AT 2015

My 2015 hike began just past the point where the northbound trail stops weaving back and forth between North Carolina and Tennessee, and leaves North Carolina for good. My plan was to traverse the last 75 miles of Tennessee and emerge into Damascus, Virginia - the quintessential trail town. I left my car in Damascus and got a ride to my starting point, arriving just as hikers who had overnighted at a nearby hostel were heading out for that day's hike. As is often the case on the AT, it was raining. After an obligatory few hundred yards of hiking in the wrong direction, I soon got oriented and reversed course. Hikers who'd started a few weeks earlier in Georgia and had 400 miles under their belts were now in great trail shape and passed me in droves. Standing aside to let them pass gave me an excuse to rest, and when the weather cleared, enjoy a few views.

Eastern Tennessee Mountains

I've done AT hikes in the fall and in the spring. There are important differences. Fall hikes are generally cooler, even snowy at times. Northbound thru-hikers (those attempting to hike the entire 2,200 mile trail in a single year) are long gone, leaving mostly weekenders and the occasional southbound thru-hiker; the latter are speeding south and pass by in an instant. The majority of the fall nights I spent on the trail were in deserted shelters or campsites. For lovers of solitude, this is a good thing; for those who enjoy company, not so much.

Empty AT Shelter

Spring walks are usually wetter - often much wetter - and you will have lots of company. There are logistical advantages to attempting a northbound thru-hike in early spring. As a result, shelters in the deep south states are often packed, and good campsites can be hard to find. If you want social interaction, this is the time to be on the trail, as it can be hard to avoid people. It's also the best time to see wildflowers, and few places in North America are better for spring wildflowers than the southern Appalachians.

Gay Wings

There are other attractions, of course. It might be a waterfall,

Laurel Falls

a newly emerged Luna Moth silently unfurling its wings for the first time,

Luna Moth

or just the magical pull of the trail itself, calling you to see what's over the next mountain or around the next bend.

AT Entering Pond Mountain Wilderness

This year's hike was not my most memorable. In past spring hikes I usually fell in with a group traveling at roughly the same pace, and got to know several people. Not this year. Most thru-hikers had been walking for several weeks by then, were in great shape, and were moving much faster than me. I generally saw them once, as they sped past. One exception was a small group of hikers who seemed slowed by their need to smoke astounding quanitities of marijuana. I played leap frog with them: passing, being passed, and wondering whether I'd fail a drug test simply due to second-hand exposure.

On previous hikes I'd been sorry to watch my new friends continue their adventure without me. That wasn't the case this year. When I arrived in Damascus, I was ready to head home.

It will be interesting to see how the release of the film adaptation of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, will affect the trail. Most expect hiker numbers to surge next year as thousands draw inspiration from the film and decide to try their luck at a thru-hike. If the film is like the book, which is to say only loosely correlated with my experiences on the trail, my guess is that many would-be hikers will be disappointed and quickly give up.

Whether the anticipated hordes do serious damage to the shelters, hostels, privies, water sources and the footpath itself remains to be seen. Perhaps 2016 will be a good year to stay off the trail. Or maybe the overwhelming majority of would-be thru-hikers won't make it as far as Damascus, and I'll be able to pick up my hike there and continue north in relative peace.