By Paul Denoncourt
It is amazing how different the southern half of the A.T. is compared to the northern half. Up North the greatest challenge is the terrain: “Rocksylvania”, The Green Mountains, the White Mountains, and the Mahoosucs of Maine. Down South, although the mountains are taller, they are less steep. Instead, the greatest challenge for me has been the weather: heat and humidity in Northern Virginia, cold rains in Southern Virginia, Hurricane Ian in Tennessee, freezing temperatures in Great Smokey Mountain National Park, and drought in North Carolina and Georgia. In the North the trail was less populated. In the South the trail has been crowded — mostly with “section hikers”, hikers out for a few days to a few weeks, especially during foliage season – making it difficult to find space in shelters and scaring away most of the wildlife. Finding water was not a problem up North. The South is in a drought; finding water is a daily challenge. The aquifer is so depleted by the drought that what rain the land received, even during the hurricane, was not enough to bring the springs and streams back to life. Water is heavy at 2.2 lbs. per liter. Some days I carried the water weight of an entire day (4 – 5 liters, 8.8 to 11 lbs.) in my already heavy pack, for 10 + miles!
I rode out Hurricane Ian with several other hikers at a hiker hostel in Erwin, TN. The storm broke apart over the mountains and it rained for 2 ½ days. Although I lost 2 days of trekking, the hostel owners threw a Hurricane Party with enough delicious food and beer that the leftovers fed us the entire stay.
As I mentioned, wildlife sightings in the South were few. Unfortunately, I had one encounter that did not go so well: I was attacked by angry Yellow Jackets! They came from a ground nest adjacent to the trail in Tennessee. I don’t know why they were angry, but they came after me as I walked by. I was stung at least 6 times including once on the face. I have been stung before and never had an allergic reaction, but I did this time. When I awoke the next morning, my face was so swollen that my eyes were reduced to narrow slits limiting my vision of the trail to about 15 feet. I was not near a town and I did not have enough food to take one or two days off to recover, so I hiked anyway. Surprisingly, being vertical while walking allowed gravity to pull the swelling fluid down, away from my eyes, improving my vision. Who would have thought that the treatment for a hiker’s severe allergic reaction would be to hike more?
Despite these challenges, I endured, overcame them, and pressed on. I also had many pleasant experiences. In Virginia, on a mountain called MacAfee Knob, I broke camp and hiked in the dark to an iconic rock overhang near the summit to watch the sun rise. It was spectacular! This picture is me sitting at the edge of the overhang. It is my favorite picture of the entire hike!
I met many interesting people, both hikers and non-hikers, trail angels – people who generously provide hikers with food and/or water (the latter being sorely needed in the drought-stricken areas) – and volunteer trail maintainers. I encountered hikers from ten different countries. There were also wonderful people whom I never met. Once I was eating with another hiker at a trailside restaurant. When we asked for our bill, the waitress told us another customer had anonymously paid our bill for us, including the tip! I am to this day amazed at the generosity I observed along the way. It has restored my faith in humanity.
The lack of water in North Carolina and Georgia brought home to me the fragility of aquifers and watersheds. Long distance hikers, being endurance athletes, rely on springs and streams for drinking water. But so does wildlife and, ultimately, all of humanity. Losing them to climate change or pollution hurts us all. It highlights the importance of the work being done by watershed associations like HPWA.
On October 28th I reached the trail’s southern terminus at the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia. The terminus is marked by a plaque in the rock ledge. This photo is me at the plaque. Yes! I did it! The entire 2200 miles! It was an emotional moment.
The trek took me 182 days. I lost 25 pounds of body weight. Other than beestings, I had no major injuries. Yes, there were many aches and pains, but they always resolved in time. It was the hardest physical challenge of my lifetime; I believe that at age 67, it was more difficult for me than it was for the twenty-somethings who constitute most of the through-hikers. It was also a mental challenge; many times, my mind suggested I quit, but I never gave in. It was also a powerful spiritual experience. I am very glad I did it. I believe it has changed me – hopefully for the better. But I’ll never do it again!
Finally, I want to thank my many friends and relatives who encouraged me along the way, the many trail angels (some anonymous) from whom I received aid, the many hikers with whom I shared the trail and shelters and from whom I learned a lot, the hostel operators who do what they do for the love of the trail without making a lot of money, and, most importantly, my wife who was my biggest supporter. She had to hold the fort at home without me for 6 months, bring me to Harper’ Ferry twice, pick me up in Maine and again in Georgia, and she drove to trail crossings to resupply me 6 times.
I hope you have enjoyed these Postcards. It is good to be home!
Paul gave a very interesting and delightful program on his Appalachian Trail Adventure via zoom for HPWA members in December. If you would like to view the recording it can be found on our website here