Tuesday, March 25, 2014


AT Traditions

Once again a teaser, a pre-hike installment of what's the perceived life like on the AT.  In a previous post I wrote about the challenges of the AT. This installment will over lap and may include challenges.  Today, I want to explore the traditions of the AT.  Any sub-culture would be incomplete without traditions. Traditions are ingrained into organizations, too.  The Navy celebrates the crossing the equator.  The Air Force celebrates a pilot's first solo flight.  Colleges celebrate graduation.   Many companies celebrate a Founder's Day.

The AT's oldest tradition is the trail name, a moniker a hiker will take on for this journey.  If they continue onto other long trails, there too the trail name will follow.  Earl Schaffer returning from the Pacific War, WWII, hit the trail with crude maps calling himself the Crazy One.  He wanted to walk off the war. Other Vets are also hiking of the war(s) with the Warrior Hike.  Some times a trail name is given based on what someone does or what they've said.  A trail name can evolve over time and does not need be adopted by a hiker.  If a hiker gives themselves a name it often gets changed by someone else, another tradition.  Only the Crazy One could legitimately give and keep his own trail name.

Another long standing tradition is getting the pack weighed at the Amicalola Falls State Park Visitor Center.  This weight is done less food, fuel, and water.  The weight is also known as a base weight.  For some this is a bragging point, others just informative.  The lighter a pack, the more experienced a hiker is thought to be.  A lighter pack also implies more efficient a hiker is, lighter is related to more miles covered.

While at the visitor center, sign in as a thru-hiker and get a starting number. The numbering system resets each year.  This is reported up to the ATC for statistical purposes.  The final number is recorded in the far north, if the hiker gets there.

From the visitor center, head to the arch leading to the Approach Trail for a picture.  Hiking the Approach Trail is a point of contention with Purists.  I plan on hiking it just 'cus it is part of the experience.  This photo will be the first of many.  The other starting picture is of the Benton MacKaye Plaque on Springer Mountain.

Another tradition and point of contention is climbing the stairs of Amicalola Falls.  I hear they go up forever and beyond forever.  These steps for many will be the last steps they take with family and friends as the hiker is.  After the hike, the hiker will be reborn as a different person forged by mountain trials and distance.

From the beginning of having the pack weighed some will start tossing gear, as each step brings the questioning of one item to the next. One of the first major road crossings brings the first outfitters.  The gurus at Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi.  These gurus are experts at throwing (a shakedown) your pack.   Backpacker.com reference these gurus as wanting to help you achieve this goal, selling their wares isn't the goal.  If you want some lighter gear, I'm sure they'll help you lighten the wallet too,. Mountain Crossings is at mile 31.7 so if a hiker made it this far, it's also time to celebrate as 15% have found a reason to depart the AT.  They lighten the load by 12 pounds per hiker on the average or a great way to haze the new UPS drivers.

By this point in time the male gender of thru-hikers are developing untreatable growths upon their faces.  The hiker beard as it's often called tends to begin to show as part of the city slicker ebbs further and further into the past.  'Unkept' outsiders will call them.  The odor surrounding thru-hikers is not from being unkept.  That's just part of life when a shower is but once or twice every 10 days.  The beard, however, is a choice.  Later, these males take pride in this growth much like they may have taken care of a shiny motorized toy at home.  Many males who take a bit of time away from the trail express regret for becoming kept.

Sunrise at Clingsman Dome, mile 220(?), is not to be missed.  Sunrise from the concrete tower is said to be beyond imagination.  The season and weather plays a big part.  I've seen pictures of complete beauty and utter misery taken within days of each other.

Where tourist mix with hiker another tradition emerges.  For many hikers Clingmans Dome will be their first professional try with this.  And no, it's not hitch hiking, that's just a life line to and fro the trail on resupply days.  Named after the crafty bear of Jellystone National Park, of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Yogiing. Yogiing is the art of begging for food from a tourist without coming out and saying directly 'feed me.'  Techniques vary from sitting around looking pathetic to telling elaborate stories.  No technique though will work every time, flexibility is key.

One thing I keeping hearing about is a must do is to cowboy camp on Max Patch, mile 251. Cowboy camping is throwing down the sleeping bag without any shelter.  To me, it means heading out to the desert with a wool blanket for a cold night and a big campfire.  This is the AT so no blankets (sleeping bags are ok) just sleeping out under the stars.

Another tradition, and no writing of the AT would be complete without, the mention of the Damascus Trail Days, mile 460.  Trail Days is the party of the AT.  For 2014, it is over May 16 to 18th, the time many thru-hikers will be passing thru town.  This 3 day party includes a tent city, outdoor vendors large and small, and the Hiker Parade.  A sad note from last year, several hikers hike ended when a car careened through the crowd.  The Hiker Parade is complete with hikers getting free showers by a variety of means with super soakers and water balloons.  This big event will mix former classes with this year's and enthrall would be hikers. It is also a reunion of friends from around the globe.  Tips, tricks, and pranks are shared.  Stories tall told around fires and over drink by hikers and trail angels alike.  Because of the success of Damascus' Trail Days other celebrations are popping up, don't be fooled there is only one Trail Days.

Even if one chooses not to carry some form of dedicated image capturing device, the next traditional picture is worth the weight.  A photo standing on MacAfee's Knob is worthy of framing.  This view point juts out from the cliffs with a near 280 degree panoramic view.  This is the most photographed spot on the trail.

Tradition or challenge this next one is mixed.  Jumping from the James River foot bridge, mile 770, is here.  Why not? A hiker needs to get clean and with hiking 1/3rd the way a good soaking is in order.  Jumping from a bridge can be dangerous and or illegal, please consult with locals first.

Since we've picked up a number of photos so far let's stop for another.  This time stopping at the ATC's head quarters in Harper's Ferry, WV.  Remember the starting number? What's the rank at the psychological midpoint? Sign in, get a number, and a Polaroid next to the ATC sign.  Breeze the wall of images for friends who are ahead and leave a message for those coming.  Congratulations are also in order,  most hikers got off trail and only the elite are continuing on.  The hikers that reach this point are more the likely to finish.

From the mid-point to the end there are butt a few traditions left.  Mooning the Cog on Mount Washington is that butt, bare it, flash it, drop them drawers as the cog huffs and puffs with a load of tourist bound for the summit.  Butt there is a catch, the cog is no longer belching black foul of coal and often children are on board.  Arrests of indecent exposure are reported in the last few years.  I'd say, don't risk ending the hike with matching cufflinks.  Why not present skinny bellies? You got it, you earned it, why not flaunt it? This may be the last time a hiker will be this skinny.

While in the Whites, a working tradition abounds.  The AMC runs a series of maintained huts.  These huts are as close to the original reason for the AT.  The AT was to be a retreat, a string of huts a long a corridor of connected trails folks could hike to to get away from the hustle of city life.  A hiker can work a few hours for a place to sleep and some food.  This is on a first come first served basis as the paying guest get first servings and a bunk.  A hiker may get something to eat and a place on the floor.  If there are other thru-hikers present, the new arrivals may have to pay up or move on.  Work for stay is not guaranteed.

The final tradition is a combination of two things.  With in an easy day hike lay the summit day, finally, the anticipated moment, graduation day, what ever one desires to call it, it's time to sign the registry and check the ranger station at the base of the mystical mountain of KATAHDIN.  The grand finally is at hand time to ascend beginning at Katahdin Stream, the trail climbs above the treeline, past Thoreau Springs in the Tablelands, and onto the sacred wooden sign marking the end of the AT.  Celebrations of exquisiteness, sadness, joy, photos of the moment alone and with other hikers fill the moment.  I'm sure I'll be a basket case.  The climb is said to be the hardest of the AT and worth it.  SoBo's and Flip Floppers won't know the elation, they have their own points, only climbs are easier from now on.  PS don't forget to sign out as well, we don't want the rangers needless looking for someone who's gone back to the city, a strange place for the thru-hiker.

I'm sure I've missed a tradition or two.  Send me a message, I'll write it up and add it to an edited version.  At this point I need to fill in the blanks and do some fact checking.  I'm also hungry too.

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