By Hastings resident Rosamond Palmer 

The ultimate trekking experience is often considered to be the Camino de Santiago. This 500-mile pilgrimage takes the average person 35 days to complete; hikers sleep in hostels and use the shops and restaurants en route, they need a day pack, a change of clothes and a sleeping bag. Compared to that, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is a walk in the wild, there are no amenities and, to give a sense of scale, it is like a footpath from Hastings to Dundee, times four.  The highest peak on the AT is Clingman’s Dome, one and a half times the height of Ben Nevis. On reaching the bottom of one mountain, it’s up the next. One hiker said, “It’s tiring going up, it’s painful coming down.” 

The through hiker on the AT has to carry everything they need. I hiked over a thousand miles but through just three towns: Hot Springs, Damascus and Harper’s Ferry. If I needed to resupply or take a rest day, I had to leave the trail and access a nearby town, but ‘nearby’ could mean thirty miles away. If it’s six days’ hike to the next town, then six days’ worth of food has to be carried. To begin with, I allowed myself 1lb of food a day but once I increased to 20 miles a day, it wasn’t enough. The choice lay between hunger or a heavier pack. Water is sourced from streams, springs and ponds. In spring, it’s plentiful; in summer, scarce. Running out of water also meant no supper or breakfast, as my food couldn’t be hydrated. 

It’s a privilege to live in the woods alongside bears, snakes, tortoises, wild cats, deer, birds, flowers and waterfalls. People fear the wild, especially bears and snakes, while I was respectful of both. From my point of view, we managed a delightful co-existence. It wouldn’t be a wild experience if the trail could be accessed frequently by road or provided hotels. About every eight miles is an open wooden shelter, near a water source. 

Demand for a space increases when it pours with rain and through hikers are given priority. I did occasionally sleep in the shelters, there was little point in seeking the privacy of my tent if I was the only visitor. Each night I hung my food in a tree so the bears weren’t attracted to my tent for dinner. Others experienced bears helping themselves or heard them growling and scratching the wooden walls.

Between people there is virtually no crime. As one young hiker pointed out, “No one nicks anything on the AT, they’d have to carry it!” The trail attracts young, old, male, female, families, groups and solo hikers, though most are young men. Money has no value, acceptance is the currency, and though it was unusual for a woman to be hiking alone, especially an OAP, I rarely felt my age to be a barrier. 

The mountain range is synchronised with the peaks and troughs of emotions. A large sleeping rattle snake, which I’d misidentified as a pile of bear scat, sprang to life, head hissing, tail rattling a foot off the ground, informing me I might like to seek a different path. Phew! But what an experience and, like most animals, it gave me a good warning. It did not attack. My biggest fear was losing the trail, that thin strand of security, a couple of yards wide and 2190 miles long which keeps the hiker connected to safety. Lose it and it is deep woodland, which probably no person has ever set foot in. On one occasion, I had no idea where the path was, a large owl launched itself out of the undergrowth and while I stood awe struck by its magnificence, I caught sight of a white blaze, the AT marker, and was back on track.

At the start of the trail, I fell into walking with other hikers and was adopted by a family. I loved the companionship and the spark of laughter as we enjoyed minor catastrophes. In total, I shared about four weeks with fellow hikers, but other than that, I travelled alone. As I progressed, the trail became less frequented and, at one stage, I hiked for three days without seeing anyone. I thought I was safe to take a bath in the sparkling waters at Dismal Falls only to be interrupted. In Britain, few people would be troubled but the American attitude to nudity, especially in the Bible Belt, appeared prudish.

It can be gruelling clambering over fallen trees or scrambling up steps built of boulders. Leg muscles turn to jelly: I would unstrap my rucksack, heave it up to the next step, then haul myself up and move onto the next boulder, and balance along a high narrow ridge. On solitary days I would think, “If I fall, I could be lying here for forever”. My mobile phone signal was intermittent.

Before entering The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, through hikers have to sign a declaration taking complete responsibility for themselves.
The dense woodland makes it impossible for a helicopter to land or locate someone, equally there are few access roads for emergency vehicles to support a rescue. The rangers ride horses to cover the long distances.

The torrential rain looks like smoke. My feet were sodden for days, and turned white. To avoid a case of trench foot, I enjoyed three days of comfort in a motel and waited it out. The owner of a hostel where I’d previously stayed, called to check I was okay. He said no one had seen me lately. It is an example of how hikers look out for one another. Three and a half months after starting out, and a couple of stone lighter, I entered The Conservancy Headquarters, Harper’s Ferry, the official half-way point on the Appalachian Trail. 

We never know what’s in store: if I’d waited another year, I would have been locked down. 

You can see a video of Rosamand’s adventure on YouTube Rosamond’s Amazing Appalachian Adventure.

• Read part one here


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