“Here’s an exercise for you: Buy a soda pop. Pinch the straw. Then try to suck. That’s how I feel when I try to breathe,” Allen Tye wrote in a journal April 3, four days after he began hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT), a 2172.6-mile-long scenic mountaintop footpath that begins in Georgia and ends in northern Maine.
Tye, 42, a financial analyst who took a leave of absence from Jackson-based Vector Money Management to hike the AT, began hiking March 31 and finished the trail on Halloween. He returned to Jackson November 5.
“I’m surprised I made it the whole way,” admitted Tye. “It’s intimidating when you’ve been walking for about three or four weeks and you look at a four-foot-long map of the entire trail and realize you haven’t covered but an inch of it. You have to get really lucky, too, to complete it, avoiding injury and other things. But when I reached the stone pile on Mt. Katahdin (at the end of the AT), there was a tremendous mixture of satisfaction and relief.”
Nicknamed “Rumbler” on the AT, Tye weighed 190 pounds when he began the journey. After walking 100 miles, he had not lost a pound, but by the end of the trail, he had shed 45 pounds and vowed, “never to eat another packet of ramen noodles.”
During the AT adventure, Tye endured temperatures ranging from 20 degrees to nearly triple digits, and plowed through five pairs of shoes before settling on garment boots — again. “I now have blisters all over my feet,” he wrote April 20. “I look like a leper. I want my boots back, but will not get them until I get to Gatlinburg. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. How many times will I make myself re-learn that lesson?”
Tye, who spent a week hiking in the Grand Canyon a decade ago, said hiking the entire length of the AT was an impulsive decision.
“You only get a chance to do these things a few times in life and it was so out of the realm of the things I had done that it just sounded like an interesting challenge,” he said. “I don’t hike. I wasn’t in great shape when I started, and it wasn’t a task that I was prepared for, but at the same time it gave me the opportunity to find out how big this country really is, to explore parts of it that you don’t usually see, and to meet people that I wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to meet in life.”
While chatting one night with fellow hikers, Tye met a couple that had climbed 20,000-foot peaks in the Himalayas, one that had hiked the 2,800-mile Pacific Coast Trail and another that had climbed every peak in the Presidential range. A woman he met at a hostel was a competitive bicyclist, and another had been training for the AT hike for four years. “And then you had me, who trained for this by stocking up on steaks and enchiladas on the theory I would need the sustenance,” he said.
About 4,000 hikers start the AT journey every year; one-fourth drop out in the first few weeks.
“I was surprised at the number of people in their 50s and 60s on the trail,” said Tye. “I met PawPaw at Brown Gap, who was the oldest person to through-hike the AT at 83. He plans on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail next year. But once I got passed Virginia, the common denominators of the only people left were those who had the discipline to get up in the morning and walk.”
Tye said it took about six weeks to get his trail legs, and about the same amount of time to master the balance of “The AT Compromise.”
“How much convenience and how much comfort are you willing to carry? You won’t finish the trail if you fall below some basic level of comfort, but you really won’t finish the trail if your pack breaks down your joints,” he said.
Along the way, he nicknamed his backpack “Matilda,” climbed the hill-that-would-not-end, and discovered AT angels, like the one who left a Mountain Dew on the trail that “tasted … rapturous,” he said.
“Long-distance hiking is almost by definition a solitary experience,” he said. “You simply have to go at your own pace and ‘hike your own hike,’ as the saying goes out here. I don’t mind that. In the mornings, I find the solitude invigorating. In the afternoons, I am glad no one is watching my struggles.”
Gatlinburg tourists witnessed one particular struggle, which Tye self-depreciatingly described in his trail journal.
“Suffice it to say that (Gatlinburg) is capitalism run amok that will leave even the most fervent free-market proponent a bit nonplussed,” he wrote. “But they do have a completely unreliable trolley system packed with tourists who all apparently read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’ before coming to Gatlinburg to see the wilderness from their cars.
“I was a big hit with this group, and explained as we went from block to block that yes, I had started in Georgia, and yes, I intended to walk thousands of miles, and no, I am not afraid of bear attacks. I am Hiker Man, and my hiking poles will guide me and Matilda across the oldest ranges on mountains on earth. They are impressed and wish me luck. I nod, say a word of thanks, and stroll to the door of the bus … where I slip, bounce off the bottom step and lurch out into oncoming traffic with a half-pirouette move that can only be described as spasmodic.
“I smile at the driver of the car who has braked to keep from running me over, turn to the bus and give the passengers a wave that says, ‘I’m the reason that we can’t afford national health care coverage!’”
Wet weather hampered AT hikers. For 23 days in May, rain fell, and continued the first nine days in June. When Tye crossed Max Patch in North Carolina, the highest bald on the AT, featuring stellar long-range views, the visibility was about 15 feet.
“Just about every state we were in reported record rainfall for the month that we were in it,” said Tye. “I was walking on the top of a granite slide and mistook one step and slid 60 feet down the slope, and it took me about an hour to get back up to the trail. It was really cloudy there, too, and I couldn’t see the trail because it was granite. If you can’t see the blazes on the AT, you’re screwed.”
After taking several days to “decompress,” Tye returned to Jackson via train.
“I’m glad I hiked the AT,” he said. “It gave me time to re-evaluate some of the processes of how to go about things when I get back. Most people spend quite a bit of time re-thinking their priorities in life. Others simply list tasks. Then it’s back to dealing with the normal things that occupy us all.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.