Most of you are probably familiar with Cheryl Strayed (or at least Reese Witherspoon playing Cheryl Strayed in Wild). Her story introduced me to thru-hiking, basically hiking a long-distance trail end-to-end. To me, this sounds equal parts terrifying and exciting. To Katherine Denemark (trail nickname: Roots), it sounded awesome. The State College, Penn. assistant preschool teacher and her husband Eric decided to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, which only took six months and a day. Here’s their own wild story.
* * *
In 2014, you hiked the Appalachian Trail. Why? How long did it take?
“Why” is really hard. In the simplest sense, I wanted to hike it because it’s there to be hiked and it got into my imagination. I also really needed a break from normal life. I felt burnt out and confused, and I wanted time to think and breathe. Also, my husband promised he’d get me a puppy after. It took us 185 days, or six months and a day.
Have you always been a big fan of the great outdoors? Had you done a lot of hiking previously?
Yes. Growing up my family did most of our vacationing at state parks in our pop-up camper. Outside was the background to my childhood. My husband and I both love hiking and backpacking and do it to the exclusion of almost anything else during the season.
The Appalachian Trail is 2,185 miles long. How did you prepare physically? Mentally?
It’s really hard to prepare for a thru-hike unless you’ve done one before, because you just can’t fathom what you’re getting yourself into. At least I couldn’t!
Physically, if you do too much training ahead of time, you risk your body interpreting that as additional miles on the hike. The only real way to prepare your body for fifteen daily miles over a few mountains is to hike fifteen daily miles over a few mountains. So we used the first month or so to acclimate slowly and get in shape for the rest of it, rather than rush out of the gate. We did, however, do lots of weekend trips the summer before so we could test and refine our gear and systems.
As for the mental preparation, we were planning our hike for a little over a year, so during that time, if I was cold or hot or it rained on me, I treated it as practice. I did a lot of imagining and daydreaming, both about the challenges and the sweetness. I thought long and hard about why I was doing this and what I wanted to get out of it, so I’d have that to fall back on when the going got tough.
Did people help you along the way?
YES! One of the best parts of the hike was experiencing the goodness of people. I tend to be pretty down on humanity, but on the trail we regularly experienced incredible help from complete strangers. People left coolers of soda at random road crossings. They picked us up when we were trying to hitchhike into town even though we smelled really, really bad. They took us into their homes and fed us and did our laundry. A UPS driver met us at a road on his day off to hand me the new pair of shoes I’d accidentally sent to the wrong place. My mom sent us boxes of food every week or so and let me sob on the phone a few times. We definitely did not thru-hike alone. No one does.
What did you eat and drink along the trail? Did you camp every night? Can we briefly discuss bathroom and showers?
I was nervous about eating incredibly unhealthy trail food for six months. To get some quality fuel in, we dehydrated all of our dinners for the hike ahead of time, so we ate chicken, tuna or chili with veggies for dinner every night, and that was glorious.
For our other meals, we tended to stick to the same things for awhile until we got sick of them, and we were limited by what kind of resupply spot was available in town. Sometimes we had to eat for a week out of a gas station. Lunch for the longest time was cheese and summer sausage, and for another long time, a large bag of Combos. There were lots of bars, Pop Tarts, Nutella, peanut butter, bagels… whatever was light, calorie dense and struck my fancy. We filtered water to drink from springs and creeks, unless we happened upon a trail magic soda or beer.
We camped pretty much every night in our tent, though the AT has three sided shelters that some like to stay in. We’d go into town every six to ten days to get more food, and sometimes we’d stay the night in a motel. When we got to feeling really run down, we’d take a zero day, a day when you hike no miles. That meant two nights in a motel!
Bathrooms were the woods for me. Most shelters have privies. But the privy was way more disgusting in my opinion than a spot in the woods. As for showers, there are none. If we camped by water I would splash off my face and armpits and whatever else I wasn’t too tired to clean. Sometimes I rinsed out my shirt if I thought it would dry by the time I had to put it back on. But real cleanliness only happened in town.
Six months is a long time to spend with just one person, even (especially?) if it’s the person you’re married to. How did you handle the inevitable ups and downs?
It’s funny, people always ask me about this, but being with Eric (my husband) all day every day was one of the best parts of the AT. Before the hike, I’d be bummed every morning when we had to go off to our separate jobs. Eric was a huge support for me on the trail, never a drag to be with. I did ask him to shave his beard by the time we got to New Hampshire because I couldn’t stand looking at it anymore. And we did get a bigger tent after about 800 miles. I can count on one hand the number of times we were annoyed at each other enough that one of us hiked out of sight of the other for awhile. Being together was good.
I read Wild, so I know bringing excess crap is a big backpacking no-no. What items ended up being more useful than expected? Did you get rid of anything along the way? What non-essential items did you bring with anyway?
I was surprised by how much my sleeping bag and our tent functioned as a psychological comfort, not just shelter and warmth. I LOVED crawling into my downy bag inside my own little bubble at the end of the day. We sent back a few little things, like attachable lenses for the iPhone, bug headnets, and warm clothes during the summer, but we went out there pretty light. I’ll admit it was me who brought most of the non-essentials. I carried an extra shirt to wear in camp and for sleeping. For the first half of the hike I had the smallest Nook, so I could read at night. Once we were hiking till dark and I was too tired to read at night, I sent that home. The silliest thing was a little satchel of lavender I kept in my sleeping bag. Very worth it, though, to smell something nice and mask our stench.
Scariest moment on the trail? Most gratifying?
The scariest acute moment was when we startled a bear who charged right at us before he realized it and turned just a few feet away. The scariest time period was in Vermont and New Hampshire, when my body and energy were really starting to give out and we were afraid I wouldn’t make it. The most gratifying was easily when we summited Katahdin (the finish line).
It was also amazing to get to the Grayson Highlands in Virginia and see the wild ponies there. I’d been looking forward to that for so long!
What comforts of home were you surprised you missed? What did you not miss at all?
I missed being comfortable all the time, of course. We both missed drinking out of cups instead of a tube. It’s a lot easier to list things I didn’t miss: all my stuff, stress, driving, cement, being inside all the time, going to work.
The three biggest lessons you learned on the trail.
I can accomplish and withstand a whole lot more than I think I can.
I don’t need or even want much more than what I can carry on my back.
There are breathtakingly generous and good hearted people out there.
What was the first thing you did after you completed the hike?
Recover. I slept a lot, took baths, ate and ate and ate, and just did as little as possible.
Advice to someone looking to do a long hike, like the Appalachian or Pacific Coast Trail?
Give it at least a month. I saw so many people quit early on because they were slammed with the reality of what they’d undertaken, but just stick with it for a month, no matter how much it sucks. It takes time to adjust, and for me there was definitely a period where I sort of panicked, thinking I’d never be able to do this, before I started to believe I would.
Make sure you have enough money, more than you think. It’s hard enough without worrying about getting a motel room when you need to rest or buying food in pricey Connecticut. It’s worth it to wait one more year and save some more. Also, find someone who has done it to talk to. I’m totally available!
* * *
You can check out my other Everyday Eleanor interviews in the archives. You know you want to.
Are you an everyday badass? Do you live and work on a ship? Or make a living as a professional jockey? Maybe you’re one of those amazing people who works in hospice. I want to share your Everyday Eleanor story. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.