Letter to an Appalachian Trail Hiker by Amiththan Sebarajah

Letter to an Appalachian Trail Hiker by Amiththan Sebarajah

Dear friend, 

I can only imagine some of the feelings you must be feeling. And all those questions: Is my pack light enough? Boots or trail runners? Will it rain in Maine? Will I get sick of ramen?  Are two pairs of underwear too many?

Will I make it?  

I can offer you a story.  Maybe it will give those butterflies in your belly something to land on. 

The first time I went for a big hike on the Appalachian trail, my gear wasn’t even an afterthought.  I didn’t yet know what I didn’t know.  Yet I knew the pull—that nameless one, the one that took me thousands of trail miles to cultivate and recognize.  It’s what you feel when you see an apple pie cooling off on the kitchen counter.  It’s not necessarily the delight that it promises, but that it evokes something far more profound, like the homesickness for a place that you feel in the settled hush when you close your eyes and take deep, deliberate breath. 

The Welsh have a word for this: Hiraeth.  Sometimes it’s a longing for a place. Other times it’s an empty chair and a full plate you set aside at the feast for someone you miss. 

Mine was for something I didn’t yet know. 

It happened this way.  

Three friends who met at an Irish literature class in university had the week off.  One of the friends had a car.  There was some Guinness involved and a wedding in Dayton, Ohio, a day’s drive from Toronto.  The Smoky Mountains National Park was another day’s drive and the weather gods were in fine spirits. We decided on a three-day hike and I was ecstatic.  

Now, I have never put on a backpack and hiked before and three days were a long time to be out in the woods.  I went to the nearest Canadian army supply store and bought myself a Norwegian military rucksack.  I didn’t really know about sleep systems or base layers or water filters.  I found a 4-person tent at Walmart, then went to the nearest Chinese supermarket and picked up a few pounds of dried fish, because, you know, protein, and several bags of mung-bean threads.  I had volunteered to be in charge of our camp dinners.  

My friend brought the 16 oz Coleman propane canister and a screw-in stove top.  I was prepared to cook gourmet dried-fish noodle soup on open fire the entire time. This was high tech. I was pretty impressed.  Although Dwight and Perry had recently invented the Jetboil, I had a habit of avoiding dedicated outdoor  stores and outfitters.  Outdoor stores featuring super fit outdoorsy people pursuing super fit outdoorsy activities intimidated me. The entire space, the advertisements, the models, the price tags, sometimes even the indifferent staff,  felt like it was made for others more affluent, experienced, possibly less melanated than I was. –I didn't really feel like I belonged in that type of space.  Sometimes, to some folk, access to gear and the outdoors  isn’t so simple nor straightforward as going to the nearest outdoor retailer. 

In retrospect, we were pretty lucky to have remembered to bring plenty of snacks.  But I digress.

The wedding was a lot of fun. We even danced in the streets and I discovered the joy of live bluegrass music.  We hit the road the next day only slightly hungover. We felt that a pit stop at a KFC in Kentucky is requisite. Even though this  was ill-advised everything felt novel.  I have never been south of New York before and here we were in bluegrass country: home to Tennessee BBQ, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Dollywood and the legend herself.  It was like walking through the wardrobe and into Narnia,  except, of course,  it was summertime in the Appalachia. 

That evening, at an all you-can-eat buffet at Shorny’s, we traced out a 41 km loop on a paper map—that’s nearly 25 miles for the Americans:  then the longest expedition of my unsullied life in the big city—albeit a Canadian big city—as a twenty-something.

I remember walking into the Sugarlands  Visitor Center to get a permit and feeling simultaneously starstruck and a bit ridiculous.  I mean: people knew what they were doing.  Some of them had machetes, some had long lengths of rope and backpacks that looked nothing like mine that probably didn’t see any combat action in the frozen tundra of Scandinavia anyway.  Someone asked the ranger about the visiting hours for the bears.  I felt that we were in for the wilderness trip of my life, truly.

What I remember most about that pre-trip orientation though was the ranger telling us to pay attention to the light. “Relax your eyes and let them adapt to the cool, green, dappling light,” she intoned and she may as well have spoken from a pulpit: “ you’ll see a lot more than you think you might.”  To this day, I remind myself to pause or keep myself awake for those liminal hours when the alchemy of light can recast and transform the landscape--and with it your place in that fleeting magnificence.

I struggled on the hike. I was caboose the whole trip and was grateful that my friends weren’t proponents of the F-U stops.  A couple of times, I spilled all of our dinners.  I took many breaks on the climbs.  On our first night in the woods, we heard a twig snap in the twilight.  As if on cue we all shouted and hollered at what was surely bigfoot or at least a sleuth of ravenous black bears not respecting the intended visiting hours the gentlemen earlier had asked about.  I am not sure if we scared anything else but we did a good job of scared ourselves.  We took turns peeing around the tent, just to be sure. 

On the second day, we reached Clingman’s dome.  I hadn’t expected there to be so many cars; nor did I realise you could have simply driven here.  Nevertheless, I still felt accomplished and was beaming when I caught up with my friends atop the spiral pathway.

I’ll never forget the incredulous, dismayed look I received from a South Asian family that day.  Mother, father and their teenaged children, a boy and a girl, had driven up to this spot and were engaged in a conversation with my friends about the hike. “They looked at you like you were from another planet, with that silly army surplus pack of yours and a tent strap to it at the bottom,” my friend said to me years later.  The family couldn’t believe that someone who looked like their nephew had walked through the forest, slept in on the ground, drank water from the streams, and had hiked all of 25 miles to a parking lot.  By choice.  They couldn’t believe it.  To them, I may as well have been the bigfoot we didn’t see the night prior.   Their incredulity told a fundamental story about the perceptions and realities of who belongs in these spaces.  I would come to know this story rather intimately, near the midpoint on my Appalachian trail thru hike, when I’d spend a night at a reputed station on the underground railroad on the 4th of July at Furnace Grove, PA.  

I’d meet six thru hikers who weren’t white on my northbound thru hike in 2013 on the Appalachian trail. It’d take several more years for the first person of colour, at least on record, to complete The Triple Crown. 

That night, however, I didn’t care about any of this, nor had the energy to unpack this moment. Diversity wasn’t yet a hashtag.  Social and media were separate words not yet a portmanteau; and Guthook was an intrepid hiker with a cool idea-- and I am not sure if he was ever prone to saying far out, man. Besides, I didn’t know that thuhiking was a thing.  I didn’t even know that I had been hiking the fabled Appalachian Trail. I was tired, hungry and just way too excited to spend the night at a genuine shelter for genuine backcountry people.

The hikers kicked us out of the shelter, of course.  Trail Dawgs, as the young men called themselves, were thru hikers.  They had hiked 12 miles that day and were going to Canada. There was a young woman there as well. She was finishing a section hike as part of a multi year thru hike.   People were really going to Canada. On foot.  This is possible.  This was amazing.  

I can’t recall the rest of that evening or much of the conversation around the campfire.  I do remember walking out of my tent in the middle of the night to look at the night sky.  There was to be a meteor shower that night, but we were in the Smoky Mountains and it was quite overcast.  I imagined what the night sky must look like beyond those clouds.  I stood there for a long time until I had goosebumps. I knew it wasn’t just the cold creeping in. By the time my breath turned to mist, something ineffable had slipped within me.  I peed in the woods, zipped up my Fila jacket and crawled back into the tent.

The next morning, as I spilled our lunch yet again in the parking lot, something wonderful happened.  A stranger walked over to us crouched next to my spilt fish soup, and proceeded to make peanut butter fluff sandwiches. She asked if any of us would consider thruhiking the AT some day.  I said I'll look her up if I do.    Five years later,  I was at the Arches at Amicalola, one day before my birthday with one goal: make it to a white blaze.

I found Phoenix Rising in Maine. She had stayed with Honey and Bear’s Cabin in the Woods earlier that year to help out and had left one of her books behind. It was A Memoir of a Geisha.  It is not usually the sort of book I’d pick out, let alone randomly, out of the hundreds of books that were available to me that day.  As I flipped through the pages, I came across a note she left: Dear hiker, you made it this far. Keep going – Phoenix Rising. That day, as is custom, it rained in Maine. It had been a sodden week and nobody wanted to hike. Ever attuned to  the general mood in the hostel and the state of hiker finances at this point of the long walk,  Bear walked into the common room and proclaimed that he would strike a bargain with us:  One dollar to stay the extra night and all you can eat pancakes for breakfast.  When I finally met her again in person, I was on my third thru hike: the Ariona Trail. Phoenix told me then that we looked like a sorry bunch staring at spilt soup and that she just had to help. Phoenix Rising is still my friend and my very first trail angel. When she dropped off at my last resupply point on the AZT, she gave me a little birthday gift: another peanut butter fluff sandwich. The trail shows itself to be magic in so many ways. 

In 2013 I completed the Appalachian Trail. The hike changed me in ways I didn’t or couldn’t anticipate.  The people I met along the way are still some of the best people I know.  And nearly 9000 trail miles later, Katahdin is still the perfect mountain.

The trail taught me to trust my instincts, that people can reveal their absolute best and their worst in unexpected ways.  It taught me to say yes to the next step even if you don’t really know where you might end up.  It taught me to carry the weight and showed me how to let go. 

And this year, like Bilbo: I want to see the mountains, Gandalf.   To be there; And back again.

More than a decade later, the thought of walking through the hallowed arches at Amicalola State Park still gives me goosebumps.   Things are a bit different this time around, of course.  I know my pain thresholds; I know my sleep system; I know how to make the most delicious, nutrient and calorie packed sate noodles from ingredients sourced from lonesome gas stations.  I definitely know how many footsteps I can eke out from a pocket full of peanuts.  I know my body, and I know my mind.  I know how to be alone and enjoy my own company. 

But:  I can’t tell you how to pack your bag for things that you don’t yet know.  I can’t tell you how many miles you need to crush or what brand of footwear will get you to the terminus. There’s really no such thing.  So much of this stuff is quite personal. You’ll come to see that.  No one will hike the miles for you.  You can never hike away from yourself. The trail will catch up to you, whether you want it to or not. You walk a path and a trajectory of your choosing. If you are patient, humble and receptive the trail will teach you.  There is no one magic formula for a thru hike.  

The Appalachian trail remains one of the most difficult trails I’ve yet hiked and also one of the most forgiving and generous.  It will be one of your greatest teachers and, if you are lucky,  among the great romances of your life.  The trail is the magic. 

In the meantime, bring your baggage, so that when you are ready, you can learn to let go and carry your weight.  Trust me, you’ll unpack things in due time when it’s all done.

I can’t wait to see you out there. I am rooting for you. 

In story and stride, 

Swani Bittergoat

AT, AZT, PCT, CDT (Montana) – US |WCT, GDT– Canada| Te Araroa ( Aoteoroa / New Zealand) 

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