Monday, June 06, 2011

Last Backpack on the Appalachian Trail

A moment of peace before the evening mass of humanity arrives at an Appalachian Trail shelter.

Last year, I backpacked for three days on the Appalachian Trail with two companions. It was my first backpack on the AT in quite some time, as in the past couple of decades I have kept my backpacking to National Forest trails and wilderness areas. When I was a kid, there was nothing that I wanted more than to do what is called a "thru-hike" of the AT--that is, hike it from one end to the other in one long trip with no interruptions. Not so anymore.

And it isn't just because I'm older. I'm certainly fit enough to tackle such a long backpack. But after my experience of last Spring I wouldn't want to be on the trail for such an extended period. In a nutshell, what has happened to that National Trail is that it has been, as so many warned for so long, loved to death.

First of all, the Trail is crowded. I go hiking and backpacking not just to see our parks and open spaces, but to find solitude. Solitude is one thing that you will not find on the Appalachian Trail. Oh, I'm sure you could hike it in the depth of winter and find some quiet time along some sections, but by and large it has become a truly crowded location with dozens of people passing you by whenever you stop to try to enjoy a view or eat lunch or just to pause along the way.

It wasn't easy to find enough space to put up my tiny backpacking tent. The place was over crowded.

When I was a kid enjoying my first backpacking trips, it was possible to use the system of trail shelters along the route and sometimes be the only one there. My experience now is that these places are packed to--and beyond--capacity every evening. This overcrowding of the shelters and surrounding spaces results in degradation of the vegetation and, more shocking to me, conditions of filth that are appalling. I absolutely could not use an outhouse at one of the shelters we visited because of the overwhelming stench of human feces.

At our campsite on the first night. Probably thirty other backpackers were using this field. The water source was fouled. It was tough to find enough space to put up my one-man bivy.

The Appalachian Trail has lost just about all of the allure and charm it once held for me. In the future, I'll continue to stick to the extensive networks of National Forest trails, wilderness areas, National Park trails, and sometimes just bushwhacking to out of the way spots where Mother Nature has not been wrecked by the mindless crowds and where I can find some time to just sit and listen to nothing other than the breezes, or maybe the chaotic songs of a pack of coyotes.

Trying to enjoy the overlook at Wind Rock. I think only about forty people came by while I was there.

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