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.
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.
NATURE RED IN TOOTH AND CLAW
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
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
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
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.
INSTINCT-THE SIXTH SENSE
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
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
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
SILENCE OF THE CONIFER FOREST
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
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.
SCARS ON THE MOUNTAINSIDE
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.
FOLKS ALONG THE WAY
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
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.
A TIME FOR EVERY PURPOSE
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.
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.
saw the momma bear
She saw me.
The momma went down
The cub went up a tree.