Becoming Part of An Annual Migration
2017 LASH: GA to SNP
Geese migrate north in summer, salmon return to ancestral spawning grounds in fall and each year thousands of people begin an annual thru-hike. Most stream north from Springer Mountain to Maine. Sure there are a few heading south against the current and still others will join the flow with an alternative itinerary.
As a flip flopper, I began my hike in April 2016 in the Shenandoahs, at the head of the annual migration of northbound hikers and knowing of no other hikers beginning at this point. The strongest were passing me daily.
Oh, Id overlap a few people from time to time, when someone went off trail to visit a boyfriend or girlfriend, or who slowed down to hike with a relative, or in a few instances, contracted Lyme Disease and had been home recovering before once again surging ahead. But for the most part, I rarely got into the pattern of seeing the same people or being a part of the same flock of hikers, until well into New Jersey, as we all headed toward the primordial pull of Mt. Katahdin.
Making friends on the trail is different this year.
This time around, as I hike the southern section that I had failed to finish last year, I am most definitely a part of the class of 2017 NOBOs and section hikers. And like migrating geese and spawning salmon, I find myself moving in and out of formations, stronger hikers pass me and I pass others struggling.
It is estimated that twenty-five percent of potential NoBo thru-hikers dont make it past Hot Springs, North Carolina. Another twenty-five percent drop out before reaching Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Already I’ve seen perceived strong hikers die off and weaker ones surge forward in pursuit of making miles. Throughout my second day on the trail this year, I kept leapfrogging another hiker. Like me, he carried a ULA Circuit backpack, hiked steadily and seemed to be doing just fine. I was shocked to learn that he had left the trail after only the third night. On the other hand, a week later, I ran into another hiker, heavily burdened, carrying way to much of everything, with massive blisters on both heels. Hes now ahead of me.
From the start, I began to see others on a regular basis as pace and interest matched. Like flying configurations of geese, wed pass by each other, then fall behind as one or another decided to make a shorter day, or take a longer break, or hike a blue blaze, only to catch up again somewhere up the trail.
And then the Smokies hit. Daily mileages become dependent upon the locations of the shelters, where you are required to stay each night. Once again I find myself matching pace with fellow hikers while a few stronger specimens surge ahead and others break off for a visit to Gatlinsburg.
While I walk mostly alone during the day, making notes about things I want to write about in the evening, listening to birds, or glued to a podcast, at days end, I look forward to seeing who is staying at tonights shelter or campsite and sharing in trail news and gossip.
Last fall, forest fires forced many of the southbound migration off the trail from sections ranging from Hot Springs to Georgia. One day, just north of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, I paused to talk to a woman heading south. She looked familiar. Turned out that we had met beforelast year at the Lake of the Clouds Hut in New Hampshire. She was back to fill in the piece she missed last year due to the fires. One passing night shared in 2016, after our individual conquest of the Presidentials in the Whites, another moment passing each other amidst North Carolina pines in 2017. That is the magic of the trail.
It’s taken me quite a while to finish this pithy piece of prose documenting 1500 miles on the Appalachian Trail. 200 miles found me in the vicinity of Clingmans Dome, in the Smokies, but already Im just about ready to turn the corner on my 300 mile/1600 mile mark. Still migrating northward.
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