Sunday 17 December 2017

The Appalachian Trail: If you go down to the woods today...

Walk this way

Aine O'Connor
Aine O'Connor
The Appalachian Trail stretches through 14 states and stretches 2,200 miles, allowing visitors to get a real taste of nature
Dawn in the Appalachians
A walk in the Woods
Sign at Peck's Corner shelter
Charlie's Bunion

Aine O'Connor

As a book based on Bill Bryson's great walking adventure hits the screens, Áine O'Connor hits the Appalachian Trail.

There's a scene in A Walk in the Woods where protagonists Bryson and Katz pitch a tent and leave their backpacks nearby.

"Tsk, lads," I thought, "Tsk."

The film is based on Bill Bryson's book of the same name, in which he describes the months he and his old friend spent walking the Appalachian Trail. The AT, as it is known to its friends, is 2,200 miles of continuous trek route and crosses 14 eastern states in the US from Maine to Georgia, comprising an extraordinary variety of terrain. Bryson and Katz covered almost 1,000 miles in two sections over several months.

To get a taste of their adventure I'm covering a mere 20 miles of the Trail over three days and two nights, but in preparation I'd been reading up, and even I know backpacks cannot be near your tent. Tsk, lads, Tsk. 

Some things you do because you really want to and some because it would be a shame to miss the opportunity. A shot at hiking the Appalachian Trail fell mostly into the latter category for me, not because of the hiking itself but because a swift Google of the accommodations had revealed them to be a whole new definition of the word "basic". I don't camp, I don't glamp, indeed my version of roughing it is going somewhere without my lipstick. So hoofing around mountains with a backpack and no bathroom facilities, or beds, makes fish needing bicycles sound entirely reasonable.

Four of us were met at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina by Vesna Plakanis who has, since 1998, operated the hiking tour company A Walk in The Woods with her husband Erik. Both expert on all things Smoky Mountains it was happenstance that their company shared the same title as Bryson's bestselling book which was published just months after the firm's launch. In the film version, Bryson and Katz (Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) start their journey in Georgia, learning as they go. One of the lessons they learned the hard way is why not to leave your backpack near your tent. Fortunately, we have the Planakises to save us from hard-learned lessons.

Vesna is gorgeous, chatty and funny which really helps the four-hour drive from Charlotte to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. By the time we arrive in the Buckhorn Inn I am bamboozled by the 19 hours since I left my house and the five hours that did something over the travelled time zones. My belly cannot work out why I'm throwing steak at it some time in the early morning, my brain is slow but somewhere in its semi-functioning recesses there is fear - am I really going to spend the next two nights in some class of mountain shack?

Dawn in the Appalachians
Dawn in the Appalachians

I wake about 4.30 on Sunday morning, it's dark outside the window and inside my soul. I've managed to think myself into a total panic. How the hell am I going to cart my ample arse and a rucksack up a mountain? The part of the trail that Bryson and Katz walk in the film is mostly flat and wide. We're walking a part that is single-file and on a slant, up and down - up and down so much that it has earned its own acronym, PUDs, Pointless Ups and Downs. We'll be hiking between 5,000 and 6,900 feet, altitude can be tough, the humidity is huge. Apart from the sweating I'm going to have really terrible hair. Which, clearly, is a cause for major concern. The outfits are practical but heinous, and I have no make-up. It's terrifying.

Our guide for the three days and two nights in the Smokies, Erik, makes sure we are packed perfectly. The key is to have as little as possible and by the time they have finished my rucksack - the weight of which must be mostly on my hips rather than my shoulders - weighs just 19lbs/8.6 kilos. I say "just" ... that and another 6lbs of water is still a good bit to lug up mountains. We are deposited at Clingman's Dome which at 6643ft/2025 m is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and head down, then up, then down, then up and so on and so forth for four hours. We stop often to drink and learn, Erik explains how it's best to stop a short way into any hike to stretch ankles and leg muscles because this will make them less prone to injury on the uneven surface. We chew on elm that tastes like Wintergreen, taste huckleberries and discover what to do if we are confronted by bears. There are no grizzly bears in this part of the world - just black bears, and they are mostly vegetarian. They are likely to come after you only for your food, not to seek you out as a source of food unless you're dead or injured already. So, should a black bear confront you do not play dead, dig deep in your soul for anger and shout "bad bear" with as much venom as you can muster. And don't leave your backpack beside your tent.

Much of the walk is, appropriately enough, in the woods, through a huge selection of trees, some of them 1,200 years old. This was Cherokee land, many of the early white settlers were Irish and Scottish. According to one theory many of them were followers of King William, hence the term "hillbilly." Through gaps in the trees we see an extraordinary view down over acres and acres of forested hills and valleys. Then we hit the ridge that marks the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee, each state flowing out for miles beyond on either side. Rain and thunderstorms have been forecast but mostly hold off, it is perfect hiking temperature, warm enough for shorts and a T-shirt when you're moving but the humidity makes it sweaty work. To do it in rain gear would be like a mobile sauna. We walk along the ridge and back into the forest and just as the skies are about to open we reach our accommodation - Peck's Corner Shelter. I said some class of a shack, right? Well, a shack would have four walls, this just had three. On the back wall are two large shelves and first to arrive gets the top shelf where you unfurl your sleeping pad and bag and stake your claim.

There is a bench out the front on which to prepare food, you can't bring any in to the sleeping area because bears would smell it and come seeking your sammiches. The temperature drops rapidly and our sweat-soaked clothes become a liability. You could pop into the bathroom and get changed, but there'd have to be a bathroom, instead there's a privy down the hill, a half-enclosed toilet with sawdust. And this, we are informed, is high end - plenty of shelters offer just bushes and the famous orange shovel. Most hikers just sleep in their clothes. We get water from a spring and filter it through a double bag system then boil it to rehydrate our freeze-dried dinners. The Leave No Trace policy, and the bears, mean that what you don't eat you have to carry with you. Then we clean everything up, remove all traces of everything with a smell, including toothpaste, pack it away, wrap our backpacks in bin bags and hoist them 20 feet into the trees on a system of pulleys. Night falls with a clunk just after eight, we have head torches but the shelter is full and some are asleep by 7.30 so head torches and chat is deemed rude. It's cold too, so bed it is. Jet lag notwithstanding, I can't sleep so I play Candy Crush on my phone, try not to look too hard at the shapes moving in the trees a few feet away and hope desperately I won't need to pee in the night. I sleep patchily, the whole outdoors thing, the lying on a shelf with strangers thing, the bear thing, the altitude and the liberal snoring of some of our newfound sheltermates did not for a coma make.

Dawn lands just after seven, we have great chats with our sheltermates, there are lots of jokes about snoring over rehydrated breakfast, we pack up, leave no trace and head off. The morning hike isn't bad, it feels strange when we cross a road. The afternoon hike, however, is difficult and four hours of pretty steep, rocky and very sweaty hiking later it is a crabby, frizzy-haired loon who hits Icewater Spring Shelter. I hate that backpack. After coffee it is with no joy that I put it back on to descend (which means a return climb later) to Charlie's Bunion where we'll have our dinner. But Charlie's Bunion is really beautiful. By the time we get back there is little daylight left so we put on the thermals, hoist the packs and settle for sleep beside new strangers. There are rampant spiders and people have seen mice, someone felt one on his face. Feck this, I take a sleeping pill and wake, pleasantly unsavaged by vermin or bears, eight hours later to hike back off the trail.

It was an extraordinary experience, fascinating, beautiful, challenging and best of all one that took me far out of my comfort zone. But I still like bathrooms.

Dawn in the Appalachians
Dawn in the Appalachians

A Walk in the Woods opens September 18th

the Appalachian Trail

Aine O'Connor

There's a scene in A Walk in the Woods where protagonists Bryson and Katz pitch a tent and leave their backpacks nearby. "Tsk, lads," I thought, "Tsk." The film is based on Bill Bryson's book of the same name, in which he describes the months he and his old friend spent walking the Appalachian Trail. The AT, as it is known to its friends, is 2,200 miles of continuous trek route and crosses 14 eastern states in the US from Maine to Georgia, comprising an extraordinary variety of terrain. Bryson and Katz covered almost 1,000 miles in two sections over several months. To get a taste of their adventure I'm covering a mere 20 miles of the Trail over three days and two nights but in preparation I'd been reading up, and even I know backpacks cannot be near your tent. Tsk, lads, Tsk.

Some things you do because you really want to and some because it would be a shame to miss the opportunity. A shot at hiking the Appalachian Trail fell mostly into the latter category for me, not because of the hiking itself but because a swift Google of the accommodations had revealed them to be a whole new definition of the word "basic". I don't camp, I don't glamp, indeed my version of roughing it is going somewhere without my lipstick. So hoofing around mountains with a backpack and no bathroom facilities, or beds, makes fish needing bicycles sound entirely reasonable.

Four of us were met at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina by Vesna Plakanis who has, since 1998, operated the hiking tour company A Walk in The Woods with her husband Erik. Both expert on all things Smoky Mountains it was happenstance that their company shared the same title as Bryson's bestselling book which was published just months after the firm's launch. In the film version, Bryson and Katz (Robert Redford and Nick Nolte) start their journey in Georgia, learning as they go. One of the lessons they learned the hard way is why not to leave your backpack near your tent. Fortunately, we have the Planakises to save us from hard-learned lessons.

Vesna is gorgeous, chatty and funny which really helps the four-hour drive from Charlotte to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. By the time we arrive in the Buckhorn Inn I am bamboozled by the 19 hours since I left my house and the five hours that did something over the travelled time zones. My belly cannot work out why I'm throwing steak at it some time in the early morning, my brain is slow but somewhere in its semi-functioning recesses there is fear - am I really going to spend the next two nights in some class of mountain shack?

I wake about 4.30 on Sunday morning, it's dark outside the window and inside my soul. I've managed to think myself into a total panic. How the hell am I going to cart my ample arse and a rucksack up a mountain? The part of the trail that Bryson and Katz walk in the film is mostly flat and wide. We're walking a part that is single-file and on a slant, up and down - up and down so much that it has earned its own acronym, PUDs, Pointless Ups and Downs. We'll be hiking between 5,000 and 6,900 feet, altitude can be tough, the humidity is huge. Apart from the sweating I'm going to have really terrible hair. Which, clearly, is a cause for major concern. The outfits are practical but heinous, and I have no make-up. It's terrifying.

Our guide for the three days and two nights in the Smokies, Erik, makes sure we are packed perfectly. The key is to have as little as possible and by the time they have finished my rucksack - the weight of which must be mostly on my hips rather than my shoulders - weighs just 19lbs/8.6 kilos. I say "just" ... that and another 6lbs of water is still a good bit to lug up mountains. We are deposited at Clingman's Dome which at 6643ft / 2025 m is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and head down, then up, then down, then up and so on and so forth for four hours. We stop often to drink and learn, Erik explains how it's best to stop a short way into any hike to stretch ankles and leg muscles because this will make them less prone to injury on the uneven surface. We chew on elm that tastes like Wintergreen, taste huckleberries and discover what to do if we are confronted by bears. There are no grizzly bears in this part of the world - just black bears, and they are mostly vegetarian. They are likely to come after you only for your food, not to seek you out as a source of food unless you're dead or injured already. So, should a black bear confront you do not play dead, dig deep in your soul for anger and shout "bad bear" with as much venom as you can muster. And don't leave your backpack beside your tent.

Much of the walk is, appropriately enough, in the woods, through a huge selection of trees, some of them 1,200 years old. This was Cherokee land, many of the early white settlers were Irish and Scottish. According to one theory many of them were followers of King William, hence the term "hillbilly." Through gaps in the trees we see an extraordinary view down over acres and acres of forested hills and valleys. Then we hit the ridge that marks the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee, each state flowing out for miles beyond on either side. Rain and thunderstorms have been forecast but mostly hold off, it is perfect hiking temperature, warm enough for shorts and a T-shirt when you're moving but the humidity makes it sweaty work. To do it in rain gear would be like a mobile sauna. We walk along the ridge and back into the forest and just as the skies are about to open we reach our accommodation -Peck's Corner Shelter. I said some class of a shack, right? Well, a shack would have four walls, this just had three. On the back wall are two large shelves and first to arrive gets the top shelf where you unfurl your sleeping pad and bag and stake your claim.

There is a bench out the front on which to prepare food, you can't bring any in to the sleeping area because bears would smell it and come seeking your sammiches. The temperature drops rapidly and our sweat-soaked clothes become a liability. You could pop into the bathroom and get changed, but there'd have to be a bathroom, instead there's a privy down the hill, a half-enclosed toilet with sawdust. And this, we are informed, is high end - plenty of shelters offer just bushes and the famous orange shovel. Most hikers just sleep in their clothes. We get water from a spring and filter it through a double bag system then boil it to rehydrate our freeze-dried dinners. The Leave No Trace policy, and the bears, mean that what you don't eat you have to carry with you. Then we clean everything up, remove all traces of everything with a smell, including toothpaste, pack it away, wrap our backpacks in bin bags and hoist them 20 feet into the trees on a system of pulleys. Night falls with a clunk just after eight, we have head torches but the shelter is full and some are asleep by 7.30 so head torches and chat is deemed rude. It's cold too, so bed it is. Jet lag notwithstanding, I can't sleep so I play Candy Crush on my phone, try not to look too hard at the shapes moving in the trees a few feet away and hope desperately I won't need to pee in the night. I sleep patchily, the whole outdoors thing, the lying on a shelf with strangers thing, the bear thing, the altitude and the liberal snoring of some of our newfound sheltermates did not for a coma make.

Dawn lands just after seven, we have great chats with our sheltermates, there are lots of jokes about snoring over rehydrated breakfast, we pack up, leave no trace and head off. The morning hike isn't bad, it feels strange when we cross a road. The afternoon hike, however, is difficult and four hours of pretty steep, rocky and very sweaty hiking later it is a crabby, frizzy-haired loon who hits Icewater Spring Shelter. I hate that backpack. After coffee it is with no joy that I put it back on to descend (which means a return climb later) to Charlie's Bunion where we'll have our dinner. But Charlie's Bunion is really beautiful. By the time we get back there is little daylight left so we put on the thermals, hoist the packs and settle for sleep beside new strangers. There are rampant spiders and people have seen mice, someone felt one on his face. Feck this, I take a sleeping pill and wake, pleasantly unsavaged by vermin or bears, eight hours later to hike back off the trail.

Our final descent was a solo walk, we set off at five- and 10-minute intervals so we'd sample the pleasure that is walking alone on the trail. It was under 90 minutes and while I had been keen to see some bears, I was hoping my alone time would not be the moment one chose to appear. It was warm, bright, beautiful. I was dirty, my back was sore and I looked dreadful. But I did it.

It was an extraordinary experience, fascinating, beautiful, challenging and best of all one that took me far out of my comfort zone. But I still like bathrooms.

A Walk in the Woods opens September 18th

Three to try

Charlie's Bunion (5,565 ft/ 1696 m) is a mountain with a rock overlooking a sheer drop situated on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. We hiked to the top, cooked some dinner, drank some Moonshine (proper Moonshine not tourist Moonshine, apparently) and had some silent time as the sun set behind a mountain covered in 1,200-year-old trees. One of those moments I'll carry with me for a long time.

Icewater Spring shelter might not be the most luxurious place I ever slept but it did have one of the best views. It is  over 6,500ft over sea level, in a clearing and positioned so that from our sleeping bags we could watch the sun rise. As the light turned a hundred shades of orange and pink, it was clear that there are some advantages to not having a fourth wall in your bedroom.

Vesna and Erik Plakanis say that when they hike together it can get competitive because they are both so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the Smoky Mountains. Their hiking vacation company, A Walk in the Woods, is the oldest in the area and they have won many awards. They can tailor a trip specifically, offer full guided tours or simply hiker shuttle services from one area to another. 

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