Starting on the Appalachian Trail

This is my first post about hiking, so I think it should be about my first days really hiking. That would be July 1 and 2, 2010. It already seems like an eternity ago, so much has happened since then.

July 1

I had been at a conference in Quebec City in the days leading up to July 1. It had gone well and I had given a talk that I thought was pretty well-received. But more important for me on that day was that I had gone to MEC and bought a bunch of backpacking gear. In fact, I had mailed all my possessions home from Germany to Calgary the week before, so I was really planning to live on the trail. I had no alternative.

I shaved one last time before my trip, took my new gear, and walked to the rental-car agency. I had booked a car the day before and knew it would be open, even though it was Canada Day. The drive from Quebec to Maine was long and pretty boring. The only slightly-eventful thing that happened was that the border guards really gave me a hard time, eventually saying something like "Well, we have to let him in, he's a citizen." I guess they don't have much to do at that particular crossing, so they make the most of it when they get someone with even a slightly strange story.

I arrived in Bangor, Maine and needed to do some food shopping. I knew that I had the dreaded 100-mile wilderness ahead of me, meaning that I might not get to a store for 10 days. The stuff I bought then seems rather comical now. I had a pound of rice and four or five Indian meals that were not dehydrated. Also a full jar of peanut butter and a full jar of jelly. And two different kinds of non-dehydrated hummus. I'm pretty sure it all fit into my food bag eventually, but it took some doing.

I returned the car at the airport and then took the airport bus from the airport to the bus terminal. It turned out that the bus terminal was walking distance from the rental-car agency, but I didn't find that out until I was already on the bus.

I got to the bus terminal and asked for a ticket to Millinocket. It turned out that I wasn't the first to do that on that day: two other people were already there that were going to the trailhead. They would become known to me as Picker and Grinner, and I would walk with them for about 1000 miles. They obviously knew what they were doing. They had sent their food ahead to the Inn at Millinocket and had booked a ride there. Grinner had also already hiked the trail, so I was sure that I was safe tagging along with them.

At the inn, I met a couple more people that were starting the same day as me: Oblio and his dad. We had a beer at the bar down the street and discussed the trail ahead.

July 2

After a night of pretty poor sleep (I was excited and there were snorers), we got up bright and early at 5:30 the next morning. The inn came with a deal that you get breakfast at the diner, so I met up with Oblio and his dad, and we came up with trail names for ourselves. Since I had been doing my postdoc in Computational Geometry just before the trail, I became known as Dr. Geo. Oblio's dad was in marketing, and assured me that this was a fine name.

We piled into the innkeeper's truck and headed for the trail. The first task of a southbound AT thru-hike is to climb Mount Katahdin. In fact, the climb doesn't even count, because the trail starts at the top. Since we would be coming back, we left our full packs at the Baxter Park ranger station, and took the loaner day-packs that they provide. That would be the only time that I hiked without my full pack over the next 4500 miles.

It was a good thing that we had light packs, because Katahdin is a monster. It is probably the most technical climbing on the trail, requiring you to pull yourself up with your hands at many points. However, the views are great. At some points, you feel like you are in an airplane, you can see so far. There are even great waterfalls near the base. I know some people bathed in the pools beneath the falls, but the water was far too cold for me. However, I did get my picture taken at the summit so that I could prove that I had started the trail.

We started our hike from the summit back down the mountain. It was even harder going down than going up. When we got to the bottom, everyone was pretty tired. Especially for the first day of hiking, Katahdin is really hard. We made our camp at Baxter Park. Of course, I was very poorly organized and hadn't realized that you must book a campsite there, so I shared with Oblio and his dad.

It was a night of firsts for me. I hadn't lit my stove before. It didn't want to work with my flint, so I had to borrow a lighter. I hadn't used a water filter before, so I needed to do that for the first time as well. Cooking outside was also a new experience, and I undercooked the rice pretty woefully. But after a hard day of hiking, any warm food is pretty good. After that, I set up my brand-new hammock for the first time and climbed into my brand-new sleeping bag. The hammock sagged so much that my bum almost touched the ground, but I didn't care – I was in bed and my journey had started.

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