Thru-hikers all want different things out of the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to learn to play guitar.
I was nineteen years old when I set out from Springer Mountain in March 2004, and I was carrying a little extra weight. Besides the essentials—food and water, clothes, my sleeping bag—I had extra strings, chord diagrams, books of folk songs, and, strapped to the outside of my bag, a steel-string Martin backpacker guitar.
I’ve always associated the outdoors with music. Growing up on the coast of Maine, no weekend trip was complete without a jam session under the stars. My first heroes were my camp counselors, scruffy college kids who led campfire sing-alongs. But I knew my friends were as weary as I was of hearing the one Dylan song I could muster each time an instrument was passed my way. I decided I would take a semester to walk America’s original long trail and focus on the essentials: food, nature, and music.
As it turned out, packing a guitar down the trail was harder than I thought. The second day of my trip brought pouring rain; a week later, it still hadn’t let up. As the trail climbed into the Great Smoky Mountains, the torrential rain turned into hail and snow. Winter was dragging on, and I was pushing the limits of innovation to keep that Martin dry.
At road crossings, I noticed piles of discarded gear that hikers had left behind: camp chairs, clothes, board games, and juggling balls. When it came to what they carried, veteran backpackers lived by one motto: less is more. Only a fraction of the people who started the Appalachian Trail would finish, and it seemed that stripping down to the bare essentials was what set them apart.
Slowly but surely, I became a student of lightweight backpacking. I tore pages out of my guidebooks as I read them, and cut unused buttons and zipper pulls off my clothing. But there was one possession I couldn’t bring myself to give up, and my growing constellation of blisters was a daily reminder of that load.
Obviously, hiking the A.T. means a lot of walking. To trek across fourteen states between the end of one winter and the beginning of the next requires constant movement, a voracious wolfing down of miles, twenty-five or thirty a day. There are steep ascents through thinning woods, and treks across sharp, rocky ridges. Often I’d hike into the night, listening as the sounds of the forest morphed from the whistles of yellow warblers to the ghostly calls of barred owls. By the time I set up camp, I’d be far too tired to contribute my own song; I’d have just enough energy to make dinner and crawl into bed.
One night at Clingman's Dome, a 64-year-old man named Longshot dropped some wisdom on me: Wouldn’t an air guitar be lighter? The next day, I hiked to the Gatlinburg post office and purged my pack of five precious pounds of weight, along with a coveted dream.
I summited Katahdin on August 28, just as the first hints of fall were reaching Maine. I was no closer to starting a bluegrass band. But I had spent almost six months listening to symphonies of cicadas, choirs of coyotes, and roaring summer waterfalls. And that’s the best music of all.