Butterflies, bear shit and the miracles of hiking the AT



AT, north of Neals Gap, near Blood Mt, GA
AT, north of Neals Gap, near Blood Mt, GA

Why We Hike

Hiking the entire AT from end to end—known as thru hiking—is hard. The trail stretches from Georgia to Maine. You carry everything you own on your back, walking up and down mountains and sleeping in tents or three sided shelters. It’s almost 2,200 miles–6 million steps–of rain, mud, heat, wind and cold. The running water is a stream. You go days without washing your hair. You eat raman noodles every night for weeks. Normal people (i.e. non-hikers) can smell you from yards away. It is hardship and deprivation of such magnitude that only religious pilgrims attempt anything like it.

Doing your first Two-Oh—a 20 mile day—is a right of passage. The southern end of the trail–where most people start–is heavy with switchbacks and elevation changes, so hardly anyone starts out doing big miles. Maybe you start with just 8 miles a day, taking all day to get from one shelter to the next. I had exercised very hard for four months to get up to 6. You start where you are and walk, day after day. If all goes well, you hike farther and faster, increasing your mileage each week, continually beating your previous “best day” record. And then one day, you do it. And by the time you hit flatter terrain in Virginia, 20 mile days aren’t so hard.

Testosterone Poisoning

Most of the hikers are male and fall into one of these two categories: young men and men in a middle age crisis.

The “young” are 18-24 year old boys, hiking before college or between semesters. They’ve been skateboarding or playing soccer and have enough energy to power a small country. Their mornings involve Pop Tarts and bragging about the miles they will cover. “I’m gonna do a Two Oh today!”  And they do. For a young man in the prime of life and health, working up to twenty mile days might take only 3 weeks of hiking.

I am jealous of the young.

DSC_0330The second type of AT hiker is the 45-50 year old man, grasping at his youth. He was a hiker or a Boy Scout back in the day. Maybe he even hiked the AT once, half a lifetime ago. Lately his walking has been limited to moving between his parking spot, work cubicle and the couch, beer in one hand and remote in the other. He still wears the same size pants he did at 30, but the stomach paunch makes it difficult to buckle them. He can’t breath and bend over to lace his hiking boots at the same time. But it isn’t just age that’s forced Mister Middle Aged Crazy to the trail. Something has left him at loose ends. Usually, it’s a rocky divorce. He’s been caught with the babysitter, his secretary or perhaps the boss’ wife. He’s been downsized at work (perhaps because of the boss’ wife). His children have lives of their own now and prefer he would just send checks and leave them alone. In short, he’s lost his youth and his bearings.

It is a quirk of nature that Mr. Middle Age Crazy–let’s call him Mac for short–still has all the testosterone of an 18 year old, but without the resilience. Under the effects of Testosterone poisoning he takes to the trail to find himself. “I’m gonna hike 20 miles today!” Mac proclaims one morning. But he shouldn’t. And he can’t. You can will your body forward, but only for so long. Hiking on knees that are gone and hips that are out may be a matter of pride, but it is also stupid. You do not “beat” the mountain. The mountain will continue despite your best efforts. Mac will be forced off the trail with injuries, probably before he gets beyond the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

I, however, do not fit into either category. I am a timid, measured hiker, not prone to taking on more than I can or should do. I am sane. Well, I’m not insane. I wasn’t doing 20 miles. I would commit to 8 miles, maybe 10 if I felt good. No big proclamations, no pushing myself beyond reasonable limits.

It’s Contagious

DSC_0327I had taken three weeks off work to hike the AT, solo. The trip was every bit as exciting and interesting as I expected it to be. More so. But it was also hard. Very, VERY hard. Walking trails while carrying a weight on your back is an activity the body of an office worker simply rebels against. But that is the nature of hiking. And there are so many hills! In fact–and they never tell you this in the guide books–the entire trail is up hill. Both ways. Science will eventually prove me right.

Morning is the time where all things seem possible. The day spreads out before you, large and luminous. It feels as though you have enough time and energy for anything you set your mind to. The excitement finally got to me. I got cocky. I stood around the others drinking my morning coffee and blurted out, “I’m hiking 12 miles today!”  I tried to will the words back in my mouth. The rest of the group just nodded politely like someone just past eighty and senile had commented on the weather or some other obvious fact. And since the rest of the crowd was “the young” that is probably what they thought of me. Had I imbibed in their wafting testosterone during the night? (If so, testosterone smells a lot like unwashed underarms and dirty feet.) Maybe I shouldn’t have had that third cup of coffee. The proclamation didn’t sound like anything to them. But to me it sounded like a promise, and there are no words so inexorable as a promise made to one’s own pride.

So I took off, first one out of the shelter in the morning. I am not a fast hiker and by noon absolutely everyone had passed me. Even the boys that slept in and left at 11am,  made up for it by jogging by me, cooking pots rattling. No matter, I told myself. Just keep moving. Twelve miles is not so far. I could do it. Not that I had ever done it before, but I was sure it must be possible. I kept moving forward and hour by hour added to my miles. My pace declined, exponentially. Any slower and I’d be moving backward. By 3pm I was dragging at a mile an hour and had completed, optimistically, only 9 miles. I was faced with yet another hill. My feet hurt. My legs ached. There was a pain between my shoulder blades that felt like a knife. A dull knife.

It was at this moment that I lost my sense of humor. You can hike with pain. You can keep going when you are tired or hungry or thirsty. But humor, or at least a good attitude, is the most important thing you carry with you. The loss of it can ruin a hike faster than bad weather or injury. At the time, I did not think of it this way. I merely thought, “Whose stupid idea was it to hike this stupid trail anyway?”

DSC_0326The fact that it had been my idea only made me spout colorful, unlady-like language.

I needed rest. There was a large fallen log alongside the trail, rolled up against a standing tree. This may not sound comfortable, but this is the woods version of a Lazy-Boy chair, since you can sit on one and lean against the other. My vision narrowed to just this one spot and its promise of rest. I stumbled forward, too tired to even remove my heavy pack. I sunk onto the log, asleep before I had leaned back completely.

We Are Not Alone

The sleep was deep and satisfying and I’ve no idea how long I stayed like that. After some time had passed, however, a tiny portion of my brain told me that something was wrong. Something was on my left ankle.

I hesitate to say that I was “conscious” of danger. If I had been conscious, I would have been afraid. I didn’t have enough brain cells engaged for fear. At first I didn’t react at all. I just hoped that those three noisy brain cells would stop bothering me.

But the feeling that something was on my bare legs persisted. It kept moving, creeping up my calf, first on the left leg and now the right as well. I woke up just enough muscles in one arm to try to brush it away with a hand. But it was right back. In fact, it was moving about, crawling past my knees, up my thighs. Now something touched my bare hands, lying in my lap. Eventually those three brain cells were screaming loud enough to begin waking up others. Their argument went something like this:  “You are out in the wilderness totally by yourself. No one–and I mean no one–knows where you are. By adding to your miles today, you aren’t on the schedule you sent to your friends and family. That schedule said you were camping a mile back, remember?  Something is crawling on you. So it just might be a good idea to open your eyes, just for a moment, to see what is about to eat you.”  It was a hard line of reasoning to argue with.

So I opened my eyes. I was completely startled and immediately awake.

I was covered in butterflies.

The butterflies were very distinctive, small black wings with a bold white stripe. There were dozens of them and they were crawling on my legs, my arms and flying about my head like a halo. You hear about this sort of thing and you think what a wonderful thing it would feel like, but you never expect it to happen to you. Well, it IS a wonderful thing. It feels like a miracle, like you’ve been sprinkled with magic dust. It feels like a blessing directly from God. I am not a religious person but this had divine revelation written all over it. Angels had sent a sign directly to me telling me that I was where I needed to be and all was right with the world. I was rejuvenated and did not so much walk, as float, the remaining 3 miles.

This attitude continued for days. Every time it would start to slip, whenever I reached the “Whose stupid idea was it to hike this trail” point, I would begin to see these butterflies and be reminded of my blessing. It always renewed my spirit and I kept walking.

Or at least it worked until the last few days when I entered the Smoky Mountains.

DSC_0324The Smokys are known for black bear. Up until very recently, the shelters along the AT had a chain link fencing along their open side to keep the bears out. At night the campers locked themselves into it. And the trails there have a special “hazard” that you don’t find in guidebooks. You hear about what “a bear does in the woods.” What I had not suspected was WHERE the bear did this bit of business. As far as I can tell, when the bears of the Smoky Mountains heed the call of nature, they walk to the Appalachian Trail and “go” in the middle of the path. In the Smokys one dodges the piles, walking briskly if they happen to be fresh and steaming.

It happened that this section of the AT also had lots of those little black butterflies with white stripes on their wings flitting about. And you always saw them in the same place:  congregating on the bear shit. A check in a flora and fauna book confirmed it.

As hard as I tried to avoid it, the conclusion was obvious. These butterflies are attracted to smelly things that don’t move much.

Being covered in butterflies wasn’t a miracle. It was nature. Butterflies, for all our romantic notions, are insects, like house flies or ants at a picnic. Clearly, I had been so sweaty and ripe smelling and moving so slowly that I must have seemed to as appealing as a fresh bear pile.

If there is a divine presence, an all-knowing One-ness, He’s got a sense of humor.



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I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain, Mexico and Peru. I'm exploring the world and you can come too!

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