Every year, 2 to 3 million visitors walk a portion of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). Only a fraction of these hikers attempt the entire trail – and of those who attempt a thru-hike, only one in four successfully complete their journey. This year, L.L.Bean employee Cori W. was one of those successful hikers! She spent just over five months on the trail, starting in Georgia on March 9 and finishing her hike in August in Maine. Now that she’s sufficiently rested, we decided to ask her a few questions so she could share her experience with readers on the Trailmix blog.
How did you decide to hike the AT? How long have you wanted to hike it?
I decided to hike the AT one night shortly after Thanksgiving last year. I was in need of a change in scenery and a challenge, and after a conversation with my best friend I realized that a thru-hike was actually possible.
Hiking the AT has been on my “bucket list” for as long as I can remember. My parents met while backpacking across the country in 1980 with a group called “Hike-a-Nation,” so the outdoors was a big part of my childhood.
What sort of training/planning went into the trip?
Admittedly, not a whole lot of planning or training went into the trip. Starting in January, after I bought a sleeping bag and was able to borrow a pack from a coworker, I spent any time I had two days off in a row on trail, or at least attempted to. They were all failures, but they made my resolve that much stronger. As soon as I got home I would make a hot cup of coffee and spend hours figuring out what went wrong and how to fix it.
When did you start? What did those first days on the trail feel like?
I started on March 9. After very little deliberation, I decided to start the AT with the Approach Trail that begins at Amicalola State Park, 8.8 miles south of Springer Mountain (the AT’s southern terminus).
I enjoyed the company of my mom and brother on the Approach Trail and my first night on trail at Springer Mountain Shelter. The next morning, after waiting for my mom and brother to finish packing up, my mom finally told me it was OK to go…and I never looked back.
Everyone tells you to start off small, only hiking 8-10 miles a day in the beginning, to get your body used to the fact that you’re carrying a full pack AND hiking up and down mountains. So my real first day on the AT was 7.9 miles to Hawk Mountain Shelter; even though I started after 9 a.m., I still made it there before noon.
Over the course of the first weeks I made many friends and created my first trail family (commonly referred to as a “Tramily”), though by the time we hit the Smokies we had all gotten separated – some I would not see again until The Whites of New Hampshire. One of the great things about being out on the trail by myself was that I answered to no one and if I wanted to hike 36 miles in a day, all I had to do was believe I could and just do it.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
Yes, but never for more than 30 minutes. A common saying on trail is “The Trail provides,” and it always did just that whenever I was feeling down on myself. Sometimes it took support from other hikers, or support from home. Sometimes it would be as simple as running into Trail Magic.
Any instances of Trail Magic that jump to mind?
The trail was overflowing with Trail Magic. In the south we would come across church groups, scouts or families set up with pop-up tents and goodies, sometimes including full meals, and some would even go out of their way to drive us into towns so that we could shower and resupply. Once I hit Virginia there was less of a human presence, and we started to see coolers of goodies instead. In New York, I ran across a box of first aid supplies, and nearly at every road crossing there would be jugs of water because residents knew that the water supply was lacking in that section of trail.
Did you have any favorite sections? Any particularly rough ones?
Pennsylvania was my favorite section. Although the Smokies and Whites were amongst the most beautiful, I enjoyed rocky Pennsylvania. It was tough on my feet, but I was at the top of my game and with people that I truly enjoyed hiking with.
Southern Maine was definitely the roughest. You would climb hand over hand up a mountain only to “fall off the face of the earth” (pretty much straight up, straight down), several times a day. I went from lazily doing 14 miles a day (generally starting around 9, taking several breaks and finishing the day around 8:30 with energy to spare) throughout Massachsetts and Vermont, to doing 15 in the Whites with an effort, to struggling to complete even 12 miles from 7 a.m. until sundown while in southern Maine.
Did you get a trail name? What’s the story behind it?
I did! In Hiawasee, Georgia, (my first town resupply), exactly a week from when I started the trail, I made it a goal to acquire one before the next town resupply. A woman I was hiking with at the time offered the name “Zephyr,” which means a cool breeze, because a couple days before I had shown exactly how comfortable I was on trail. I added it to a list of possibles, but wasn’t sold.
I spent the next two days hiking with a guy who made it his purpose to come up with a trail name for me, even though he had yet to take one himself. Among all the names he came up with after the two days was “Raven.”
When I reached the next town resupply in Franklin, I still had yet to choose a name, but was “forced” to at the local outfitter – Outdoor 76 has a wall for thru-hikers to sign every year, and when I was standing in front of it, marker in hand, I knew I couldn’t sign my real name, so I made my decision.
Ravens are one of the smartest birds alive, often learning how to speak a few words, kind of like a parrot, and will try over and over to accomplish a task. They have even been observed making small tools. It fit. And it was easy just to tell people who asked why my trail name was Raven (because sometimes I didn’t want to stop and chat), that it was because I wore a lot of black. And truthfully most of my clothes were black by the time I finished a third of the trail, but that was long after I had gotten my name.
Thank you to Cori for sharing her AT experience with us, and congratulations on being one of the intrepid hikers who completes the entire Appalachian Trail!