Thursday, April 09, 2015

2,185.3 Miles of Giggling and Chuckling on the Appalachian Trail

Long Distance SIP

By Zinta Aistars
Published in Lux Esto, Spring 2015
Kalamazoo College Alumni Magazine

They met in the wilderness. Emily Sklar ’15 and Margaux Reckard ’13 were on LandSea, an outdoor pre-orientation program at Kalamazoo College, when the topic of doing something even more wild came up. Emily was an incoming sophomore, majoring in biology, and Margaux, an anthropology and sociology major, both group leaders.

Now and then, when their paths crossed again at K, the two young women batted their wild idea around again: what if? Was it a crazy idea? Was it safe? Could they do it? Did they really want to?

Both women were runners and both loved spending time outdoors. Their friendship had strengthened as participants in the Kalamazoo Outing Club, enjoying outdoor adventures such as camping, hiking, and rock climbing. It was great proving ground.

“Emily was brainstorming ideas for her SIP [senior individualized project], looking for something experiential, and she said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to hike the Appalachian Trail?’ And the idea morphed from there,” Margaux recalls.

“Then I had a meeting with my advisor, Jim Van Sweden,” Emily says. “’Wouldn’t this be cool?’ I asked him, and I didn’t really expect his response. He said it was totally an option. So I got serious about it.”

Emily considered how her SIP might center on such a hike. She had always been interested in the interactions between people and the natural environment. Nature was a concept that varied greatly person to person. She decided to talk to the people she and Margaux would meet along the 2,185.3-mile long trail. Her SIP would contain her own experience, but also her findings about others on the trail.

The Appalachian Trail traverses 14 states, beginning in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and culminates on the summit of Katahdin in Maine. With two to three million hikers walking portions of the trail each year, about one out of four (called “thru-hikers”) are successful in hiking the entire trail, taking an average of six months to complete it. Emily and Margaux intended to be two of those who succeed.

“I really committed to the idea of doing this hike in fall 2013,” says Emily. “In spring 2014, we were ready to go. My last exam was on March 17, and March 24 was our first day on the trail.”

Emily considered herself to be in “mediocre” shape, but she didn’t do much training for the trail beyond her usual routine of daily running. Margaux had the same approach.

“You can do just so much to prepare,” Margaux shrugs. “We planned our first stops, that’s it.”
To decrease the weight of their backpacks, they sent four packages of food ahead to themselves at strategic points along the trail.

“I carried a two-person tent in mine,” says Emily. “That’s 2 pounds, 2 ounces. An inflatable ground pad that’s about an inch thick when inflated. A sleeping bag, toothbrush and toothpaste, a small stove with a can of fuel, a bowl and spoon, shirts, shorts, pants, sweatshirt, wool socks, water bottle with filter, and a small bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap. The backpack itself weighed 6 pounds, so we were each carrying about 30 to 35 pounds.”

Each carried her own food, consisting mostly of high-calorie snacks for energy: Snickers bars, Little Debbie snacks, Pop Tarts, ramen noodles, and peanut butter sandwiches.

Then came the hard part: telling their families.

“I went to see my folks at home in Northville before leaving,” says Emily. “I had talked to them about it off and on throughout the previous year. They were very supportive but also worried about me. They worried that my hiking partner was so petite. But the crime rate in Kalamazoo is actually higher than it is on the trail.”

Emily and Margaux “camped out” at the Sklar house, packing their gear and talking strategy. Throughout their trip, the Sklars would send boxes of supplies to the two, and the hikers were grateful for the support.

Margaux adds: “Feedback from friends was great, especially since so many of my friends are also backpackers. My parents … not so much. I wasn’t asking their permission, but I did want their support. It was harder for them.”

On March 23, after driving with Emily’s mother south to Georgia, the hikers posted on the blog they had started to record their adventures, “Where the Tiny Tent AT?” (with a play on the acronym of AT designating Appalachian Trail).

“Margaux and I are currently in Amicalola Falls State Park which is BEAUTIFUL. Here we are enjoying our final showers and comfy beds, while my mom is asking the concierge endless questions about thru hikers. We’re both super excited to start our hike tomorrow! We'll be starting at the Amicalola Falls visitor center around 8 a.m. Then we'll most likely be off the grid until our first resupply in Hiawassee. Hopefully by then we'll have some good photos. Thanks to everyone for their support! It's great to know there are people thinking of us.”

And then it was time to take that first step—hiking boot sole to trail surface, Springer Mountain, Georgia.

The first section of the trail, almost 77 miles of rugged Georgia wilderness, winds through the Chattahoochee National Forest.

“It rained,” Emily says. “A lot.”

“But we found our tent could keep us dry,” says Margaux.

On the trail, their laughter resounded and bounced off the trees. They were far from alone.
“Especially at the beginning, we were on the trail with a lot of other people,” Emily recalls. “At times, as many as 20 other people, and everyone had a trail name. There were maybe 30 people at our first campsite. We got to know everyone by their trail name, and sometimes we never did get to know their real names.”

“LAF was a guide whose name stood for Lost And Found,” Margaux adds. “He was one of the first friends we made on the trail, and he commented on how the two of us laughed so much. He named me Chuckles and Emily, Giggles.”

Emily giggles. “He said he’d never heard anyone laugh so much.”

The names stuck and so did the friendships. Over coming days, the two developed bonds with other hikers, their paths intertwining, and connecting again at night as they met at camping spots. Friends began to feel more like family, and trading supplies, especially food, was the norm. One hiker watched out for the other.

“There was Soleil, Easy Rider, Sparky, Tigger, Bones, Breakfast, Chef,” Emily ticks off. “Grandpa Chops, the Captain, Stitch, Roadrunner, Slim, Hearsay …”

One aspect of the hiking experience did not make either Emily or Margaux chuckle or giggle. Both expressed surprise at how often their ability to complete the hike was questioned, or how often they were told their goal to reach Katahdin was ill-advised.

“It seemed to be a constant issue along the trail,” says Margaux. “With both of us being petite women, we’d get flak from people, you know? People telling us we can’t do it or that we were doing it wrong. At very least, people were surprised to see us giving it a try. It made me angry.”

“The hike is totally achievable for anyone in decent shape who has the time,” agrees Emily. In hindsight, she says, “it was more mentally draining than physically. It was tiresome to be underestimated so often.”

The two enjoyed challenging themselves. Their best day, seeing only flat terrain ahead, they put in 30 miles.

“That was our longest day. We challenged ourselves on a day when we were on flat terrain,” says Emily. “But you get a night’s sleep, and the next morning you’re good to go.”

Day by day, the women felt themselves growing stronger, leaner. Covering 20 miles was something they did with ease. Only their feet seemed to be getting larger, swelling from the constant impact. “Even when we got home, old shoes didn’t fit for a long time.”

As for wildlife, in areas where the trail was heavily populated, animals seemed few and far between, although in well-populated Shenandoah, Virginia, “we saw as many as nine bears in one day,” Emily says. “In my opinion, it’s a sad reality that reflects how our society destroys the integrity of natural spaces. The bears are there because they are no longer afraid of people.”

From Georgia, the duo hiked on through North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and into Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania was the quietest state,” Emily says. “Whereas elsewhere we might see as many as 20 people a day, in Pennsylvania maybe only one or two. Yet we never felt isolated. We kept running into friends along the way.”

“It seemed like we were never solitary for long,” Margaux agrees. “But Emily and I started hiking more and more on our own, and that was a surprise. We had thought we’d always be together, but we ended up leap-frogging along the way.”

On through New Jersey, New York, Connecticut. Then Massachusetts and Vermont. At one point, Emily’s mother joined her on the trail, walking 25 miles alongside her daughter.

“She walked with me for about a week,” Emily smiles. “She complained a bit, but did well. And she got to meet my friends and see the trail community.”

The farther Emily and Margaux walked, the stronger the bonds grew between them and the trail community. Many were recent college graduates, seeking a path in life while hiking the trail. Others were retired and testing their new freedom from the daily grind. Veterans hiked the trail, looking for peace of mind and healing. Emily interviewed her trail family, talking with hikers as well as those who offered services along the trail, taking notes in a notebook she carried with her. Shelters became community gathering spots, and those passing through would leave books and notes for each other in campsite trail logs.

“I heard hundreds of unique stories,” Emily says. “I talked not just to hikers but also ‘trail angels,’ those along the way who helped hikers out. People are inherently good; that was one of the things I learned on this hike.”

New Hampshire passed beneath their aching feet, and then the final state boundary was crossed: Maine. They were 281 miles from their goal, generally considered some of the most difficult terrain of the entire trail.

“The most challenging part was to keep walking when you are wet, tired, and dirty,” says Emily. “But you learn to go on. People think I went without all kinds of comforts, and I did, and they think how remote it all is, but I had my cell phone along all the time. We’d stop in towns along the way to take showers, do laundry, and buy food.”

More times than not, that food was junk food: chips, cookies, gooey candy bars. Their bodies craved calories and salt. Their bodies were transformed; Emily and Margaux each lost up to 20 pounds during the hike. Minor injuries or blisters didn’t slow them down.

“I learned self-reliance,” Emily says. “I learned how strong I am.”

“I learned that if I can do anything like this for four-and-a-half months, I can do anything,” Margaux says. “Now all challenges seem easier to me. I enjoyed the simplicity of it, the routine. I was so … clear-headed. I had clarity about my values, my priorities. To be open and doing what I want in life.”

“A few days or a few months, take a chance and have the adventure,” Emily says.

And then, after months of walking, after days and nights of all kinds of weather, after the seemingly endless thousands of miles, they were in sight of their goal. Katahdin was on the horizon.

“It was raining and storming,” Emily says. “Katahdin … I had been thinking about it the whole time. At first, we marked all the milestones, 100 miles, 500 miles, but once we hit 1,000 miles, the miles became less important. I just wanted to get to Katahdin. We were climbing through Mehousic Notch, this notch between boulders, climbing through caves of ice. We had to stop just a mile away, feeling defeated by the weather and running out of daylight.”

As they approached the end of their journey, Emily and Margaux stopped in town to buy Gushers and oatmeal crème pies. They bought orange juice and champagne. Trail angels opened a cabin to hikers, and many stopped to enjoy the complimentary lobster rolls and cold brews. The laughter was loud, even jubilant. They were in the shadow of Katahdin.

The next day greeted them with boulders, which they climbed at times hand over hand, followed by a mile of flat land, until they were above the tree line. The climb was gradual then. The summit was near, and the weather cleared.

“It was a beautiful day,” Emily smiles. “Clear skies and warm. We started seeing so many familiar faces of our trail friends.”

“It was a perfect morning,” says Margaux.

Reaching the summit, Margaux says, was bittersweet. “You start to get sick of the trail, chipping away at it day after day, but then I saw the sign for the summit a quarter-mile away and I started crying. I felt …” she thinks. “Proud. Relieved. Elated. Exhausted. And so happy.”

“There were champagne corks flying everywhere,” Emily says. “People were taking photos, and someone proposed on the summit. She said yes.”

No one was in a hurry to get off the mountain. Emotions peaked, tears flowed, hugs lingered, and champagne bubbles tickled Emily into giggles and Margaux into chuckles.

When Emily and Margaux finally came down the mountain and back to their “civilized” lives—Emily returning to Kalamazoo College and Margaux crossing the country for home in Laguna Beach, California—both experienced culture shock.

“I can’t really explain it,” Emily says. She grows thoughtful. “You just have to spend a week out there. To know. It was hard at first to relate to others.”

Margaux found herself needing to get out of the car on her drive west. She needed to get back on her feet again, and she hiked for a day before getting back in her car to continue her drive. Her body craved the exertion.

The two friends, now trail veterans, find themselves calling and texting each other, because who else can really understand? They use social media to stay connected to their trail family and plan reunions and perhaps even more hikes.

No one should ever again underestimate these two: petite but powerful. Ready for the next laugh.

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