1983 Memories from Nick Kelsey


My pack was light today
Though loaded for a week or more.,
In my mind's eye, I see the AT
With flowers in her hair
We danced those miles away,
She and I.
She at her best.
I at mine.

A Texan's Condensed Account Of Long Distance Hiking
By Nick Kelsey

More than twenty years have passed since I completed the length of the Appalachian Trail. My effort was broken into two hikes: (1) 500 miles during the summer of either 1979 or 1980 from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Pearisburg, Va and (2)1500 miles from Pearisburg, Va. to Mount Katahdin, Maine in 1983. I averaged 12 miles a day and 4000 feet of climb. My pack was an external framed Kelty which weighed on average 40 lbs at the start of the week and 20 at week's end. I wore leather boots with rubber soles. I walked through four pairs covering the distance. In camp I wore moccasins for comfort. I used a Svea stove and carried a quart container for fuel.


My purpose in hiking was to improve my health. I weighed 288 starting the first hike. My father, a geologist, was partially paralyzed by an ischemic stroke at 45 which affected the entire right side of his body.

Although the treating physicians predicted he would never walk again, within five years he was walking with the aid of a crutch a one mile route around Lake Cliff Park in Dallas where he lived. With elevated blood pressure and the prospect of diabetes, long-distance hiking seemed an avenue of opportunity to get the health issue under control and enjoy the experience in the process. I was 34 on the first hike and 37 on the longer of the two.

Initially, the biggest challenge was coping with the solitude. Once you become accustomed to it, it is welcome. Also, I had trained for a week at Pedernales Falls State Park in Texas in a wilderness area learning how to handle the pack, the routine, and even practicing how to fall. With a pack instead of falling straight down, it helps to roll so that you fall onto the pack itself. The loose shoestring, the unanticipated root, whatever, falls are inevitable. If you're lucky, after a few choice words, you roll to one side, unhitch the backpack, dust yourself off, pick up the pack, sling it over your shoulder and resume your progress, a bit slower, a bit humbler, and more philosophical.

Long distance hikers are champions of frugality. We shave off tooth brush handles, pack small bars of soap from motels, use Gain detergent and eat lots of macaroni and cheese. We are up with the dawn and bed down at sunset. Long distance hiking is for the human individual a reductio ad absurdum. Food and clothing are simplified. The lion's share of the average expense of $400 per month in the 1980's was for food.

I used an old formula of walking six days and resting on the seventh. If I were near a campground, a motel or town, I would walk in at the end of that sixth day, find a moderate priced room and luxuriate in hot and cold running water, not to mention, air conditioning. If there was a restaurant with a broiled steak nearby, that too was a stop. Sometimes they were near the trail. Sometimes they were at a distance. But always, the seventh day was for rest.

I broke the trail into 500 mile segments. It worked for me. I broke each segment into 50 mile hikes and planned accordingly. The last 1500 miles was really 30 consecutive 50 mile hikes more or less. It wasn't a race. It wasn't a test of endurance. It was a sustained, purposeful effort. As I became trail hardened, my ability to enjoy side trips and trail extras was enhanced.

During my first hike, I carried a reserve gallon of water. The extra weight was well worth the peace of mind in the Virginia segment with long ridges and sometimes unreliable water sources. Anyone who has been there will tell you, hunger is preferable to thirst any day of the week.

I am not a photographer and did not carry a camera.


The wildlife encountered included deer, ruffed grouse, bear, groundhogs, fox, moose, blue birds, raccoon, skunks, snakes, porcupine, beaver and a host of other critters. The perennial fear of hikers is the run in with a snake. In the full two thousand miles of hiking I never saw a poisonous snake. I always used care where I stepped and didn't take any unusual chances. I walked without fear. I didn't see my first black bear until well into my second hike in Vermont. And then, the setting was anything but threatening. I had waded across the Kennebec River that fall morning and had walked through a small picturesque New England town. The remaining walk for the day was relatively short along a country road. I came to an apple tree that was loaded with ripe apples and thick foliage. I stopped simply to admire the tree in the sunlight when a large, glistening black, fat cub plopped down on the ground and scampered off toward a glacial pond in the distance. No sooner had that happened than down plopped its identical sibling boogying off in the same direction. I was probably twenty yards from the cubs and was content with having seen them with no desire to see Mama. So, I walked on to the shelter, sat down to read the spiral notebook which served as the hiker's log and found several references to the cubs among the entries.

Those and other experiences brought home the folly of letting fear color you experience needlessly. For some people, the fear of a snake, a bear or of the unknown is sufficient to chill the incentive of taking off for an extended hike. The best weapons against fear are knowledge, experience and common sense. The risks are minimal and in the presence of the animal, it should always be respected and kept at a distance. Hiking alone permitted me to see many more of the wild creatures than those who hiked noisily in groups with their perennial chatter.

My moose encounters were a pleasant surprise. The conventional image of the moose is this big, dumb, brown, hairy animal with a rack ten feet wide standing in a pond. In Maine, coming off Mount Katahdin, a group of us encountered that picture-book bull loping along the very trail we were hiking on. As the rest of the group scrambled for their cameras, I watched the bull pick up his pace, mildly irritated by the commotion, and amble off into an adjacent pond. Basically, animals don't like noise. With moose or any other critters, you are more likely to observe them if you hike silently than if you clatter along. In New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, I probably saw a total of six and only one fit the conventional image. Some were black. One had white stocking feet. Observing a female, I suspected a male would not be too far away, which further along proved the case. My fumbling hiking companions in their noisy effort to "capture the image" spooked the female and any hope of seeing the male.

We carry with us our preconceptions, fears and expectations. An extended stay in the natural setting has a way of helping us discard the inaccurate. The typical experience people have with skunks, for instance, is the immediate fear of the spray. The deep-seated conviction is that the animals are to be avoided whenever possible. The reality is that skunks go about their daily routine somewhat uneventfully and only employ the raised tail if threatened.

I spent one night in a shelter alone in North Carolina. I had laid my pallet out against the back wall in a corner and had put out the candle for the night. About 11:00 o'clock I heard this scratching in the front of the shelter and turned on my flashlight shining it at the ceiling to see what was making the commotion. There at the front of the shelter was a beautiful, large, striped skunk with a silken black coat poking around. In a bit, it was joined by its mate. These had two white stripes, one on either side, and they were obviously at home. They didn't seem threatened by my presence and I sat quietly observing them as they stayed a comfortable distance away. They were simply foraging for a meal and, from the looks of it, they had been able to find plenty to eat in the past. In the quiet and peace of the shelter, it was as if I were the respected guest and they were the hosts.

Also, in North Carolina, I saw my first fox at a country cross-roads. It had run from one set of woods across the road and was prepared to run into the other when it stopped to look around. It was red with a white tipped tail and a black pointed nose. The ears were pricked up as it scanned the area. As it sat in the middle of the country road, its tail was flipping back and forth slowly as though it were pondering what to do next, content for the moment just to sit there and rest. I was still and quiet. In an instant, it took off. I proceeded across the road and up the trail across a bald mountain meadow.

In Virginia in a shallow gap I came across a turkey hen strutting in the middle of the trail. It was mid-summer and her lingering made me think of a Texas bob-white quail mom protecting her young. I stopped and eased toward her stopping at about 20 feet. At nineteen feet, she flew into the nearby trees to roost, while about ten of her hatchlings burst out in fifteen different directions. I waited a minute and began hearing the little ones peeping their distress calls. With that, I sauntered on to leave the diligent mom to collect her brood once again.


The New England section of the trail was special. The Connecticut River was my first introduction to the area. The morning mist still hung over the river as I walked along quietly toward Kent. There were several deer on the other side drinking at the river. Although I was quiet as I walked and there was no wind to carry a scent to speak of, they knew I was there by the flicking of their tails and the pricking of their ears. These prey animals must have radar to sense a potential predator ingrained in their genes.

I reached a foot bridge across the river and walked into Kent to find a bed and breakfast. After checking in, I got cleaned up, put on blue jeans and a long sleeved shirt to walk to a restaurant called " The Drum and Fife". I was seated at a small table and ordered something called "Duck Black Swan". I listened to a pianist play some mellow piece for a few minutes when the waiter emerged with this flaming duck on a rolling cart. I was being treated to a gourmet meal along the trail's edge. Kent was an orderly, well-kept place which seemed to be limited to an economic elite. It was a nice place to visit and the meal was reasonably priced. But I got the sense that it was inhabited by well-heeled Republicans who had fled the wilds of New York City.

It didn't take long to clear Connecticut and, once in Vermont, it wasn't long before I reached Dartmouth College. It was about here my path and pace coalesced with Dennis Hill and Taz (aka Beeg), Dick Kersten and his main squeeze, Peg (soon to become Mrs. Kersten). I picked up a package at the post office-some stuff I had mailed myself earlier to lighten the load. It was a treat to walk through the campus of this distinguished school and head out into the White Mountains and the Presidential range.

This first area was managed by the Dartmouth Outing Club and their colors appeared along with the white blazes of the AT. The group was aware of the potential for crowding at the shelters. We sent out the best hiker, Dennis Hill, with a light pack to arrive early and claim the shelter for the group- the rule being "First come, first served". On this particular day, Dennis was first in followed shortly by another to claim the shelter for her group of 50 coeds from one of the Seven Sister colleges. Dick, Peg and I arrived about thirty minutes later around 4:30. The fifty coed's showed around five or so. We had sat down and were preparing our meals when the female hiker began to insist that her group should have the shelter. It seemed by force of numbers they would try to supplant tradition. However, never underestimate the resourcefulness of long distance hikers in the face of long odds. Dick pulled out his plastic portable shower and filled it in the nearby stream, hung it on a pole set up for food suspension, took off his clothes and began to shower. He was shortly thereafter joined by Peg. The appalled fifty moved down the mountain to give the end to enders (no pun intended) the privacy they so richly deserved. I stood next to the unabashed young woman who had tried to claim the shelter for her group and mentioned to Dick and Peg that their lack of modesty was showing. The young Canadian laughed and said she had grown up with six brothers and nothing new was being presented her. However, noting the movement of her group away from the shelter, she resigned herself to setting up camp in tents for the night-their Plan B. The rest of us went about our business of getting our meals prepared and our bed rolls laid out for the night.

We cleared the White Mountains. When we arrived at the foot of Mount Washington we found a postage stamp sized post office which enabled us to mail our heavy stuff to the summit, easing the hike up. Climbing it is always an exciting ascent for the hikers because of its well-earned reputation for mercurial weather. Our hike was uneventful and we enjoyed clear weather at the summit where we spent the night. The next morning we set out early and made a crowded shelter at about two in the afternoon. Dick, Peg, Dennis and I decided to go on chancing that we could make a decent campsite before dusk. A strong day hiker decided to hike with us. We made good progress over a couple of gentle mountains, but during the descent down Mount Lincoln, it became clear the day hiker was tiring and could not keep our pace. Dick, Peg and Dennis were of a mind to leave him, but I pulled up and stayed with him. Shortly thereafter, Dick and Peg slowed their pace. We were just descending below tree line when it became dark. We hiked with flashlights for a bit, but realized the batteries would give out if we relied on them. The trail was eroded into the mountain and it was slow going. The use of hiking sticks proved invaluable for finding sure footing in the dark. It was probably 10:30 when we reached a flat area where we could hear running water nearby. We were dog tired, pitched our tents hurriedly and climbed into our sleeping bags using our last bit of flashlight in the process.

In the morning after a sound sleep, we awoke to a beautiful, cascading brook. The trail paralleled it down the mountain where we found a modern tourist center and restaurant. We parted with the day hiker, who was glad to be rid of us, and sat down to a breakfast of pancakes, syrup and sausage.


In New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine the conifer forests dominate the mountainsides. In the fall, you spot the ribbons of color which represent the deciduous trees along the courses of water running through the mountains. In the valleys, that pattern seems to reverse and the deciduous dominate.

One really surprising occurrence is the sound absorbing qualities of the myriads of needles in the trees. One night we were camped at a shelter in the midst of the conifers on a moonless night. We had a campfire going and the group was talkative after a good day's hike. Nature called and I walked off along a trail flashlight in hand. As I walked out of earshot, the voices faded and without the flashlight on, it was ABSOLUTELY DARK AND SILENT-AS PROFOUND A SILENCE AS I HAVE EVER EXPERIENCED. WOW! That was an unexpected treat.


In nature, the struggle to survive is ongoing. In the flora and fauna, this process is observed but is not always immediate and pressing. The mountains themselves have been shaped by eons , the process of building, glaciations and erosion. The mountain brooks lined with rhododendron in riotous bloom have taken millennia to reach their current state. The constancy of these processes and the subtle beauty produced reassures us regardless of what we do.

However, there was a section of trail in North Carolina where some construction had been started on the mountainside. I was there in Spring when all other section were budding with life. Here, there was nothing but barren rock and silt. The water still trailed down the mountainside, but the delicate balance of the setting was disrupted by what looked like the work of bulldozers. Whatever was being constructed was a work in process the end result of which I have no knowledge. All I can say is, whatever it was, it sure was a mess when I saw it. In another section of trail in Pennsylvania approaching the Lehigh Valley, there was an abundance of blueberries along the Trail. The mountain itself was barren of trees. I later learned that that area was within a pollution zone of a plant that had made batteries. The emissions contained lead or something similar. The area was pretty well trashed for the foreseeable future. Being from Texas, I am not per se opposed to industry or development. But folks need to look beyond the pursuit of profit at the long term implications of what they are doing.


You meet lots of people along the trail. The other hikers are a resilient lot and we met usually in passing. I tended to poke along so pretty much anyone headed north would pass me along the way.

I tried each morning to shave, brush my teeth and comb my hair as a minimal effort to remain sociable. Changing into clean clothing was usually reserved for the trek off the trail into an adjacent community for supplies, to do laundry, and rest.

Meeting hikers coming from the opposite direction presented the opportunity to learn about trail conditions ahead, what was happening in the world, and the availability of water. Hikers passing me on their way north could clue me into who was likely to be along in the not too distant future. News was always welcome. If there was a crowd at the shelter, I always had the option of sleeping under the stars or pitching a tent. The campfire was always welcome, even on a hot summer night, if for no other reason than the light it provided.

In Virginia, during my first hike, after clearing the Jefferson National Forest, I descended a ridge following an abandoned, rerouted section of the trail. I crossed a field with an apple tree in the middle loaded with apples. Beyond, a split rail fence separated the field from a country road which, after a quarter mile walk, made a sharp turn to the left, paralleling a brook. Another quarter mile or so down the way was a small dam impounding the flowing water so that it formed a pool about four feet deep behind the dam. A pear tree loaded with pears stood between the road and dam and beneath a fellow stood watching his children play in the pool. I stopped to visit and commented on the pear tree reminding me of an orchard near Houston that I helped cultivate. Before long, he had invited me to have leftovers from his family's Sunday dinner. We walked across the road to a white, wooden frame farm house and I sat down in the kitchen to a veritable feast of fried chicken, string beans, mashed potatoes and the piece de resistance,
homemade apple pie a la mode. My enduring impression of Virginia is that gracious family, happy in the peace and beauty of that rural setting, on a bright Sunday morning.

The hike from Monson to Katahdin was apart from the group. My Svea stove had given out and I walked with food that didn't require cooking. Along the way, at one shelter was a fellow who had run out of supplies and funds. I dug into my reserve, gave him $10 and my address and shared my meal that night with him. I lent him my long sleeved shirt and an extra sweater for warmth for the night in addition to the fire. I shared breakfast with him the next morning and wished him well on his way after reclaiming the reserve clothing I had lent him. He made it out. When I got back to Houston, the $10 was waiting at home along with a thank you note from a parent.

On the hike up Katahdin, I carried a light pack with a couple of sets of reserve clothing-not knowing what we would find at the summit in mid-October. One of the hikers was a cardiologist who assured me the hike had "cleared my pipes". He was absolutely right. When I got back to Houston, within a month of returning, a doctor at the Diagnostic Clinic put me on a stress test. I maxed it out and was still going when they turned off the machine.

At the summit, the extra clothing came in handy for a day hiker who wasn't prepared for the freezing fog we ran into. I loaned him a wool sweater I had packed. I put on a rain suit which, with the other three layers, made for toasty warm walking. Unlike the wool, which wicked perspiration away, the rain suit trapped it and I was stuck with wearing it until we returned to more temperate climes lower on the mountain. We used the cairns to descend below Thoreau spring to the iron ladder. Along the way someone noticed the day hiker was not with us. One of the others turned back to locate him. I stayed beneath the ladder until they returned. He had gotten disoriented at the summit and had hiked out onto the knife's edge. He had realized his error and backtracked until he met the other hiker. Common sense and the concern of another had averted a potential tragedy in the making. That kind of responsible conduct on behalf of the hiker himself and the assisting hiker is essential and common among those who walk long distances.


Long distance hiking is not for everyone. When one lady I was visiting with learned that I had walked over 2000 miles, she asked, " Did you do that on purpose?" I thought a moment and responded, "Lady, you can't walk more than 2000 miles by accident." For some, just reading about the effort is sufficient. For those who want to try it, you will confront physical and psychological challenges that are considerable. Although there are notable exceptions, it is best done when one is relatively young in sound physical condition. I never regretted the "time out" and figured that one year out of a life time would be well spent admiring the work of the greatest of all architects-Nature. She is truly sublime in her design.

My single finest hiking day did not occur during the long, 1500 mile hike, nor on the previous 500 mile walk along the AT. The next year, 1984, in the Spring, I headed out again from Springer Mountain to rehike the first 200 miles of the trail. When I reached the high ridge of the Smokies, on the second or third day of the hike, I walked a simple 12 mile hike along a reasonably level stretch in early May, with wild flowers lining the trail along either side. About ten in the morning I spotted a Momma black bear and her cub. Momma went down the mountain. The cub went up a tree. Further along, at about the 6 mile mark, I found a shelter where I ate lunch which consisted of a peanut butter sandwich and some cool aid. The temperature in the shade was about 65 degrees. After noon, I started the second part of my day's hike and came to a large fallen log to the left of the trail. I startled a mating pair of Russian boar. The female ran across the trail and down the mountain. The male, ran behind her snorting in my direction as he followed close behind. I walked the remaining four miles uneventfully coming into a clearing which held a plum orchard in full bloom beneath a ridge. Deer were grazing deep in the orchard away from the shelter. After the passage of an hour, a fox in its winter coat began working the orchard. I sat quietly back in the shelter and watched it run to and fro until it came over the corner by the shelter and ran down the trail that led to the adjacent stream. As other hikers drifted in, having cooked dinner, I went up to the high ridge to take in the sunset.

"Tis a gift to be simple. Tis a gift to be free." is part of a lyric to the Shaker Hymn. It's the lyrical tune incorporated into Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copeland. When I hear that particular musical piece, I can imagine the many other sunrises and sunsets, the gracious country folk of Virginia, New Hampshire or New York. I recall a Mennonite couple with their children taking in a Sunday view of a valley to the west where their farm lay in Pennsylvania. To break the ice, I had only to say, "It is a privilege to meet someone who honors God in each thing that he or she does. I am Nick Kelsey. I'm hiking the length of the Appalachian Trail."

At the end of my first hike, I jumped up from Pearisburg, Va. To visit Monticello, Jefferson's home. I truly admired the intellect that brought to pen the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" in the midst of the seeming chaos of the day. I recall vividly the bust of Voltaire in the entrance way and the circular, brick, ice-storage vault where layers of ice and hay were alternated to permit Jefferson to serve chilled wine in mid-summer to his guests. The restoration of the garden was underway during that summer in the late 1970's. It was a fitting end to the first short effort on the trail.

Happy hiking to one and all.

Nick Kelsey

PS. The verse "Spring Fling" at the beginning was penned shortly after the end of the day in the plum orchard along the ridge of the Great Smokey Mountains in May 1984. "Cub Encounter" was composed as I completed this summary.


I saw the momma bear
She saw me.
The momma went down
The mountain.
The cub went up a tree.