Hiking isn’t just a hobby—it’s a lifestyle. Maggie Slepian tackles the hiking life—and all of the joys, problems, arguments, and weird quirks that go along with it—in her column.
It had taken years for my goal of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail to become reality, but in early 2015 everything was falling into place. I was able to take leave from work, I had a flexible lease, and I was financially stable. The timing seemed perfect—except that I was in a promising, semi-new relationship and I wasn’t sure it would survive six months apart.
My boyfriend Hunter was many things: a house framer, a dirt biker, and an avid hunter and fisherman. But he was not a backpacker. His only nights outdoors had been spent in a wall tent during elk season, and the concept of hiking for fun was out of his realm. However, when I broached the subject of thru-hiking the AT, his reaction was eager and immediate: “I’ll go with you.”
I was shocked, but I rolled with it. Hunter was game for just about anything, and while I had my concerns about completing the trail in its entirety, his cheerful personality actually gave me some confidence.
I wasn’t a very experienced backpacker at the time, but I did have a basic understanding of outdoor gear, backcountry travel, and trail apparel. A few months before we left, Hunter and I were browsing gear, and I asked if he’d figured out his hiking clothes.
“I’ll just wear my Carhartts,” he said, thumbs hooked in his belt loops. “They’re my most durable pants.” Clearly we had a lot of work to do.
With scant weeks left until we set off, we dedicated ourselves to preparation and research. We wound up with more or less standard sets of gear for first-time thru-hikers. Our packs weighed over 30 pounds each; we would end up replacing nearly everything by the time we hit Damascus, Virginia. But as we started heading north from Springer Mountain, we were confident we had enough gear and the guts to at least start bumbling up the trail.
One of the great things about the AT is that there are a lot of first-time thru-hikers out there. Not so many first-time backpackers, but Hunter didn’t stand out too badly in the spring herd. He was naturally amiable, much more than I was, and he made trail friends easily. I was surprised at how good-natured he was despite the frigid nights, lack of creature comforts, and dreariness of the frosty Georgia forest.
For someone who had been convinced that Carhartts would be good thru-hiking apparel, Hunter turned out to be an adept long-distance hiker. He was a hard worker at home, and was used to being outdoors for long hours at a time. I had secretly wondered if we’d make it out of Georgia, but we snapped a selfie in the freezing rain at the Georgia-North Carolina border and kept plugging away. One by one, we watched people in our initial hiker bubble leave the trail, and marveled that we were somehow still out there.
At one point, he told me that he’d committed immediately to hiking the Appalachian Trail without knowing what it was. It had taken him a few conversations before context clues made it apparent the trail would take more than a few days
By the time we crossed into Virginia, it was hard to differentiate the hikers who had never backpacked prior to the AT to those on their last leg of the Triple Crown. Hunter was one of them: It was difficult to believe a month earlier he’d never backpacked a night in his life.
He hadn’t lost his opinions, though. As we crossed off each hundred-mile marker with ease, Hunter was honest about his feelings regarding long-distance backpacking.
“I’m happy we’re doing this,” he said on one blistering hot day, adding a flavor packet to a murky bottle of water in Pennsylvania, “but backpacking is really pointless.”
He was jovial about his perceived fruitlessness of the endeavor, but as we crossed the halfway point and began moving even more efficiently, he began to take great pride in the hike. Suddenly, the idea of reaching Katahdin seemed not merely possible, but likely. We had a natural rhythm as a hiking pair, each of us walking alone for some of the day and together for other parts. In just a few months, Hunter had accumulated more backpacking miles than many people would in their lives, all in one trip.
The AT was a shared life experience for us. We groaned about the PUDs—pointless ups and downs—and agreed that New York was particularly awful, while New Jersey was pleasantly surprising. We stuffed ourselves at all-you-can-eat buffets and pitched our tent by habit in the dark. Hunter’s hair grew nearly down to his shoulders. Sometimes, during breaks, we’d marvel that Hunter’s first backpacking trip was already well over 1,000 miles long. At one point, he told me that he’d committed immediately to hiking the Appalachian Trail without knowing what it was. It had taken him a few conversations before context clues made it apparent the trail would take more than a few days
“I was committed by that point,” he said laughing. “I just tried to hide my horror.”
This hike had been a surprise for both Hunter and I. I’d been thinking of thru-hiking the AT for years, but never with a partner. When Hunter volunteered to accompany me, I had been open minded but wary. This was 2,000 miles of shared experience, and soon we’d be back to our lives, with some overlapping interests but different hobbies. For his part, he was attached to the trail, but eager to get back to building houses, riding his dirt bike, and shooting his bow to prepare for archery season.
We kept going. We cruised through Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness in just a few days, arriving at the base of Katahdin for our final climb on a sunny morning in early August. I touched the sign at the top, crying through waves of emotion. Then I stepped aside for Hunter to touch the wooden boards and officially end his hike too. He shook his head, smiling in disbelief.
Then, almost to himself, he said, “Finally. I really hated that.”