For part 1 of Matt’s Appalachian Trail adventure, click here.
This is Me
My train left the Amtrak station on Saturday, April 22, at 7am. My going away party was was at Finn McCools the night before (and well into the morning). No one who knows me will be surprised that I was not on that train.
I threw a few curse words at myself, took a few minutes for self-loathing followed by dejection, and then made my way to the Greyhound website. Fortunately there were two more buses running to Atlanta that day. Thirty-three dollars – and two hours – later, I was on my way.
This is how I have bought every pair of shoes I have owned since 2009. I walk into the Payless on Canal Street, wave to the cashier, and head directly to the Men’s sizes 10-12 section. I have been wearing the same model of shoes since this all started. A pair of black shoes and a pair of browns. Rounded at the toe, with a weird design across the knuckles of your toes. (Do toes have knuckles? You know what I mean.)
I grab the pair that matches the one I’m wearing and I bring it to the cashier who jokes, “Honey, what are you going to do if we ever stop carrying that shoe?”
“I’ll stop wearing shoes,” I say like I have every other time she’s asked me. Which is every time.
She laughs, like she usually does. “Should I cut the tags off now for you?”
“Yes, please!” Then I take the old shoes off, put the new shoes on, and toss the retired ones unceremoniously into the the trash bin at the front of the store. “Almost time to buy new brown ones,” I holler back at her. “See you then!” and I walk out of the store with the same pair of shoes I walked in with.
Unfortunately they don’t carry hiking shoes at Payless.
I tell you this story because I want you to appreciate how much I hate shopping. The prospect of researching $2,000 worth of gear – comparing how many ounces this sleeping bad was versus those three, how waterproof this tent was against those six, or the wicking action of this baselayer shirt as opposed to those nine…and if that one wicks the best, how much does it weigh? How much does it cost? Is it treated to repel bugs as well? (and on and on and on!!) – was torture.
But the only thing I hate more than shopping is dying in the woods, which is why – for the better part of March – I found myself meticulously creating and poring over a spreadsheet comparing everything from sleeping bags to sporks, and trekking poles to trowels. And when I settled on my top choice for each item, I noticed a majority could be purchased at an REI store. The problem was the nearest REI to New Orleans was in Houston.
The Magnolia City
My spectacular friend, Aaron, and I waltzed into the REI – a premier outdoor and fitness store – with a dozen Shipley donuts. Aaron and I have a similar travel style which is why, in addition to purchasing hiking gear, we had goals to try the best boudin in western Louisiana, as well as the best donuts, tacos, and kolaches in Houston. Unlike with gear and clothing, I’m thrilled to compare different variations on the same food.
Because I had spent a month preparing the list, I expected the actual shopping portion of this endeavor to go as fast as a trip to Payless Shoes. I hadn’t anticipated Julian.
Let me give you just one example, from when Julian first found me searching the sleeping bag / pad section:
Julian: Hello sir. For what trip are you preparing?
Me: Hi! I’m planning on thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I leave in two weeks.
Julian: Ah, yes. Excellent. I’ve hiked large portions of the trail. Can I help you find anything?
Matt: Yes, please. I’m looking for [enter the name of specific light-weight sleeping pad].
Julian: Ah, yes, it’s right here. I’d recommend this if you’d like to hate camping and never want to do it again.
Matt: [laughs] Oh? I’ve read great reviews for it on the REI website. I’m especially interested in purchasing “ultralight gear” to reduce my pack weight.
Julian: Ah, yes, but the problem with this strategy is that you’re sacrificing comfort.
Matt: Ah, yes, but I think you gain comfort in carrying a lighter pack 2,200 miles. Plus I’ve camped many times without a sleeping pad, and I’m really only getting it because I understand it’s important to insulate you from the cold ground.
Several “ah yesses,” five times as many minutes as it takes me to buy a pair of shoes, and a weird analogy I didn’t understand about putting fuel in a Cadillac, I finally acquiesced.
With Aaron as my witness, I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that every piece of gear Julian helped me find involved a similar back and forth. Fortunately for my wallet, as well as my back, I would listen respectfully and then was usually able to stand my ground, much to Julian’s chagrin.
Fast forward two weeks. It’s Sunday morning, April 23, and I walk into the Amicalola Fall State Park Visitor Center with my friend, Tracy, who was generous enough to host me for the night in Atlanta, drive me to the trail head, and keep me company for the first four miles.
When we enter, we are greeted by Ranger Bill, a nice, sandy-haired fellow with a neatly-trimmed mustache. “Hey there! Would you mind signing the guest book for me?” As I sign in, he asks how far I’m going. I tell him what has been my standard reply, “Trying to get to Maine, but we’ll see how I do!” and he offers to “shakedown” my pack.
A shakedown is when someone goes through your pack and tells you what they would suggest you leave behind, with the goal of lessening the weight you’ll be carrying. My buddy, Grant, who probably has more outdoor knowledge than anyone I know in Louisiana, did this for me before I left (I have great friends!), so I was going to pass on Ranger Bill’s offer. But the good ranger insisted and, so once again, I acquiesced.
Jumping into action like he had trained for this moment all his life, he began pulling gear out of my bag. And then, suddenly, he stopped. Bewildered. He pauses for a moment before pulling my rolled up sleeping pad out of my bag.
“Kind of bulky, don’t you think?” he asks, judgement spewing out of his eyes.
“Julian…” I curse under my breath.
There was no piece of gear about which I spent more time deliberating than bear spray. If my rain pants were a few extra ounces, I’d suffer. If my water filter cost a few extra dollars, I’d live. But choose the wrong brand of bear spray, and I might not actually live.
After hours of carefully reading specs and reviews for no less than 10 different sprays, I finally settled on a brand called, “Counter Assault.” I was, of course, attracted by the aggressive, militant name, but this review is what ultimately sold me:
I was fishing in the Alaskan wild with my boy when he noticed a bear about 50 yards away. A Grizzly. The bear began to charge, and I grabbed the can of Counter Assault out of its convenient holster (sold separately). I took aim and unleashed a torrent of the can’s advertised nine-second spray at the ground in front of the beast. The bear retreated. If it wasn’t for Counter Assault, I would not be here to write this review.
Wow. I was impressed, but also concerned. If the spray lasts for nine seconds, what happens on the tenth second? I purchased the next larger size and, obviously, the holster.
Ranger Bill’s Folly
“No, you do not need bear spray!” he took the comically large bottle out of my bag and placed it in the “Second Home” pile.
“But the boy. And the Grizzly,” I protested, as if he’d also read the review.
“There are no grizzly bears here! Just black bears. They eat berries, not people.”
“We’ll hold you to that if it eats him,” Tracy interjected as she sat in the corner untangling the rope Ranger Bill had delegated to her.
I nodded in agreement. “When was the last time a black bear attacked a hiker?” I demanded.
“I don’t know. It’s rare. Maybe last year? One attacked and bit a guy, but he didn’t die.” I don’t want to be bit by a bear either. “Besides, if I’m wrong, it will be over so quick you’ll hardly notice.” I think he was kidding. I never got my bear spray back.
Am I Hiking Or Just Checking My Gear?
Oh I’m hiking, alright! As of the end of my fifth day (Thursday), I’m on Mile 69 of the Appalachian Trail (AT), which doesn’t included the 8.8 miles I hiked on the Approach Trail at the start of Day 1. I took a short day today (11.5 miles) so I’d have time to explore the lakeside town of Hiawassee, GA in the afternoon. I learned that only 75% of thru-hikers advance beyond this point, so if I manage to take a step in the morning, I’ll be doing well.
I’m staying in a hostel tonight and when I got here I was confronted with two uncomfortable truths: the mirror said I was filthy gross, and the scale said I’d lost 10 pounds in five days. I addressed these by 1) taking my first shower of the trip; and 2) dragging trail friends to the buffet in town. Which happened to cost $8. We also threw in a brewery for good measure, which was my first bit of booze in six days. Those from outside New Orleans might not thinking much of that, but those from New Orleans might have a hard time fathoming what I just wrote. I, myself, had to do the math several times.
I won’t lie. There are times on the trail that are painful, boring and lonely. There’s a pain in my right Achilles tendon that has flared up a few times, and I’m dealing with a blister on my left heel. I don’t see any way I get to Main with all of my toenails, and my neck is stiff at the end of every day. The more water I carry, the more strain on my back, and no matter how much I drink, I can’t manage to fully hydrate.
But, on a 22-mile hiking day, I think the boredom is worse.
It’s all novel to me now, and there’s little as beautiful to me as standing on a peak and seeing mountains beyond mountains beyond mountains, or when you look long enough at the stars in a clear night sky, only to see there are more stars behind them, and more stars behind those.
Those moments are everywhere, and I appreciate them as often as I can, but when I remember I’ve only hiked five days, and I let my mind drift to, “I’m going to be doing this for five months?!” it becomes daunting.
We all know there’s value in persevering. Life hurts, life can be boring, and life can definitely be lonely. Maybe there’s also just a beauty in being those things without trying to run from them. Maybe I’m here because I ran from them, in which case, that’s ironic. I don’t know.
Day 3 Is A Day That Will Forever Live In Infamy
They say it’s good luck when it rains your first day of a thru-hike. But what if it rains your first two days? How about three of your first five days? Hopefully just lots of luck.
I was going to write more about the rain, how it has affected others, and how awesome my rain gear is, but then Day 3 happened and redirected my focus.
I had hiked 20 miles the day before, so I was tired, and the 14 miles I was doing that day was tough. Lots of peaks. I was walking along a narrow part of the path and just before I put my foot down I noticed a huge snake below it. It began thundering its terrifying rattle, and I jumped back. If Ranger Bill would have let me keep the bear spray, I would have torn it out of the holster and unleashed it right then and there on that rattler.
But it’s a good thing I didn’t use this spray I didn’t actually have, because later that afternoon, I came over the top of a hill, as my trekking pole hit a rock. I was fortunate to hit that rock, because as I crested, I saw — about 25 yards away — a massive black bear.
F#@% YOU, BILL!!!!
At first I couldn’t tell if it was running toward me, or away from me, but when it disappeared I took it as a sign it has run away. (I’m not going to jinx it by telling you how awesome I felt to have a bear run away from me. I wouldn’t dare tell you how macho I felt once I had time to process.)
But if I feel tough now (which I wouldn’t admit to for fear of challenging future bears), I didn’t feel that way at the time. I remembered reading that it’s advisable to sing while hiking so that bears know where you are and can avoid you. So I began to sing. My mind was so preoccupied, keeping an eye out for the bear, I didn’t even realize what I was thinking.
Until about the sixth time through the chorus. It was that Christmas song that goes, “Oh Je-ee-sus of I-i-israelllll.”
Why is that my “Warning-To-All-Bears” song? Why not “Welcome to the Jungle?” Or “Gangsta’s Paradise?” Nope. I just looked it up, and apparently I wasn’t even singing the correct lyrics. Just a nervous Jew, tip-toeing on a mountaintop, warding off bears, by incorrectly singing the words “O Jesus of Israel” on repeat to the tune “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.”
I Present To You…
There are a lot of little traditions on the AT. One of them that takes place early on is to leave your real name behind in favor of a trail name. There’s incentive to take on a trail name quickly, because the longer you go without one, the more likely you’ll be assigned one by someone who noticed some unique, usually negative, quality in you. For example, I heard about a woman who was constantly treating a rash on her bottom. They called her Monkey Butt. Or a guy who came unprepared and was asking to borrow everything — including, but not limited to, food, water and nail clippers. They called him Mooch.
Determined not to meet the same fate, I spent time while hiking, thinking up my trail name. I could be “Bywater Man” (my nickname at home since the Advocate used it when linking to the Mid-City Messenger king cake article), “Red” from Shawshank Redemption (“I think it’s ’cause I’m Irish.”), “Jackson” (in memory of Jack, my dad), “The Bear Jew” (from Inglorious Bastards, a Jewish man that strikes fear in the hearts of Nazis during WWII), or one of a thousand others.
One evening I was at a shelter, which are these three-sided wooden structures, spaced out every 6-12 miles throughout the trail, where hikers tend to congregate to set up camp. I was talking to Mr. White, who I had seen a few times already.
“So what’s your trail name, Matt?” Mr. White asked.
“Geez, I don’t know. I think the leading candidate might be ‘Bywater Man,'” I explained. “The Bywater’s my neighborhood in New Orleans and a local newspaper called me that in this article they wrote about some silly thing I did.”
“What’d you do?”
“I ate a lot of king cakes, and made this sprea-”
“How about King Cake?!” Mr. White jumped in.
“Hm, yeah, I kind of like it,” mostly just excited to be done with the decision that had taken too much of my brain space.
Mr. White put his hand on my shoulder and turned us to the other 10 hikers at the Whitley Gap Shelter eating dinner. “Everyone, I’d like to introduce his majesty, King Cake!”
There was a terrible silence. I worried this would happen when I started using my trail name.
“Kinky?” asked Blue.
“No. King. Cake,” I enunciated. “It’s this thing in New Orl-”
“Kinkos?” Panda interrupted.
“We have those in New York, too,” Papa Slow offered.
“No, guys, it’s the pastry with the baby in it,” Big Country, who formerly lived in New Orleans, explained to the group. “From Mardi Gras. I think it’s a good name.”
Almost everyone nodded in understanding, and wend back to eating.
“Wait. Babycakes?” asked Mama JuJu Beans, between bites.
We eventually got it sorted out.
Saying Goodbye and Raising Money
I’ll take any chance I can to get my friends together. Going away for five or six months seemed like a good enough opportunity.
As I mentioned earlier, we gathered at my favorite bar on the planet, Finn McCools, the night before I let and hung out into the early hours of the morning. At some point – details are hazy – we shaved my beard, which is the first time I’ve seen my face since I was a hobbit for Halloween back in 2010.
Shout out to Finns for donating $200 to a cause of my choice, which will either by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy or the National Park Service. I’ll figure it out in the next week and then post a donation link in my next article in case you, too, would like to donate to making sure our kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids can have the same access to nature we enjoy.
And shoutout to my friends. In New Orleans I’m in a writing class, and a recent guest speaker mentioned how lucky he feels during book tours because he has a big family that will come to signings to show their support and buy his books. He said nothing beats having people in your life who will always show up for you.
Friday night reminded me how many of those people I have. In a short amount of time there was research, purchasing, training, goodbyes, house-renting, parties, buses, road trips…and then all of a sudden it was just me. I will never forget the fear and dread I felt when Tracy – my last connection to anything I know – said goodbye and started walking the other way. I have felt this feeling a few times since then. When I do, I have found myself wishing every day could be the day before I left.
This Is Who I Want To Be
I was really pissed at myself when I missed that train. But the night before is something I’ll remember forever. Someone who I affectionately refer to by the lengthy nickname of, “Hello, My Name Is Inigo Montoya, You Killed My Father, Now Prepare To Die,” texted me the next day with the observation, “You looked so happy last night.” Would I have traded that to get to Atlanta three hours earlier?
As I sit under the stars, talking and laughing with my new friends, I consider that if I made that train, I would have started hiking earlier on Sunday, and probably wouldn’t be camping with Mr. White or Teach or Blue or John or Andy or Mama JuJu Beans or any of the others. Who knows who I would have met instead. Exactly anything else is possible. But this is pretty good. And as I watch the stars chase each other’s tails over the town, lit up like fireflies, on the mountaintop across the valley from us, I’m reminded that there are always more stars behind these stars. Just like there are more mountains beyond these mountains.
There’s going to be a lot of “missed trains” in the next five months. Whether it’s taking longer than expected to catch a hitch into town, or waking up later than I wanted, or hiker slower than I hoped, things aren’t going to go as expected. But there will always be another bus. And I have to remember getting on that one isn’t better or worse. It’s just different.
I’m going to fall into an every-other-week routine from here on out. I’ll also post smaller updates on Facebook, so feel free to follow me there if you’re interested in joining in on the interim fun.
By the time the next article posts, I’ll have been hiking for almost three weeks, so I’ll try to touch more on the logistics of my day-to-day on the trail, since I didn’t do much of that here.
Thanks for following and, as always, hit me up with questions or thoughts in the comments section. I’ll respond as soon as I have a second. I’m not sure why that Star of David is my avatar, but we can’t figure out how to get rid of it, so there it will remain! I think it has something to do with the last time I used it, which was for my not-so-successful fantasy football team, “The Children of Israel.”
Matt Haines is a true stereotype of modern New Orleans, moving to the Bywater from New York eight years ago to take part in disaster relief efforts. Matt is a member of the Rotary Club of Mid-City and, since leaving his job in education last month, spends his days writing, running, and
preparing to hike hiking the Appalachian Trail.