Hiking the Appalachian Trail for Dummies

I am incredibly nonathletic. I am not in shape, and I am not motivated to be in shape. I eat donuts with disregard; copious amounts of caffeine and sugar are poured into my body every day. But, for some reason, I decided to give up my terrible habits for a few days in order to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail.

My alma mater, Lancaster Mennonite High School, offers “mini-courses.” These week-long (or more) trips range anywhere in the world from Lancaster to Argentina or even China. For some reason, when selecting my mini-course, I didn’t choose a relaxing week in Boston or a month-long stay in Brazil. Instead, I opted for a four-day excursion on the Appalachian Trail (or, as experienced hikers call it, the “AT”). Did I mention I have no backpacking experience whatsoever?

I would tell you why I made the decision to hike the AT if I knew why I did it, but I don’t. Maybe it was a lapse in judgement, or perhaps I thought it would be easy. Either way, I have no idea how I ended up with a 50-pound backpack strapped to my body and almost 30 miles to trek.

The beginning of the hike was a little rocky (no pun intended) for my group. When we finally made it into the woods, reality set in and it dawned on us that “real” toilets were no longer an option, nor were showers. Note to organizers: You need to specify those things when offering a camping trip to teenagers. That was when things went downhill – or if we’re being literal, straight uphill.

Actually, the first day wasn’t too bad, considering I had made it up the mountain alive. About halfway up, I realized that I was terrible at hiking uphill (or if I’m being honest, hiking in general). I wish I could say that I was the trailblazer in my group, or at least somewhere in the middle. But I wasn’t. Instead, I held my spot at the back of the pack, stopping every now and then to take a quick breath. Even the kids who had never hiked, who assumed that the woods were equipped with a clean bathroom, were light years ahead of me.

Cove Mountain leaves little to the imagination; from the top, the town of Duncannon, the Susquehanna River and Peters Mountain are all visible.

Cove Mountain leaves little to the imagination; from the top, the town of Duncannon, the Susquehanna River and Peters Mountain are all visible.

When we finally made it to the top of Cove Mountain, I rejoiced. Now, I could finally sit down and rest my weary feet. However, to my disappointment, I realized I still had to help put up the tent I would share with two other girls (before the trip, I had never spoken to either one of them). We fumbled around with the tent poles and canvas for about 30 minutes before we had a sturdy, rain-proof tent. And, thank goodness for our water-proof tent because as soon as we were done setting up camp, torrents of rain fell from the sky. My group called it a night, and we all crawled into our tents for a night of much-needed rest.

The next morning we woke up early. Instead of taking the opportunity to relax and sleep before starting a whole day of hiking, many of my peers woke up around 5:30 and began making breakfast. While I ate my sad instant oatmeal, others chowed down on “gourmet” meals like ramen noodles with spam and freeze-dried breakfast meals. Coffee was even brewed in a French press made for camping (however, cream and sugar were not offered, to the dismay of the students who were only accustomed to sugar-filled lattes from Starbucks).

After we finished breakfast, we packed up our tents and began making our way down Cove Mountain. The trail downhill was steep and filled with rocks and roots. I found that hiking downhill was much easier than climbing up the face of a mountain, and I did much better than I expected. When we made it to the other side of the mountain, we were met with a road and decided to take a break. Soggy tent canvases were spread out on the dark macadam alongside our exhausted bodies. Shoes were taken off, and our 50-pound backpacks were used as pillows. We lay in the middle of the road, only moving when cars needed to get past our group. I can only describe that 45-minute break as pure bliss.

Once our stomachs began to growl, my group decided to continue making our way along the trail. When we had made it over Cove Mountain, we entered Duncannon – a small town that sits along the Appalachian Trail and caters to hikers. We trekked along only to find a restaurant fit to sate our hunger. The Doyle Hotel is a diner that supplies hikers with greasy, but delicious food. We filled our stomachs with chili cheese fries, buffalo wings and bacon cheeseburgers. We were ready to get back on the trail and conquer our last feat: Peters Mountain.

I would have to say that hiking up Peters Mountain was the hardest part of the entire hiking trip. Climbing up the switchbacks was brutal and exhausting. My body wasn’t ready for the type of exercise I was putting it through. My feet were aching so much that I was popping Ibuprofen whenever possible. I felt miserable. I think the one thing that made me feel even more miserable was the young girl, in a long dress and head covering, who passed me with ease (mind you, it was about 85 degrees and blazing hot that day).

When we made it to the top of the mountain, I assumed that the shelter we would stay at would only be a few minutes away. But yet again, I was wrong. My group hiked over, between and under boulders as we made our way to our campsite for the night. We shuffled across the side of Peters Mountain and were able to see the mountain and town we had hiked through earlier that day. The view was incredible and satisfying. The sense of accomplishment that came from knowing that I had hiked at least 20 miles made the blisters on my feet almost worth it.

Luckily, the shelter was only about 3 miles from the top of the mountain, which wasn’t too bad, especially after a day of hiking at least 10 miles. We easily set up camp and began our dinner. While I choked down a helping of tuna and noodles, other students feasted on freeze-dried Chinese meals they had picked up at a local convenience store while in Duncannon. To say I was jealous would be an understatement.

I decided to go to bed early that night and woke up well rested. Surprisingly, I did quite well on that last day. We hiked around 6 miles, only two of those being downhill, and I held my own. My body had finally (for the most part) adjusted to the constant exertion, and I didn’t find myself needing breaks as often as I did the first or second day of hiking.

However, I cannot tell you how happy I was to hike down Peters Mountain and make it to the campgrounds of Camp Hebron, where we would end our trip. I was so excited to have completed my mini-course that I practically ran. As soon as I could, I took off my shoes and threw my backpack off. I was finally a free woman!

Now, as I reflect on my Appalachian Trail experience, I realize a few things. First of all, hiking is not just walking, especially when you have a 50-pound backpack strapped to you. Second, I also realize that you should probably be in some type of shape before hiking 30 miles in three days. And most of all, I learned that even though trying new things might end in blisters and sunburn, it’s all worth the experience – even if I would never consider hiking the Appalachian Trail ever again. I made friends on that trip that I would not have otherwise. I gained valuable life skills such as putting up a tent and drinking coffee without cream and sugar. I’m grateful for the opportunity to get outside my comfort zone and experience something I would have never done on my own.

Abigail King, who graduated from Lancaster Mennonite High School in June, is our summer intern. She will be a freshman at Goshen College in Indiana this fall.

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