Recently I’ve become acquainted with a 2011 successful thru-hiker Zach Davis aka Badger. Never met the geezer, but he’s a stand-up chap and he’s helped me out with helpful insights into trail life and his book sure helped put things into perspective like no other literature I’ve read on the subject.
He is the author of the wonderful and original book Appalachian Trials. I recently had the pleasure to ask him a few questions about the trail and some of his experiences.
You talk about psychological preparedness for the trail in your book Appalachian Trials, what would be your number one tip for being prepared in this way?
Have an extremely solid understanding for why you’re hiking the trail. There will come a point during every hiker’s journey where they ask themselves, “why the shit am I doing this?” Usually it coincides with a nagging injury, a stint of nasty weather, or even more general psychological issues (homesickness, loneliness, etc.). All of these feelings and conditions are temporary, but without a good answer, hikers run a serious risk of throwing in the towel. I actually advocate for people to write their reasons down, not only why they’re hiking the trail, but what they want to get out of it, and how big of a piece of shit they will feel like if they quit on themselves. There’s a hidden power behind writing these goals down. The 20-30 minutes that it takes to do so, can make the difference between finishing and failing.
The one thing you shouldn’t do, in your opinion?
To build elaborate schedules, whether it be mail drops or distance estimations. Somehow this became traditional AT preparation wisdom. Every time someone says the word “bounce box”, I throw up in my mouth a little bit. Going through the hassle to send yourself state maps (which you won’t ever use), extra batteries (which can easily be obtained at every town), and extra food (see: batteries), is an amazing waste of time. The AT is viewed as a physical and logistical challenge, and correspondingly, that’s how people are preparing. It’s simply not the case. Backpacking for a half year is a psychological challenge above all else. If hikers replaced the time they spent organizing bounce boxes and mail drops with building a strong mindset, I’m convinced the failure rate would drop drastically.
What’s the one thing you would have loved to have with you on the trail that you couldn’t due to weight?
A refrigerator. Seriously. Eating processed food for a half year will render you craving fruit and vegetables like a crack addict come trail’s end. I’ve eaten one candy bar in the seven months since I finished.
What’s the most desperate meal you ever prepared on trail?
Spam and instant mashed potatoes inside of a tortilla. It tasted only slightly better than barf. Mostly because there was Spam in it though.
Was there any moment that you think you came close to death or bad injury?
In the Smokies, I made the mistake of trying to do a 23-mile day through the snow. Not only was my body not yet capable for that sort of mileage, the cold conditions and slippery terrain made for a much greater physical expenditure than it would have otherwise been. With roughly one mile left, I could feel my body starting to shut down from fatigue. I stopped and dumped a Starbucks Via (instant coffee) into my mouth and rubbed snow on my face and neck to try and wake me up. Didn’t do much. I completely blacked out the last half mile. I feel extremely fortunate that I ended up at the shelter. Being in the middle of a dark, snowy woods without really having any control over your brain is a pretty terrifying reality.
Oh and I got West Nile Virus. That sucked too.
On your stinkiest day, from how far away could we have smelled you?
Assuming I was in Damascus, Virginia, you could have smelled me from Morocco, Africa (depending on which direction the wind was blowing).
If there was one moment that could sum up the whole trip for you, what would it be?
Trail Angel Jeff.
One day, myself and a couple of hikers (WHOOP! and Road Dog) decided to do a 24-mile day to get away from a guy who gave off very rapey/murdery vibes. Again, this was within the first couple weeks of the trail- we had no business doing this many miles. By the time we reached the highway to hitch a ride to Franklin, it was so late that there was almost no traffic, therefore slim hopes of getting a ride. Additionally, we had no energy to do much other than sit and helplessly wave our thumbs at the few cars that did drive by from afar. Finally, one car (driving in the opposite direction of where we needed to go), whipped a shitty (Wisconsin terminology for doing a U-turn) to check to see if we were okay. His hatchback was full of outdoors equipment (kayak, backpacks, tennis rackets, etc.)- there was no way were fitting three hikers in there. Somehow though, Jeff (his name) waived a magic wand and made just enough space to pile three extra stinky hikers into his very cluttered, not so spacious vehicle. He drove us 15 miles in the opposite direction of where we were heading, joined us for dinner, got very drunk, and ended up crashing with us at our hotel and left us a flask of whiskey before taking off in the morning.
He also gave his contact info and told us to come stay with him when we were in Wanyesboro (a trail town in northern Virginia). One month later, we did exactly that and have a whole series of other awesome stories attached to that trip. I’ve kept in touch with Jeff ever since.
I use this as an example, because it’s these stories that make the trail what it is. Everyone encounters some unlikely twist of awesome fate. Our trail magic supreme just so happened be to brought to us by Trail Angel Jeff.
Any classic quotes from someone that you’ll always remember?
Road Dog always had some hilarious insight for every situation. Most of them are way too inappropriate to quote, however. I’ll go with his usage of explaining “horngry” (hungry + horny) to a various groups of other hikers.
Since that’s not really a quote, I will leave you with this ( I can’t remember who said it, sorry to whoever coined it):
“Don’t decide to quit on an uphill. Don’t decide to quit on a rainy day.” This is essentially embodies the roller coaster perfectly. Just when you think you’re knee deep in rhino dookie, the rainy day turns into sun and your spirits return to their sky-high home.
If you could broadly classify all thru-hikers into a few categories, what would they be?
Recent college grads, those who hate their jobs (where I was), those having an especially difficult time finding a job, and retirees.
How many miles a day would you walk in the first month in hindsight?
I had a few days where I did 20+ miles, which was a mistake (see: almost dying in the Smokies). Although it’s hard to stay disciplined, but you should always stop before you hit that point of extreme fatigue. For the first 2-3 weeks, no more than 16-18 miles would be the smart approach.
Did you meet any foreign hikers? How did they compare to your average gringo hiker?
Lots of them. Especially German hikers. Apparently they ran a special on the AT in Germany in late 2010, and as a result caused a swarm of interest in the trail. I befriended an English guy (Mayo), an Australian lady (Gipcgirl), a Canadian dude (blanking on his name – shit). They were awesome, and honestly not discernibly different from any of the gringo hikers maybe aside from accent.
Are hot girls still hot after a week on the trail?
Hotter. You’re going to be surrounded by 90% dudes. Any female’s stock is going to skyrocket by approximately 350%.
What was your highest/lowest point on the trail?
See the next question.
The worst toilet related incident on the trail?
Pooping in the rain is pretty horrible. You’ll see.
So yeah, that’s my first interview! Ha.
A quality original take on the Appalachian Trail.
Thanks again to Zach Badger Davis