Columnist John Stifler: Life on the Appalachian Trail is another dimension

  • The 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail route completed by John Stifler earlier this year. 

  • John Stifler of Florence celebrates as he completes his 2,189-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail at Katahdin in Maine on Oct. 2. COURTESY JOHN STIFLER

  • A view of Jo-Mary Lake from the Antlers Campsite in the Hundred Miles Wilderness along the Appalachian Trail in Maine. JOHN STIFLER

  • The Appalachian Trail hiker known by her trail name “Snapchat” hikes over Bromley Mountain in Vermont. JOHN STIFLER

  • A view of Katahdin from the Abol Bridge just before the entrance to Baxter State Park in Maine at the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. JOHN STIFLER

  • John Stifler, right, meets his Florence neighbor, Jerry Mullane, on the Appalachian Trail near Rangeley, Maine. COURTESY JOHN STIFLER

Published: 12/5/2017 8:04:58 PM

Two months after I reached the summit of Katahdin, completing a 2,189-mile hike that began in March, I feel one lingering physical effect of hiking from Georgia to Maine: My knees still ache.

It happens to almost all thru-hikers — that’s how hikers like to spell the term — on the Appalachian Trail.

Picture yourself ascending a slope so steep that you have to bend your knee tighter than 90 degrees to take a step up, while carrying a 30-pound pack, and you may imagine the strain on that joint. Then imagine it as a constant occurrence.

The AT includes countless steep ascents and descents. The Pacific Crest Trail is 500 miles longer, but the AT has 200,000 more feet of up-and-down climbing.

The aching knees provide an easy answer when people who know how I spent half of 2017 ask me, “What’s it like to readjust?”

“I’m getting my knees back. I think.”

It’s hard to think of what else to say. Since finishing the trail and returning to Northampton, I've been happy to see friends and family. Being home feels normal. I live here. Northampton is a fun place. Readjusting includes avoiding watching the news on television, and it includes dinner with friends as often as possible.

In this familiar environment, the trail feels like another dimension, and stepping off it is like waking from a dream. I was in those forests, hiking up and down all those hills, fording streams, and sleeping in a tent or a lean-to. Yet I'm not there now, and I cannot put myself there by thinking about it or looking at my photos.

Connections to people

Just a couple of things carry over. The aching knees are one. The other is the connections with other people — people I met along the trail; people elsewhere who found ways to be in touch, even to join me for some of the hike.

My lifelong friend Paul Stumpf drove from Baltimore to meet me in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and walk with me along the flat two miles of AT on the C&O Canal towpath. My friend Ben Bensen, from Deerfield, hiked four days with me from Killington, Vermont, to Hanover, New Hampshire.

I met two guys on the trail near Rangeley, Maine. We chatted a bit, and they asked where I was from. When I said Northampton, they grinned. Turns out one of them is practically my neighbor — Jerry Mullane, who lives in Florence. His buddy Mike Lesniak is from Granby.

Fellow thru-hikers, known by their trail names, are strangers who became good friends even if I never see them again: Free Man, from Switzerland, who spoke little English and so relied on my college German to help him understand something. Ghost, Steam Machine, Rock Star, Snapchat, Crocs and many others with whom I hiked sections of the trail. Greybeard, an 82-year-old Navy veteran from Memphis who in late October became the oldest person to hike the entire AT in a single year.

The people in stores, information offices and hiker hostels — people whose lives are connected to the trail in many ways.

One of my favorite meetings was with the physician's assistant at a hospital in Farmington, Maine, who treated me for cellulitis, a nasty infection I picked up from a cut sustained when I fell on some slippery rocks. He murmured something about checking me in to the hospital for a few days so they could give me IV antibiotics, but I convinced him that I could take the antibiotics orally and resume hiking. Somehow I knew I was right, and somehow he knew it too.

Three fellow hikers I’ve managed to see again since the hike. Retrieving the car I’d left with my son in North Carolina after he dropped me off at the trail, I detoured to Charlotte and Durham to visit Pura Vida and Lightning Bolt. Meanwhile, OMG turns out to have friends in Leverett, so we had a chance to take a day hike on the Holyoke Range. It’s not 2,189 miles, but it’s a real trail.

Interactions with other people on the AT reinforce principles that seem to hold for all hikers. One of these is a piece of advice: “Hike your own hike.” The hike is not a competition, and there's no one way to do it. If everyone else is eating granola bars for breakfast but you want to cook oatmeal and make tea, don't feel as though there's something wrong when you're the last person to leave the campsite and hit the trail again.

If another hiker can dance over the rocks while you are picking your way through them, don't consider yourself inept — you are being as careful as you need to be. There's no rush.

Another principle is, as hikers fondly say, “The trail will provide.” Where the trail crosses routes 11 and 30 in Vermont, Pura Vida and I were standing by a parking area, trying to hitch to Manchester Center, five miles away. Cars were going past at 50 mph, with hardly any room to slow down. “Don't worry,” I joked. “Someone who knows me is bound to come along and pick us up.”

Four minutes later, a car pulled into the parking area, the passenger window opened, and a woman asked, “Aren't you John Stifler?” She and the driver were my former Leeds neighbors Donnie and Stan Zakrocki, visiting Manchester. They had seen me when they passed, turned about and come back to fetch us.

Hardest thing ever done

Physically, hiking the Appalachian Trail is by far the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Mentally it's in the top five. At the outset, every bit of it was exciting. In Pennsylvania and the Hudson River Valley it wore me down, as it wears down many hikers. In New England, the spectacular White Mountains were an enormous lift.

Maine, the 14th and final state in the northbound hike, begins with the Mahoosucs, a cluster of mountains as challenging as the Whites but more isolated. A few days later, you enter the Hundred Mile Wilderness, carrying enough food for a week because there's almost nowhere to replenish your supplies. (Hint to future hikers: There is one place, the Whitehouse Landing Camp on Pemadumcook Lake. You phone them from a dock at the edge of the woods, and they pick you up in their motorboat.)

Like many another AT hiker, I found those 100 miles to be enchanting. Most of the trail there is relatively flat, winding through the forests and around the shores of one unspoiled lake after another. And then comes Katahdin.

Katahdin – the name means “Greatest Mountain” in the Abenaki language — stands apart from any other summit, a monolith out of proportion to its flat surroundings, looming over an expanse of forest and lakes that stretches for miles in every direction. I reached its summit on Oct. 2, a stunningly beautiful day, with horizon-to-horizon blue sky and temperatures in the 60s. Blustery winds that battered the previous day's hikers had died down to nothing.

There were about two dozen of us. Basking in the sun, we took turns posing for the trail's most-taken photo, the one where the hiker climbs onto a sandwich-board sign on the rock-strewn summit, holds hiking poles overhead, and shares a yes-I-made-it grin with the world.

Summing up the whole trail experience is impossible. It should be. The closest I've come to trying was in a conversation with my wife. “What's the best part of the hike?” she asked.

“There's no best part,” I heard myself say. “It's all one thing.”

John Stifler is a writer and teacher who lives in Florence. This the third of three columns describing his hike on the Appalachian Trail. 

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