Somewhere at a roadside stand along the Blue Ridge Parkway about 1978 I found a walnut hiking staff carved by a local man vending summer tomatoes, corn, and mountain sourwood honey. I think I paid ten dollars for it. That hiking stick kept me stable during my trips into Pisgah National Forest, Linville Gorge, Shining Rock Wilderness, and eventually along my entire Appalachian Trail hike during the years from 1985 to 1988. Sadly, the reliable length of wood splintered at a shelter on the Long Trail in Vermont. Sentimental as I am, I still keep the two pieces of it inside a hall closet. I have given up my old Vasque hiking boots, but I can’t part with that staff.
I carried a staff mainly for stability. I cannot recall how many times it kept me upright when gravity would have had me horizontal. There’s more than one instance when I know it literally saved me from sliding into a rushing torrent. I would have drowned had I not had that staff to lodge into some rhododendron thicket to arrest myself. Poking and prodding down the trails with it, I beat the ground to warn any rattlesnakes which might be sunning themselves to move along. I used it to prop up my pack to make a backrest. I have used it to fashion a tent with a tarp. I have found a hiking stick indispensable for my sense of security. And, yes, it’s added to my sense of adventure while on the trail. Something compelling and magical always happens when I pick it up; either a new adventure is about to begin or resume, and taking the staff in hand is an inaugural movement which signals the beginning of something special.
A hiker signs the register at the southern terminus of the AT on Springer Mountain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I know you’re out there. You are the ones who, like me, read a book that put the hook in you. For most of you, it was “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson. For me, it was “Appalachian Hiker II,” by Ed Garvey, which I read in 1984. That did it for me. I already had the boots, the backpack, and gear. I was avidly hiking in places like the Uwharrie National Forest, Pisgah National Forest, Linville Gorge, and Shining Rock Wilderness. The notion of backpacking the A.T. was a logical next step. I don’t recall a definite moment when I said to myself, “I’m going to do this.” It just happened. I shelved Ed Garvey’s book and drove to an outfitter. I bought the A.T. trail guide for Georgia and took it home. I have an obsessive love for maps, and unfolding the ones which came with the guidebook were an exhilaration. They were known as profile maps, and they showed dramatic ups and down along the miles of trail. I found them inviting, not daunting. But, I knew the walk would be a laborious journey and not a sprint. I spent the next year gathering equipment – rain jacket, backpacking stove, gaiters, and a wool sweater. I wrestled to compile a food list. By the time I shouldered my pack at Amicalola Falls, Georgia, and began walking, it weighed 55 pounds. When I weighed it again on a bone-chilling rainy day in September at Pinkham Notch and it was 40 pounds, food and gear included. You’d be surprised how few comforts you need to do this trek. It’s not about the amount of gear. It’s not about the food. It’s certainly not about ticking off the most miles in the shortest time. I remember meeting speed hikers doing 30-mile days who failed to see the beauty I saw which they left in their wake. Their focus was different from mine. I let them go their way. “Hike your own hike,” they say. That is wisdom. Personally, I feel that the “secret” to walking this trail – if your goal is the entire length, or even some of it – is no secret at all. It’s one thing – focus. It’s one thing – perseverance. It’s one thing – patience. Most of those who “washed out” during the first 75 miles were not casualties of injury; they failed for lack of mental preparedness and toughness. This manifested as loneliness, homesickness, depression, using the Trail to run away from problems, disappointment with how many miles hiked in a day, and inability to endure physical pain. More to come…