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Self-reliance and the Appalachian Trail experience


by Andrew Downs, ATC regional director

I turned 22 during my thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). After charging past an army of day-hikers struggling up Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire, I reunited with “Lazy Mike,” “Renegade,” and “Papa Squat” on the summit and celebrated by polishing off a fifth of Jack Daniels. The last time the boys and I were all together was back in Maryland on a hot day when some Trail Angels scooped me up, feverish from strep throat, and nursed me back to health. I spent a week at their campsite before I could get back hiking, then 100 miles behind my buddies. 

It’s experiences like these, in part, that made me fall in love with the A.T. and led me to work with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to preserve experiences like these for everyone. Now I look at those memories and realize while I remember them fondly, they weakened the A.T. for everyone.

After polishing off that bottle, we found a nice campsite just above tree line complete with a roaring fire just off the Trail. In the morning we left the black scar of the fire ring quickly and never looked back. Now I know that in all likelihood, some Ridgerunner or club volunteer found it, dismantled it, spent the morning naturalizing the area and included it in their report to the Forest Service, meaning my birthday celebration became more reason for increased regulation and an increased law enforcement presence on the A.T.

After recovering from my fever, the night before I left my medical savior’s campsite, a pickup truck came screaming up the road blaring “Welcome to the Jungle.” Out jumped four of my fellow thru-hikers, fresh off of a trip to town. Every camper within earshot was shocked out of bed and my friends got into a loud argument with the Trail Angels. Embarrassed by the behavior of my fellow hikers, I hit the road at dawn after thanking the Trail Angels and expressing my disbelief in the behavior of my friends.

Looking back on that night in the context of my entire thru-hike and the actions of hikers I see each year, the behavior is totally believable, and I see clearly how the attitude connects to the very Trail Angels I felt so bad for. We were kids on the vacation of a lifetime and a journey that has come to define adventure. It was often made easier by very well intentioned people going out of their way to make something difficult into less of a personal challenge. With people traveling hundreds of miles and spending thousands to give us beer, cook us burgers and cater to our blisters, how could we not have developed the sense of entitlement that cranked Axel Rose up to 11 or lit a raging fire in a place with a campfire ban?

Part of what makes the A.T. special is the community and the spirit of individuals experiencing the Trail as a means of sojourning among these lands, such that visitors may experience them by their own unaided efforts.”  

But a thru-hiker today might literally encounter trail magic at every road crossing in Georgia, effectively removing the opportunity for self-reliance and replacing it with something distinctly different. What is gained is obvious: the comfort and encouraging kindness of strangers. What is lost is harder to see, but it is the very core of the A.T. experience: the opportunity for self-reliance and fellowship with the Trail’s wilderness spirit.








10 Comments

  1. 10 bamboo bob 25 Feb
    I get it. ​ I've thru-hiked the AT multiple times. I've enjoyed Trail Feeds each time. I'm helping with a hiker feed this year. This one has been put on by a bunch of old timers who have been doing it for 16 years. Those who object can walk on by. The inference that if you stop for a drink and a sandwich you're somehow not experiencing the real trail is just wrong.
  2. 9 Aaron D. "Hydro" Raulerson 25 Feb
    A great reflection, and worth thinking about. Also a great companion to an article just published in the last AT Journeys magazine.
  3. 8 Matt Perrenod (Homeless '15) 25 Feb
    Thanks for this.  I like your perspective on how irresponsible behavior drives more intensive management of the Trail.

    Although I was always happy in the moment to benefit from a roadside feed, and appreciate the generous spirit that puts people there, I've come to see it as more complex. While people want to give, they've also got personal motivations, most usually a desire to connect or reconnect with the thruhiking experience. 

    Angeling can be selfish if we're not thoughtful about how we make that connection, and recognize that we might be degrading the experience, much as physical overuse degrades the experience.  ​The campers that nursed Andrew back onto his hike are truly angels.  But feeds at every road crossing in Georgia and North Carolina completely change your hike. It's not magic if it's predictable.
  4. 7 Bill Bailey(Bungalow Bill) 25 Feb
     I took my daughters class on a two night trip to Mt Rogers last May. It was a couple of days after Trail Days so we met a lot of Thru Hikers. Camped near them both nights and they were quite nice and considerete but in talking to them I felt something had changed in thru hiking. They talked of all the trail magic and all the hostels available to them. Most of them had phones and kept in contact with each other up or down the Trail. It left me feeling a little sad, like something of the thru hiking experience had been lost.           Bungalow Bill  Ga.to Me. 89' and 96'
  5. 6 turtur 26 Feb
    I still have 400 miles left to complete the trail but I do have an opinion on trail magic. It is both good and bad for many of the reasons stated by Andrew. My suggestion however, is to let it sort itself out rather than trying to regulate the circumstance. If too many people try to provide trail magic then it will become so commonplace that thru hikers will ignore the offers and the trail magic providers will simply decline to the level where it is a surprise and not expected. That will take years but the effort to regulate this will be in vane. In terms of how hikers act on the trail, my experience is that the vast majority(>99%) are respectful of leave no trace and keep the noise low policies.  Hikers are pretty good policemen/women in this regard. The ATC is remarkable in striking the right balance on these issues and I congratulate their effort and success.
  6. 5 thru hiker 27 Feb
    you're the regional director? good point, and shame on you
  7. 4 Lynn 08 Mar
    First time I've heard this spoken aloud.  I too believe in self-reliance and the trail head congestion is a problem. My intent in hiking is for peace and quiet, AWAY from the pressures of everyday life. I work a high stress job with lots of pressures at home. I don't need to make someone else feel good because they are giving me what I can provide for myself.  I'm hot/cold, tired and pushing myself to my limits; my intent is to do that alone. My journey is about me and not anyone else. 

    I love when I hike in winter and there is nobody at the crossings. For hours I am alone on my journey, not a soul in site.  To get to a road crossing and be able to cross alone without anyone seeing me, gives me a devilish delight and satisfaction knowing I can be part of nature, unknown to anyone and unencumbered by civilization. Within seconds of my passing, nobody will ever know I've been at that trailhead. I have escaped.
  8. 3 Vince 12 Mar
    Congratulations of completing the adventure of a lifetime. The courage and fortitude you exhibited in completing that challenge inspires us to all.
    On May 1, I am attempting a 21 day section hike, starting at Amicalola Falls State Park. While I have hiked very short distances and camped in the woods, I have not hiked since I was in the Army some 45 years ago.  My goal is to do at least 100 miles and I hope to hike 150+. We shall see.
    Anyway, I have a question. The AWOL book identifies places that accept mail and gives their address but I still have a hard time believing a business, such as a hotel, where I am not a guest, will accept and hold a package for me.  Since I reasonably cannot carry 21 days worth of food, I plan to mail drop 10-12 days worth to a hotel in HIawassee.  Can I just mail a package to the hotel and expect it to be waiting for me? Will they accept and hold it for me? Is there some other thing I have to do first?
    Thanks very much for your courtesy and cooperation.
  9. 2 Old School 15 Apr
    I'm often troubled by the nonchalance and sense of entitlement displayed by the "younger set" of AT thru-hikers towards the Trail Angels and the Trail Magic that follows.  Certainly not universal, but for me, even a single hiker that loses sight of the fact that trail angels are real people, with real kindness in their hearts, is disappointing.  They come to our rescue, help us out of predicaments, offer words of encouragement.  Stop taking them for granted.  Imagine your thru-hike without the lifeline they offer, and find a sense of gratitude in YOUR heart.  More often than not trail angels are retirees on a fixed income and limited resources that volunteer because they are kind, loving individuals.  Offer a buck or two for gas money!   They are not Angels, and it's not Magic.  They are real people.  They are our extended trail family.
  10. 1 Janet Hensley "Miss Janet 03 Jul
    I have never walked a single step of the Appalachian Trail for any hiker.

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