Appalachian Trail

Ten years ago today, I finished my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Since then, more than 7000 people have also finished their through-hikes of the AT. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy maintains that the completion rate has been consistently between 20% and 30%, so we can conservatively estimate that at least 35,000 people have attempted the AT in the past ten years. Pretty crazy!

And while there have certainly been growing pains with the number of hikers on the trail, overall I’m pretty happy about the fact that more people are getting out and enjoying the experience of long-distance backpacking. I hope that leads to more people getting involved in protecting the land and environment for future generations. Judging by the big increase I’ve seen in hikers on other trails, it’s certainly translating to hikers getting interested in more long-distance hikes. Good! If even one in ten through hikes is as life changing as mine was, I think it would be a good development for the world.

I’ve had to think often about how the hiking world has changed in the years since my hike (not to mention world as a whole), and it can be overwhelming to dwell on the changes. The obvious difference, the elephant on the trail as it were, is the introduction of smartphones which have made social media and other apps (ahem…) ubiquitous in the wilderness. I’ve also noticed a big difference in the number of businesses catering to long-distance hikers, especially hostels and shuttle services, and a vast improvement in how these services run their operations. I’m pretty happy about that, too.

It’s easy to look back at the way things used to be, and complain about the way things are now. I’ve certainly bemoaned my fair share of changes, and I count myself as lucky for having hiked the AT when I did. But I also think every Appalachian Trail hiker is lucky to have hiked the Trail whenever they did, be it 1997, 2007, or 2017. The challenges are different every year, and the culture will always change.

There will always be challenges to the experience of the Trail, and as long as there are people who care enough for it (like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and every local maintaining club), I hope it will change ever more lives for the better in the next ten years and more.

At the end of last summer, I spent a week on the Pacific Crest Trail with some of my old through-hiking friends. They’d all met me as “Guthook” long before I started making apps for the PCT and Appalachian Trail, but on this trip I tended to go by my real name rather than my trail name. In the past few years, I’ve started to realize that sharing my name with a series of popular apps can be a little awkward.

In the interest of keeping some anonymity, I usually put old pictures of myself on here instead of new ones.

In the interest of keeping some anonymity, I usually put old pictures of myself on here instead of new ones.

On the first night of the trip, one of my friends was talking with a through-hiker who was camping near us. He was more interested in telling stories about his hike than hearing what we had to say, but when she mentioned that all of us had hiked the PCT or AT in the past, he got more interested in us, so my friend introduced everybody. “I’m Dinosaur, that’s Kentucky Blue, that’s Guthook, that’s Cough Drop, Squirrel, Tau.”

“Wait, The Guthook?” was his response. I didn’t hear the end of that from my friends for the rest of the week. They thought it was hilarious.

Though we passed about eighty through-hikers during that week on the trail, only three found out that I was “The Guthook.” My friends introduced me to one, one recognized me from earlier in the year, and one asked me if I knew Guthook (he was referring to the app), to which I replied, “Well, actually…”

I’ve had plenty more funny meetings with hikers on the Appalachian Trail in the past few years, too. I particularly like the “I thought you’d be much older” reaction (I don’t know why they would think that). Or, “I pictured you as a balding, middle-aged, fat guy with Cheetos stains on his shirt.” (I really don’t know why they thought that!).

That’s always pretty amusing, but I usually don’t like to meet current through-hikers as “The Guthook” because it changes the power dynamic of our conversations. When I’m talking with another hiker who doesn’t know my trail name, they tend to look at me as more of an equal, or at least someone not unlike themselves. I’m just a former AT and PCT through-hiker. But when they find out I’m “The Guthook”, the tone changes a little bit. Some of that could be my imagination, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.

More than one hiker has called me a celebrity, which I totally disagree with, but that got me thinking of the nature of Trail Celebrities.

When I was first hiking the AT and PCT, there were Trail Celebrities like Baltimore Jack, Warren Doyle, Warner Springs Monty, Billy Goat– seriously accomplished hikers that everyone seems to know because they’re always on the trail and they are very involved in the trail community. Their celebrity is almost entirely limited to through-hikers and aspiring through-hikers, and they seem to really enjoy that. People enjoy hearing about them because they are so ingrained into the fabric of the AT and PCT.

Then there are the endurance athletes and adventurers, like Andrew Skurka, Jennifer Pharr Davis, and Heather “Anish” Anderson. These folks have wider appeal because they do things that are inspiring to the general public, but also to the specialized through-hiker crowd. Either way, they tend to be more focused on doing their own thing, rather than hiking the AT and PCT over and over again. People enjoy hearing about them because what they do is astounding.

Then there are three guys whose names everybody seems to know because our names are attached to maps and guidebooks, but very few people seem to know much of anything about us as people. AWOL, Halfmile, Guthook. We each have different levels of how much we let the public know who we are (I have this blog, AWOL has the book about his through-hike), but the average through-hiker seems to have much less knowledge about who we are than they would about Baltimore Jack or Billy Goat. I assume AWOL and Halfmile are perfectly happy with that. I certainly am.

When I first started this blog, almost seven years ago, I had dreams of being a “famous through-hiker,” known around the world for my epic backpacking trips. That didn’t work out. I don’t have what it takes to break records like Anish, or to trek alone for months in the Alaskan wilderness like Skurka– in fact, I haven’t been on a really difficult long-distance backpacking trip in more than five years, and I’m only now beginning to think of trying a few in the future. And, as my interactions with hikers in the past few years have shown me, I’m not really comfortable being any kind of celebrity, even if that means just sharing my name with my creation. Rather than becoming widely known for my explorations, a thing that I’ve created has become widely known for the usefulness it provides for thousands of other people. I much prefer it this way.

From Pleasant Pond Mountain, looking toward Big Moose Mountain (a Public Reserved Land unit).

From Pleasant Pond Mountain, looking toward Big Moose Mountain.

One of the strongest memories from my through-hike of the Appalachian Trail came at the top of Pleasant Pond Mountain, a low, rocky peak just east of the Kennebec River in Maine. One of my hiking partners pointed out at the miles and miles of uninterrupted forest and lakes ahead of us, and said in awe, “I can’t think of place back home where you can stand on a mountain and see a valley without farms and houses. There’s nothing man-made down there.” That off-hand comment made me very proud to call this state home, even though I could see a few small signs of humanity nestled among the trees. He was right, though– it’s not a common thing to be able to look out on such a vast wilderness in the eastern United States.

Pretty soon, though, that view may not be so wild anymore. A large wind farm has been proposed just south of Pleasant Pond Mountain in Bingham, which would be plainly visible from mountains as far away as the Bigelow Range and Moxie Bald. Both the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, and Appalachian Mountain Club opposed another nearby wind farm (Highland) in 2011 because of its impact on the views from the Trail, but so far they haven’t officially opposed this particular project.

Why would they oppose wind farms, you may ask? Isn’t clean, renewable energy something these groups would support? Sure. And they do, but not blindly. For all the benefits of wind energy, there are plenty of downsides– you’ve probably heard of some, like the impacts on bats and birds, or the tax credit incentives for building them, or the noise issues of turbines near homes. The issue that the MATC, AMC, and ATC focus on is the impact of the view from the AT.

The view from the Appalachian Trail, or from many of our other mountains, is easy to take for granted when weighing the benefits of clean energy. But even if you don’t think 450-foot tall wind turbines are an eyesore in the middle of the deep woods, there’s no arguing against the fact that they stand out, and that they aren’t a natural sight. A view of a wind farm, despite the marketing claims, is an industrial view, not a pastoral and natural one.

Walking beneath a set of turbines in the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm

Walking beneath a set of turbines in the Tehachapi Pass Wind Farm on the Pacific Crest Trail, most certainly not a view of natural wilderness.

Some people will argue that all wind farm development should be stopped, and others will argue that we should forge ahead with as many wind farms as possible right away, but neither extreme is an intelligent course of action. This issue is about balancing one need with other needs. There are plenty of places to site wind farms where there is less visual impact from the state’s most scenic vistas, and plenty of other options for clean, renewable energy in the state.

Here are some nifty links that show Maine already generates more wind power than the rest of New England combined, and Maine’s energy production is more than 50% renewable even without wind. It’s also worth looking at the Wikipedia overview of wind power in Maine to see what else is going on. As elsewhere, politics and money play a bigger role in building wind farms than any environmental concerns. In one recent high-profile case, a massive offshore wind farm project was cancelled due to boneheaded politics, though it could have tripled the state’s wind energy production– instead, we continue to see projects with relatively small production potential and high visual impact because they’re cheap to build and easier to push through the political machine.

I sometimes wonder what my hiking companion would have said had he looked out from Pleasant Pond Mountain to see an array of alien structures in the valley, with roads and construction filling the spaces between. Certainly not that he was impressed by the lack of humanity and development in the surrounding landscape. I’d rather visitors to my state fall in love with its forests and mountains as I have, than to see it as just another industrial landscape.

Bad behavior leads to consequences for the hiking community.

Bad behavior leads to consequences for the hiking community.

If you’ve been following social media about the Appalachian Trail over the past year, you’ve probably heard about problems caused by hikers behaving badly in towns or on the trail. It all culminated last fall when Baxter State Park Authority, the managing agency responsible for the northernmost 14 miles of the Appalachian Trail, sent an open letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy railing against behavior by many through-hikers. If you haven’t read the letter, you should, but here are a few of the issues it outlined:

  • Camping outside of designated sites, and/or avoiding the overnight camping fee in the Park, fully knowing that this isn’t allowed.
  • Bringing dogs into the Park, despite clear restrictions against them. This includes counterfeiting Service Animal registration in order to trick Park employees into letting the pets into the Park.
  • Flooding the summit of Katahdin in groups upward of 30 people (the Park’s group size limit is 12 people).
  • Drinking or doing drugs on the summit.
  • Carving names or initials into shelters and signs within the Park.

None of this behavior is acceptable. You’ve probably already heard that, because I’m not the first to say it. What I want to discuss is the reaction from the community at large.

The reaction from the hiking community has generally been split into three camps. The first set of reactions sounds like “we need to teach new hikers how to respect the gift that is the Appalachian Trail”, which I’ll call the “educators”, since their approach assumes the hikers with poor behavior just need to better understand the issues. The other reaction sounds like “we need to stop the hikers who are behaving badly”. I’ll call the second group the “enforcers”, since their approach is to fight against the behavior. The third sounds like “kids these days act like they own the world”, which I’ll call the “curmudgeons”. These viewpoints are very well displayed in the Spring newsletter from ALDHA (see the Letters to the Editor on page 8).

In person, you’ll usually find my reactions more on the “enforcer” side, but I try to keep a solid footing in the “educator” side, too. Enforcers and educators are both important in changing the culture of through-hiking, first by educating the hikers who don’t know that a certain behavior is harmful, and then by enforcing rules when someone continues with the harmful behavior regardless. Baxter State Park essentially threatened enforcement in their letter by stating they would consider closing the Park to through-hikers if behavior doesn’t improve.

The type of response to the new trends that has no place in the discussion, however, is the curmudgeonly response. When someone starts a complaint with “when I hiked the Appalachian Trail…” it’s usually about how things were better before lots of people started hiking the trail. As I pointed out last month, the number of people using the Appalachian Trail has been growing a lot, and it will never go back to the way it was. Just like people who wish for the days before computers and Internet and globalization, you can wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which hand fills up first.

The other common complaint of curmudgeons is the “hikers today have too much of a sense of entitlement.” These statements let the accuser dodge any responsibility, though the problem is really a cultural shift that has evolved over decades. If you want to get people to feel like they’re no more special than others, maybe you should stop treating them that way by giving them rides into town, free food, or places to stay. But it doesn’t matter what you do individually unless you influence other people as well. Otherwise, you’re just a complainer. Complaining doesn’t often influence anyone in a useful way. This is why the education component is so important.

I’ve mostly sworn off hiking on the AT during peak season because I know the crowds aren’t going away, and I don’t enjoy them. There are plenty of other places to go that are just as nice and have fewer crowds. And if I happen to see a through-hiker acting like a twit, I’ll be first in line to knock him down a peg or two, but until that time, that hiker is no different from any other hiker– whether he’s going 20 miles or 200 or 2000.

So I’ll say this to the curmudgeons who want to continue railing against a sense of entitlement or too many people on the trail: Find a way to fix the problems, or find another place where they don’t exist. You may enjoy yourself a lot more. Embrace change, and move forward.

If you’ve been on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail in the past few years, and thought, as I have, “there are a lot of people out here,” you’re not wrong. You may have also heard that crowds on these trails increased after popular books like “Wild” and “A Walk In The Woods” were published. This is also quite true. But few people have gone further than to show anecdotal evidence of this. Luckily, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has been keeping track of this trend for decades– since long before Bill Bryson set foot in Amicalola Falls State Park.

The ATC was very helpful in sending me some graphs to show the trend of increasing hiker use on the Appalachian Trail. The first graph shows the number of people per year who applied for the 2000-miler certification (whether as section hikers or through-hikers). You’ll see that the numbers generally climbed slowly from the Sixties through the mid-Nineties, with a few jumps after National Geographic published a book and an article about the Trail.

Number of 2000 Milers on the Appalachian Trail by year.

Number of 2000 Milers on the Appalachian Trail by year. Graph courtesy of ATC.

Once “A Walk In The Woods” was published, the numbers jumped by more than 50% over two years. What surprised me, though, was that those numbers started to fall after only a few years, and continued to fall until around 2008. Since 2008, though, the numbers have grown steadily. The graph mentions the National Geographic film on the Trail released to Netflix in 2009, but I would also argue that the increasing prominence of hiker blogs and social media online has spurred the increase as much as any traditional media. But that’s an argument for later.

The previous graph tells how many hikers finish the Appalachian Trail each year, that’s not the full story. Conventional wisdom says that about one-third of hikers who start the AT each year will finish. Another graph provided by the ATC shows the number of people who start the trail each year (this number is probably not 100% accurate, but it’s as accurate as we can get, and the trends mirror the number of finishers, so it’s probably quite good).

Number of hikers starting the AT from Georgia by year. Graph courtesy of ATC.

Number of hikers starting the AT from Georgia by year. Graph courtesy of ATC.

Again, I was surprised to see that the numbers of hikers dropped between 2000 and 2007 (apparently my year on the AT was the least crowded of the new millenium! Who knew?) before skyrocketing again. So will numbers spike after the “A Walk In The Woods” movie comes out this summer? My money says yes. And will the numbers gradually decrease for several years after? My guess is that if the numbers do fall after that spike, they won’t fall to pre-2014 levels unless something big changes in the management of the trail, the culture of hiking, or some other major external factor.

So what about the Pacific Crest Trail and “Wild”? The PCTA doesn’t give out numbers as readily as the ATC, but I put together what I could. A recent post on their blog reports that 2013 and 2014 were record years for thru-hiker permits issued, at 1042 and 1468, respectively, but what did things look like before? I went to their 2600-Miler list and counted entries going back to 1995 and compiled this graph. See if you can tell which year “Wild” was published.

PCT Finishers by year.

PCT Finishers by year. Graph was created in December 2014, so the 2014 number is actually now 432, about the same as 2012.

Reviews for the film “Wild” were much better than for the film “A Walk In The Woods”, including nominations at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Also, “Wild” was released in the winter, while “A Walk In The Woods” won’t see wide release until after through-hiker season is well underway.

So if you’re concerned about crowding on any of these trails, the next few years will be crucial. As the PCTA says in the above blog post, “Education Is Key”. Make sure your fellow hikers know how to protect the ecosystem around the trail, the physical treadway of the trail, and the culture surrounding the trails. Hopefully we can all enjoy the pleasures of a through-hike without crowding out the fun.