I’ve always admired and looked up to people who have accomplished great physical feats. Whether it’s Shackleton’s epic journey across the southern oceans, Hillary’s first summit of Mt. Everest, a Tour De France competitor finishing first in an epic mountain stage, crossing the country on a bike, or hiking one of the great long distance trails, adventurists and super athletes have always been heroes of some sort to me.
Of course the granddaddy of all long distance trails has had a special place in my heart ever since I began hiking in my late teens. Having lived my entire life in the Midwest, the Appalachian Trail was always the quintessential trail; the trail every hiker aspires to hike one day. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, I haven’t had the opportunity to hike the big one yet.
Sometimes the best a person can do is to live vicariously through people who actually accomplish these heroic feats. I recently had the opportunity to have a discussion with someone who was able to follow through on her dream.
Angela, also known by her trail name as Bobcat, hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) last year. She started from Springer Mountain in Georgia on April 1st. It took her 5 months and 5 days to complete the entire 2160 mile trail, which is slightly faster than the average of five-and-a-half months. Not bad for someone hiking her first long distance trail, especially for someone who was forced off the trail for two weeks after tearing a ligament in her foot.
Here’s my Q and A with Bobcat:
HikingintheSmokys: What inspired you to undertake the AT? How long did it take before you were able to realize your dream?
Bobcat: Hiking the AT is something that I've always wanted to do but didn't realize it until about 6 months before I left for the trail.
HITS: What did you do to prepare/train for the hike?
Bobcat: Drank a lot (just kidding!). I've always enjoyed day hiking and skiing so I just stayed as active as I could through the winter until I was ready to hit the trail in the spring.
HITS: In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson's hiking partner clearly packed way too much and almost immediately began chucking stuff out of his pack on their first day on the trail. He eventually gave-up the quest somewhere in the Shenandoah Park area. Did you ever have any moments like this, where you realized that you packed too much or where you felt like quitting?
Bobcat: I never felt like I packed more than I needed but there were definitely times where I felt like I was carrying more than I needed at that time (i.e. winter clothing such as hat and gloves when it was 80 degrees) Everyone who has ever undertaken a trek of any magnitude has felt like quitting at one time or another. I felt like quitting about once a day during the first month and after a while I realized that I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I still feel like that today. I can't imagine wanting to be anywhere but on a trail of some sort.
HITS: What was the most challenging aspect of hiking the trail: the physical, mental or emotional toll? Why was it the most challenging?
Bobcat: For the first 6 weeks it was physical, nobody has a body that is ready for the rigors of daily long distance hiking unless it's something they have done recently. For the next 2-3 months it was entirely mental. It's very discouraging to know you've come such a long way but still realize that you are still more than half way from the end.
HITS: You saw a lot of backcountry as you traversed the more than 2100 miles of trail, in terms of scenery, how do the Smokies compare with the rest of the AT?
Bobcat: The Smokeys were beautiful and unique. Every part of the trail is different.
HITS: 71 miles of the AT run through the Smokies, how many days did you spend there?
Bobcat: 5 days and 4 nights.
HITS: Did you take any side trips / hikes while you were in the Smokies?
Bobcat: I took a very brief trip into Gatlinburg to pick up a mail drop.
HITS: The highest point on the AT passes over Clingmans Dome. There are also 5 other summits above 6000 feet. Did you feel that the Smoky Mountains were the most difficult section of trail?
Bobcat: Absolutely not. The Smokeys are primarily a ridge walk and there is very little elevation change once you are more than a few miles out of Fontana Dam. On the contrary I thought the Smokeys were slightly better maintained than other parts of the trail. Besides, parts of it are graded for pack animals.
HITS: Did you run into any dangerous situations; such as aggressive bears, wild boars, bad storms, an injury, etc..?
Bobcat: Not until I tore a ligament in my foot just before Pearisburg, VA. I’m not quite sure how it happened. It either made me slip and fall, or it happened when I slipped and fell. You're constantly turning things, tripping and sliding while hiking. I had to take 2 weeks off entirely (should have taken more) and gradually built up the miles until I was back where I was.
HITS: Did you ever experience what is described as trail magic, where something unexpected happened that lifted your spirits?
Bobcat: Not in the Smokeys but on other parts of the trail, yes. Gallons of water near road crossings in PA were more than magic since it was such a dry year. I think the best magic I found was in all my friends on and off the trail as I made my way to Katahdin. I received a lot of support and encouragement from a lot of different people.
HITS: What were your feelings when you finished? Were you glad to be back or did you have a civilization/culture shock? Did you feel like you just accomplished the ultimate life experience? Did the trail change you in anyway?
Bobcat: The trail changed my perspective on a lot of things, while I am still the same person I was over a year ago before I hiked the AT, my priorities have changed and I realize now what is truly important to me, it was tough adjusting to life off of the trail after hiking but it was just as much of an adjustment coming on to the trail, it just takes time. Hiking the AT has been the most rewarding and fulfilling experience of my life. I will never forget the friends I made and the experiences I had. The trail is very much a part of me as I am a part of the trail.
Angela is working on a web site which will eventually highlight her Appalachian Trail adventure as well as her hike along the Long Trail in Vermont which she did later on that same fall. Her site is at: www.angelapaul.com.