THE ACCIDENTAL THRU-HIKER: WALKING THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL, Part four

The Appalachian Trail, also referred to as the AT, has a life of it’s own. It also has a language of it’s own. The vernacular is definitely easier than learning french. Less than a week on the trail left me speaking Hiker Talk. NOBO, SOBO, nero, zero, double zero, trail gaiting, yellow, white and blue blazing, slack packing (didn’t do it!), ‘hike your own hike’, purist, trail magic, trail angel, privy and ‘yogi’ (and I don’t mean the bear). These terms and more started rolling off my tongue like I was born on the trail.

 

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Not sure what putting the feet up literally on the trail is called, but we did a lot of this, too.

 

 

Let’s get started.

 

 

Yellow blazing: walking paved roads instead of hiking the trail. This is where the saying “hike your own hike” comes into play. By criticizing other hikers who, say, decide to hike pavement instead of the trail, you are instead reminded to focus on your own hike. Why hike pavement instead of trail, you ask? Two reasons: 1) to shorten the distance by taking a more direct route instead of a circuitous meandering trail or 2) avoiding the elevation gain of a trail continually climbing and descending by walking the road. The yellow in yellow blazing refers to the yellow paint on the side of a road. I think it can also mean hitch-hiking which obviously lessens the distance, but I won’t get into that, because well, you’ve just got to hike your own hike. To each their own. This is part of the AT culture and style of hiking the trail. Even Bill Bryson, in his book ‘A Walk in the Woods’, said that after hiking a good portion of the trail he no longer found it necessary to hike it all. Apparently to some, it’s all pretty much the same green tunnel. I digress. I should just go ‘hike my own hike’ before I get into trouble here.

 

 

Slack packing refers to, in a non-derogatory way, a slacker. In this instance, it refers to a slacker way of backpacking – backpacking without the backpack. You do this by enlisting the many services offered by people that will drive you to one trailhead, picking you up at the other. You then cover a longer distance you would be able to hike with a pack and do it in a day. For example, there might be thirty miles of trail between to roads. This would take an average of two days. You instead hike this distance in a day carrying a daypack filled with sandwiches and snacks. Cheating you say? “Hike Your Own Hike”.

 

 

The purist is the hiker who hikes every foot of the trail. Purists are made fun of more than slack packers, yellow blazers and hitch hikers. ‘Oh, you’re a purist’. We heard this more than once. Peter and I do like to stick to the trail proper. Hiking our own hike is hiking the actual trail.

 

 

NOBO and SOBO refers to direction, Northbound or Southbound. Somewhere along the way someone decided more signs read ‘Maine to Georgia’ than ‘Georgia to Maine’. They figured one way was the right way. Who knew there could be pretentious hikers. Last time I checked, hiking was hard no matter the direction. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a wrong or right direction in hiking those 2,185 miles?

 

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Zero, nero, double zero. These refer to rest days. The Zero is a complete day off. Zero mileage for the day. Nearly a Zero is a Nero. This is when you hike just a few miles in a day. A typical Nero day can be when you’ve camped a few miles from the road you’ll hitch from the next morning to the resupply-layover town. Also common is when a hiker leaves town late in the day and hikes only a few miles up the trail before camping. A Nero is a personal number. For me, it’s about three to seven miles.

 

 

A typical Nero is filled with anticipation. The thought of McDonalds, for instance, and not one but two deluxe breakfast specials, a smoothie and big coffee, even though in ‘normal’ life you wouldn’t be caught dead in McD’s. Or perhaps you’ve been in town and leave late after eating your face off and drinking a few beers before noon. You leave with little daylight and just make it to a camp spot near the road. Not that I did any of this.

 

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Beer. Nero.

 

 

Though a Zero technically means no hiking for the day, you end up walking a fair amount to buy groceries, eat in a restaurant, wash clothes in a laundromat, mail off gear at a post office, finding stove fuel in a hardware store. A rest day includes all this walking around on tired feet in addition to repairing gear, drying out sleeping bags, rain jackets, pants and boots. It often feels more exhausting than hiking. Which is why a Zero can lead to a Double Zero. Two days off. Not sure what a week off trail is called but I’m sure there is a name for that, too.

 

 

Trail gaiting is like tail gaiting only no cars are involved. After 23 years in sports that involved drafting, I found I had a natural ability to hike close enough to Peter to unfortunately get hit in the head at times with his hiking poles. Call it a hiker pace line. Only the lead, for us, rarely changed.

 

 

White blazes are the trail markers painted on the trees along the trail. One vertical slash of white paint on trees for 2,185 miles. That’s a lot of paint. The amazing thing is all these blazes are painted and re-painted by volunteers. The blue blazes are the same but, well, blue. They mark side trails to shelters, water sources and privies.

 

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White blaze

 

 

 

Which brings me to the privy. That’s the john. The outhouse. The poop shack. Some are a little on the gross side, others have wheelchair access in the most rugged backcountry. There is a 329 page manual on the internet if you’re interested in the merits of the moldering privy system. All I can say is it’s easier than the shovel at the shelters not privy to a privy.

 

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Not so nice privy.

 

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Nice privy.

 

 

 

Trail magic comes in many forms. It can be something serendipitous where you just happen to meet someone, they know you’re hiking, they offer food. It can be intentional where a person goes to a high volume section at the right time and place and set up an impromptu hot dog/hamburger stand. It can be catching a ride into town before your thumb goes up. It can be a fellow hiker offering a sip of bourbon he got from another weekend hiker the night before. It is any form of random act of kindness intentional or not.

 

 

For us, it came in the form of Billie and Carlos from Haiwassee, Georgia. We nero-ed into town and parked ourselves in the grocery store eating area. Coffee, treats and warmth were all we needed to be happy. A couple sat at a table close to ours and had their deli lunch. We got up to attack the salad bar and they asked, as everyone die, ‘are you hiking the trail?’ followed by ‘you must be cold!’. We told them we were from Canada which led to the next common response ‘Canada! Oh, we love Canada. You must be plenty used to the cold.’. They asked where we’d spend xmas and we said ‘on the trail!’ like it was a good thing. Billie would not let us buy our lunch. ‘Think of it as your xmas dinner, you poor things.’ We couldn’t say no without offending them. Getting our salads another lady approached. ‘You’re hiking the trail!’ Why yes, we are. ‘I’m going to pay your hotel. My grandson hiked that trail with is dog and you know, people all over, they picked him up and gave him and his dog rides everywhere. I like helping the hikers because so many people helped him!’. This we could not accept. But the offer was sweet. Like I said, trail magic, and it comes from ‘trail angels’.

 

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Billie and Carlos.

 

 

Which leads me to the last of the lexicon: Yogi. Yogi Bear was known to be a mooch. Hikers who perform the act of yogi-ing are just that. For example, walking into a café, ‘well, sure am thirsty, that was a long thirty miles…’ or walking into a campground ‘what’s that you’re BBQing? Steak? I can’t think of once in the last 1,986 miles I’ve even smelled a steak cooking. Enjoy your dinner…what? Would I like to eat with you? No, no…really it’s ok…I have some ramen noodle soup that’ll be just fine…well, okay, if you insist! I can share some stores of the last 1,986 miles with you…’ That’s how it goes. The worst thing is when hikers try to yogi things out of other hikers. Brutal. Which was why we politely refused the offer of the hotel being paid for. We weren’t even yogi-ing that one (and don’t partake in the whole yogi thing, anyway), but it was just too much. Best to not exhaust the trail angels of their fairy dust.

 

 

There’s certainly more terms than this but you get the picture. It’s a whole other world on trail. We’re looking forward to be back in it later this week.

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