"Oh sweet Canada-Canada-Canada..."
The familiar melodic call of a white-throated sparrow wasn't the only thing that signaled my homecoming to the northeast. Exiting Cheshire, MA, the balsam firs and red spruce tree returned in full force as I gained elevation. Twilight sun rays cascaded through their healing balms. Mirrored in the glowing sunshine, I felt blessed by great soul-stirring calm. Mount Greylock's summit was a sight to behold. For a fleeting moment, I was home.
With a sunset sweeping the skyline I barely noticed the road and mountaintop traffic jam. Snap back to reality.
On top of Massachusetts
Yet another road. Yet another noisy access point. After walking 1,585 miles to this spot from Springer Mountain in Georgia, one thing has been the bane of my AT trek: an encroaching hum of civilization in the natural world.
Not too far from this spot in Upstate New York, Russell M.L. Carson expressed his concern with an increasingly urbanized society in the early 1900's:
"In all our thinking about recreational development, we ought constantly to remember that wilderness and natural beauty are the real charm of the Adirondacks, and that preservation is as much our objective as helping more people to share our joy in them."
Is wilderness valued by the average American? The double edge sword of conservation is certainly a conundrum. In order for people to be passionate about our wild places, they need to have a positive experience in one. Once you introduce people to a sacred space, it can become overused. Can a better balance between outdoor accessibility and "wildness" be reached without marginalizing the luxury of the forest?
Aldo Leopold argued in A Sand County Almanac that, "we can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in."
When I hiked my first big mountain (Cascade) on December 22nd, 2006, I immediately knew that I found my element. Only 3 years later my mom asked me what I loved most, to which I instantly shouted, "Hiking!" For 10 straight years I have recreated in the great outdoors, basking in nature's splendor. The connection I made with nature 10 years ago endures and burns brighter today. Luckily, the last 550 miles of the Appalachian Trail would reinvigorate my passion for exploring our country's wild side. Jaded feelings of a reduced wilderness experience diminished as I came upon my final three states of my yearlong journey.
As the Appalachian Trail entered Vermont, it overlaps with the Long Trail for 105 miles. Roads and civilization became less prevalent as one becomes swept away by the Green Mountains. Peaks like Glastenbury, Stratton, and Bromley provide inspiring views which remind you why you started the AT in the first place.
Bromley's summit provided us with a stellar sunrise/sunset combination that was not surpassed on the east coast.
Appalachian Trail splendor
I really enjoyed the AT as I made it further north. Before reaching Killington, I caught an amazing view of the my hometown mountains in New York. On the summit of Killington, I finally made it above 4,000ft. for the first time since Virginia. At this elevation, among the cinquefoil and alpine krummholz, I feel a tranquil sensation of peace. As I reached the latitude of the Adirondacks, I knew my journey would only last one more month. What a year it has been!
Allow me to share some objective facts...
• The Appalachain Trail is nearly 500 miles shorter than the Pacific Crest Trail.
• The Appalachian Trail has more total elevation gain than the entire Pacific Crest Trail.
• The Pacific Crest Trail crosses 7 National Parks and 48 Wilderness Areas.
• The Appalachian Trail crosses 2 National Parks and 25 Wilderness Areas (mostly in Virginia).
Now let me share a subjective statement... The Appalachian Trail is harder than the Pacific Crest Trail.
This is counter-intuitive for most people because the PCT has 700+ miles of desert walking and less reliable water sources. Well no kidding, that's why it's called a desert!
I found the AT to be much more demanding, both physically and emotionally! The elevation gain was so unexpected! The lack of large-scale wilderness areas was saddening. However, NOBO's do save the best part of the thru-hike for last...
New Hampshire & Maine!
After receiving unexpected trail magic from my friend Libby Nichols in the form of a watermelon and M&M's, I crossed the Connecticut River and walked into my penultimate state. On the corner of Dartmouth's campus, I came to a familiar spot...
Hanover's AT plaque
During a work trip two years earlier, I came upon this plaque unexpectedly. "One day, I am going to walk here from Georgia," a previous version of myself promised.
When I arrived there this time, I knelt down and kissed the plaque. Onlookers stopped and stared.
I had never been to the White Mountains before. If you hike the AT you'll walk right through them en route to Maine. Sticking to the white blazes (and adding out-and-back side trips to maintain my purist trek) I climbed 26 of New Hampshire's 48 4,000 footers. Here are a few glimpses...
I was fortunate enough to stay at the Mount Washington Observatory for the night while hiking across the Presidential Range. Yes, Mount Washington also has a road (and a cog railway) leading to its summit. Staying at the Observatory, however provided me with the opportunity to be on the mountain without the crowds. FYI: You will have to wait in a queue of humans to get your summit picture on Mount Washington. Get there before the road and railway are open!
How many more mountains must we defile before we can strike a fair compromise between wilderness and access? Blue Mountain in the Adirondack Mountains will be the next mountain with road access to the summit unless we do something about it. The Adirondack Park (like most of the developed world) is already road-laden. There are already 6,970 miles of public road in the Adirondacks, with most of these miles leading one to an accessible vista or recreational area. We don't need more.
Last month I made a small contribution to help preserve Landers Meadow along the Pacific Crest Trail. Now, instead of the land being developed, crucial habitat will be preserved for all to enjoy forever. We often forget that foxes, birds, frogs, coyotes, mountain lions, and prairie dogs need places to sleep, too. I hope to continue to support open space preservation in years to come. If we all band together, we may see more wilderness areas protected in the future.
I'm about to talk about hiking in Maine, but if preserving wild spaces is an interest of yours, you can check out adirondackwilderness.org
We have a chance to enhance the Adirondack High Peak Wilderness! Please check it out and send a quick email to The Adirondack Park Agency (it's a simple link on the website).
Maine is often cited as the best part of the Appalachian Trail. I enjoyed everything north of the Delaware River, personally, but no one can deny the grandeur of Maine's woods. Much like in New Hampshire, I made the appropriate detours to climb all 14 of Maine's 4,000 footers. I even met a wonderful group of aspiring Northeast 111 hikers (climbing all of the 111 4,000 footers in the northeast) while near the summit of Spaulding. I saw this same group a day later from Bigelow West. It was nice to converse with avid peak baggers while enjoying our first view of Katahdin!
Katahdin, a MacGuffin of sorts, is something that AT NOBO's talk about every day. When I finally saw the end destination, I was awestruck. I knew I could do it, but actually making it to this point was still unbelievable. Thru-hikes have a 25% completion rate. Barring an injury in the next week, I would be completing what I set out to do. Three thru-hikes! Statistically, a 1.56% chance of success. And here I was, on the cusp of finishing them all. I was reminded of Billy Goat from the PCT... "Once you get to the end of a thru-hike, you have to say, 'Well, I guess I'll go home now.'" Bittersweet?
There was so much that I enjoyed about the AT in Maine. I loved the Mahoosuc Notch (toughest mile on the Appalachian Trail - including some snowy patches in July), I loved the 4,000 footers, I loved stopping by the towns of Rangeley, Caratunk, and Monson. I loved staying at Shaw's Hiker Hostel. I loved the 100 Mile Wilderness. Maine was awesome. The greenery goes on for miles and miles. It was as impressive as my experience out west. When I finally arrived at Baxter State Park, the ranger informed me that I was NOBO #127 to enter the park. When I left Amicalola Falls 88 days earlier I was NOBO #1,697. My thru-hike was nearly complete.
Joined by my brother-in-law Riley, my sister Nikki, and my niece, I started up the Hunt Trail to Katahdin's summit on July 26th. Only Riley and I pressed onward through the wind and the rain. Katahdin turns out to be quite the difficult climb!!! When we got to the top, I had quite the emotional moment...
Riley and I continued north of Katahdin to summit Hamlin, and then returned to Katahdin one final time to exit via the Knife's Edge...
I was on trail for 11 months total in the last year. The PCT took exactly 4 months. Te Araroa was just over 4 months. The Appalachian Trail was just under 3 months (89 days). The Calendar Year was a success!
A few facts...
• I saw more snakes in Maine (5) than I saw on the entire PCT (4).
• I only did laundry twice on the AT. Thanks Mike & Jess Downey in Virginia and Michael Beckley in New York! Sorry everyone else.
• I only used three fuel canisters along the AT.
• I ate cold oatmeal and a Pop-Tart for breakfast every single day on the AT.
So... What's next?
I am currently working as the Wilderness Trip Leader for the Adirondack Mountain Club. I'm going to do a lot of adventuring this year, and more importantly, I want to become a better steward of our recreational areas. Land ethic and land preservation mean a lot to me now. After walking across America a couple times, I now understand how crucial land and habitat protection is! Regardless of the presence or absence of an economic advantage for us, we need to preserve our remaining wild lands.
It's sort of poetic, right? Local boy climbs local mountains. Boy leaves, hikes around the world. Boy returns, and wants to protect his local mountains.
I memorized The Lorax while walking the PCT after walking through Washington's massive clear cuts. I was stirred. But as Laura Waterman points out in Wilderness Ethics, the Lorax invariably loses. In the end, all of the Truffula Trees are gone, the Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee Swans, and Humming Fish have departed.
Some of my posts have been shouted from a shaky soap box. When I take up writing again, I want to avoid writing in a voice that is sharpish and bossy. The Lorax loses because he fails to start a dialogue with all concerned parties. He fails to educate the masses buying Thneeds, and only shouts at the irritable Once-ler seeking a profit. What people don't understand, they'll never know. Sometimes what people don't know, they fear. The venerable Jedi Master Yoda once warned that, "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." We need to promote an understanding of why our remaining wild areas are necessary. Wilderness shouldn't be something to fear, but to embrace. The beauty of our wild country is not just an environmental necessity, it's a part of our American identity.
I argued on an Adirondack Almanac Facebook post recently that the Forever Wild lands of the Adirondacks do not need more logging to create more snowmobile trails. Shouts of "granola crunching youths" and "tree huggers" emanated from people who likely haven't had a positive and truly wild wilderness experience.
No, hiking the three trails did not turn me into a hippie. Hiking the three trails simply opened my eyes to the natural world on a grand scale. Now I want to protect it. But shouting opinions online certainly won't change anyone's mind.
Instead of shouting at the Once-lers of the world, I intend to be educating from the ground up. I'm surrounded in Lake Placid by friends who also appreciate the outdoors. They engage in sustainable farming practices, poop in the woods properly, pick up microtrash along the trails, protect the fragile alpine vegetation above 4,000 feet. I need to be more like these educators. I hope I can educate others through my daily actions and practices. And if we happen to preserve the Boreas Ponds Tract as "wilderness," that would be an added bonus.
My sister handed me a copy of Love Does by Bob Goff when I finished the AT. It wasn't too long afterward that I saw my PCT friend Harpo donate money to save Landers Meadow. My Uncle Mike counseled me through a stressful car-buying experience (I followed through this time). My family organized a Olympic-themed camping trip for us all to enjoy. My former College Admissions colleagues came out to meet me when I was in Rochester for the day. My hiking friends organized an Adirondack camping trip for me on the heels of Katahdin. That's what love does – it pursues blindingly, unflinchingly, and without end.
I can shout all I want, but in order to see a positive change in conservation, I need to start by communicating my love for nature through my actions.
A slightly more self-actualized version of myself has returned from the woods. I'm excited to share my passion for the outdoors with you all. Stay tuned.
"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
Tyler "Future Dad" Socash
* * *
Yesterday I returned to my office at 4,000ft. I was hiking for leisure up one of the Adirondack High Peaks when I noticed unburied toilet tissue spread across the woods near a summit. This has been a recurring issue in high use areas. People simply don't know that they should bury their feces and toilet tissue by digging a 6-8 inch cathole with a trowel over 150 feet away from water sources and trails. This maximizes decomposition of waste while also minimizing unwanted animal and insect contact. Next time you hike, recognize how you feel when you inevitably cross paths with someone else's used toilet paper.
The summits of the 4,000 mountains are my sanctuary. Yes, like John Muir and Edward Abbey would say, much like a spiritual place of worship. You wouldn't poop in your local church/temple/mosque vestibule without cleaning up after yourself, would you?!
I picked up the trash I was comfortable carrying and sat down to enjoy the view. Suddenly, the familiar figure of a white-throated sparrow came hopping towards my friend Devin and me. Balsam firs and red spruce trees surrounded us at this elevation. Afternoon sun rays cascaded through their healing balms. Mirrored in the glowing sunshine, I felt blessed by great soul-stirring calm. Phelps Mountain's summit was a sight to behold. For a moment, I was simply so glad to be home. Now it's time to get to work, time to make a difference, time to act. It's time to get my hands dirty. Might as well start with this poop!
Because after all, "love" isn't talking about how you care about something. Love does.
A Place Worth Fighting For
If you've enjoyed this blog, check out Harpo and Groucho's "Wrong Way Gang" journey down the Continental Divide Trail: http://wrongwaygang.com/2016/09/08/leave-trace-club/
Also, if you are interested in the Pacific Crest Trail, look up "A Walk With Mud" by Anna Herby. Check it out on Amazon.