Life Beyond the Trail

We are in the middle of Virginia, the longest state on the Appalachian Trail, covering 550 miles or a quarter of what thru-hikers have to walk. Gone are 6,000-foot peaks, replaced by many miles of relatively flat terrain of walking on ridges. While there are still peaks and challenges like the famed “roller coaster,” the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee” are gone. The miles go by quickly now. Our legs are stronger and the terrain is easier.

By now we have noticed that walking the Appalachian Trail is a very different life. It’s greatest hurdle, besides injuries and illness, is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. And getting used to not having the things of life that create a softer existence. Starbucks isn’t just a short walk away. The lure of TV and games on our electronic devices disappear, replaced by being in the wilderness. A soft warm bed is replaced by sleeping away from home.

Gone are those things that move us away from what our ancestors did on a daily basis. It wasn’t uncommon a few centuries ago to walk twenty miles in a day. The process of getting food wasn’t a visit to a supermarket but could take up an entire day. Simple things we obtain so easily off the trail require much more thought when you are between the lines of the Appalachian Trail.

Modern life offers a life of being comfortable. Seductively luring us into gravitating to the comfortable. We have our routines and not all routines are productive but comfortable. A far cry from setting up camp, making sure everything we need is in our backpacks. Or planning closely a hike that can stretch to fifteen or twenty miles. Thinking through the best source of water for the day. Almost every act between the lines of this trail requires intentional and purposeful thought.

But is also about how we treat others. Everyone we meet out here has a story. They come from many places and each person is special. Not just geographically, but in their life journey. We have miles to walk and taking this time requires effort. So what if we are 15 minutes later than our plan. It’s one of the habits we have to break. Perhaps it’s helping a young woman getting a shuttle to make a plane flight. Perhaps it’s helping a person find water. Perhaps it’s catching up with a person we haven’t seen for a while. There are a lot of warm “hello’s.” These intentional acts of being genuinely hospitable are what we want to bring back. We see the goodness of humanity out here and desire to bring that back outside the lines of the trail.

We know people in our lives that don’t have to hike the Appalachian Trail to learn this lesson. They are both self-motivated and driven by the circumstances of life to lead this life. Whether it’s Geoff and Bern, who both have demanding careers. Or Cathy and David, who are putting children through school and working hard for retirement. Or Lou, who runs three churches and is the Chaplain for multiple first responders. All of our children have lives that require them to get up at dawn and not rest until the evening.

Being purposeful is hard. On the trail, it is easier because you have no choice. There is no escalator to climb a hill or car to drives the miles you need to go.

Out here we have to make a plan and then do it. Halfway through our day, we don’t get the chance to say that’s enough. We have to move on to our endpoint. Obstacles pop every day, but we have to keep moving and they are overcome.

We have to have a constant eye on the weather, this might mean we have to quicken our pace to get away from a thunderstorm or on a sunny day enjoy a moment of the blissful beauty of nature. Every day we have choices and decisions to make.

Of all the things we have learned to this point, this is one of the major points. We debate how and what does this mean when we return to our normal lives? Can we fight off the distractions of a life outside the lines of the trail and stay purposeful?

We discuss this as we walk to create a life plan that makes life more purposeful. We will read about how others have made this transition. For us these discussions will involve items like; being more committed to our faith and neighbors,  figuring out how to be closer to our families and friends, and doing those meaningful things that give us and others joy.

This may mean we never have a house we call home but learning how to call wherever we are home. For me, it means continuing my work of helping others with their faith and daily lives. It also means being more committed to helping great organizations like TMF and UMDF. It means being more selective and deeper in what we work on and not spreading ourselves so thin we can’t really make a lasting impact.

It will mean doing good in all that we can. Avoiding those influences that will create negativity in our lives. With the rawness of walking this trail, we see the importance of this mindset. It is simple out here because you have no other choice.

We know we are so very blessed in our lives; we have both sets of parents in our lives, 4 children, 3 grandchildren, 23 nieces and nephews, 18 brothers and sisters with their spouses, and more friends than we could have hoped for. Focusing on our friends and family is part of living a more intentional life.

Making this all work in a meaningful way is our goal. It’s what we have been learning these last nine weeks. While always remembering, God has been good to us.

Our journey between the lines of the Appalachian Trail has changed from being about the numbers and miles to experiences and smiles. No longer caught up with those things of life that are unimportant.

The journey is what matters.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

It’s About the Smiles, Not Just the Miles

I saw him sitting at a diner, early one morning in Damascus, Virginia. He hobbled in with a cane and looked defeated. I could tell he was a hiker, he was wearing the rubber clogs we all wear and he hadn’t shaved in a while. His head was down and his eyes had no life. He was defeated.

I said hello and asked how he was doing. He replied, “I am done and going home.” Right there in the diner, he gave up his trek! The previous four days he had hiked over twenty-five miles a day. His goal was to get to Damascus and stay on his timeline. During the downhill stretch into Damascus, he hit some mud and fell on a rock. The fall plus the impact on his body from walking many miles that last four days were the final straws.

I knew telling him, he had just completed the hardest stretch for the next thousand miles wasn’t going to change his mind. I have seen this look before. It’s not just the fall and hard walking, he had no joy. His smiles were gone from chasing miles.

Early on we had been warned about chasing miles, by a former thru-hiker, Steve. He cautioned us to remember why we were hiking. To remember our goals and hike our own hike. Sure there are faster hikers and those that get caught up in imaginary rules. Our hike isn’t their hike or vice versa. This is our journey and our time. Their hike is their hike. Steve’s caution was wise. For this man, maybe forgoing a few miles would have prevented his defeat and allowed him to carry on many more miles.

We had three goals when we started. The first was to stay hiking for six months and visit all fourteen states. The second was to significantly increase our fitness. The third was to discover a simpler life.

To stay on the trail, there has to be joy. There has to be things that make the experience magical. Things like riding a bike alongside the trail on a perfect spring day and going by babbling brooks. Or seeing and being with the wild ponies on Grayson Highland. Or laughing when I went through the famed “Fat Man Squeeze” on top of Whitetop mountain. Or eating chocolate cake and a hotdog at a trailside cafe well before noon. These are the things that bring us joy on the trail. Off the trail, we absorb the life of the many small towns we pass through. There are so many things we have seen and experienced that now are irreplaceable memories. We know more are coming. Steve was right, it’s about the smiles, not the miles.

When we fall behind or have to help a daughter move. We skip the boring segments. We still stay on schedule, but always remember our three goals.

When we started we wanted to get physically fit. In just a few weeks that has happened. We have lost some weight, and we are much stronger. We do the hills and are now stretching our days out to around fifteen miles a day. We always laugh at night, when we look at the App on our iPhone that says we walked forty thousand steps and climbed over 300 floors. This seems unreal and quite humorous. We can now pass other hikers here and there, instead of always being the ones getting passed. We are making progress, but have much more to go with our fitness.

Having a simpler life just happens when you hike this trail and are committed to really disconnecting. We eat, hike and sleep, that’s it. All of our daily logistics center around, where are we sleeping? How are we getting there? Where is the next water stop?

Pretty much that’s our day. In the midst of all this, each day we see the wonders of God’s creation. We meet inspiring people. We visit the towns of rural America. We pat wild ponies. It’s enough for us.

I feel bad for the man who quit. He passed up too many chances to see the Rhododendron’s bloom. He passed by places with meandering streams. He missed the joyful things. He lost the joy that supports us on those days of trouble. He was slowly whittled away by the self-imposed rules that put his head down instead of up.

I could tell he was a good person. He loved his family and especially his three nieces. He is the kind of guy who you could trust. His moral compass was pointed north. He was stripped away by missing the point of being out here. It’s your own hike and your not competing with someone else. It’s about you and doing whatever you can to keep walking. To do this means making sure joy is part of your hike.

This journey is hard some days, much like life. But what would make it harder if we didn’t do those things that give us lasting memories? This doesn’t mean we don’t climb big mountains or try hard every day. It means stopping on a bridge and debating where the trout are in the river. It means hiking within ourselves and walking to the beat of our drummer. Just like in life, it’s hard to be great without joy.

Our Joy comes in looking back at the mountain we just climbed and being amazed that we climbed it to the top. Our joy comes with the people and places we see. It even comes just walking alone in our thoughts.

The smiles create the miles.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Climbing Peaks

We are approaching mile 600 and the big mountains are past us now. While many still exist, they are less numerous and generally smaller. It’s not until we hit New England will the steep climbs reappear. One of the sayings we hear a lot is, “Never decide to quit on a climb.” We certainly are aware of this temptation. Steep five-mile climbs are daunting and test our perseverance.

The toughest climbs are those that range from 2 to 6 in miles length. And it is the grade that counts. For instance, a 5-mile climb that only goes up a 1,000 feet is not too severe and can be handled fairly easily. The grade on this climb averages 2%. However, an ascent of 2.5 miles with an altitude gain of 2,000 feet is very different. The grade averages 16% on this ascent, with parts of the climbing hitting 40%!

During the first 500 miles, many days involved multiple climbs. Some days we ascended over 4,000 feet. Or equal to climbing the Empire State Building close to 4 times in a day. Without a doubt, climbing is the hardest and most discussed part of hiking the Appalachian Trail by hikers.

We plan everything around these ascents. We try to start the day with a big ascent. We plan where we eat or get a water based on the climbs we have to make.

The key to hiking up these big ascents is based on conditioning, weight, leg length and coping. The first three are obvious what is required. The better your physical fitness the easier the climb. Extra Weight with both the backpack and body will slow you down. Leg length is the length of a person’s gait. The longer the gait, the easier to climb. But coping skills are the key to any ascent.

Connie sings hymns when she climbs as her coping mechanism. I pray at the start and break the climb into manageable parts. The first steps are hardest! But as we keep moving it always gets easier. Part of coping is being patient with your pace. In other words, if it’s steep, naturally you will go slower, which is okay. Thinking about how much you have to go is defeating, it’s far better to stay in the moment and not worry about what’s left. Staying focused on what is directly in front of you is critical to coping. Even an inch can climb a mountain.

Hiking poles help a lot. Coordinating your steps with your hiking polls give you the opportunity to also pull yourself forward. Similar to cross country skiing, coordinating your stride and your poles is important. Effectively adding more power to your climb. This takes time and conditioning to learn, but once learned greatly reduces the efforts.

We also use smaller hills to improve our conditioning. For instance, if have a hill that’s less than a one mile climb, we try to keep our pace the same as if we were on a flat stretch. Attacking these smaller climbs in this manner, while exhausting, improves our conditioning for the bigger climbs.

When we first started, it could take us an hour to climb 1 mile on the steepest terrain, with many stops. Today, we can climb at 2 miles an hour and generally not have to take a break.

Pace is an important measurement of conditioning. On flat terrain with few rocks and roots, we can now hike three to four miles in an hour. Our pace slows on the steep climbs not just because of ascent, but also the obstacles, like boulders and roofs. Pace is also affected by the breaks we take as well. Breaks for rest, food and bathroom, slow us down. A good day is anything above two miles an hour. This is the average pace for most hikers.

When we do reach the top, it is surprising how quickly the climb efforts are replaced with a sense of accomplishment. And after 6 weeks of climbing on a regular basis, we quickly recover now. At the top we also quickly forget the struggle of the climb, our breath returns to normal and we move to the next segment of the hike. But always grateful for completing the challenge.

While we are glad the first 500 miles, with the big climbs, are behind us, keeping our climbing conditioning is important for the last 500 miles of this journey. New England is the last 500 miles and has steeper climbs than what we have done. As we move through the flatter part of the trail, we know that each climb is important in preparing us for the mountains of New England.

Climbing is a lot like life and faith. True accomplishments aren’t achieved without effort. We have found the more we climb, the easier it is. Not that the climbs aren’t hard, they are. But we have learned how to cope and the exhaustion doesn’t last as long as the joy is sustained. Our lives are like that as well. This will be something we take away from climbing.

So it is with our faith. We pray more out here and we see the work of God more often. We see it the natural beauty and how connected nature is within itself. We see events that at first seem ordinary, turn into faith messages. We have fewer distractions, which helps us be more immersed and observant. Climbing mirrors this, faith requires an investment that is a sustained effort. The more we look for God, the more we see God.

For us it is in the morning prayer we say at the beginning of each day’s hike. As well as the thankful prayers at meals. Also, with the daily struggles that we pray. We receive and see our answers throughout the day.

Climbing is hard but worth the effort. It makes us stronger. We get to see the wonders of God in person from lofty peaks.

We don’t like to climb, but we have to climb if we want to succeed.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

A MEMORIAL TO RONALD SANCHEZ FROM THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL

Late Friday night on the Appalachian Trail, May 10th, Ronald Sanchez was stabbed and died while trying to stave off an attack by a psychologically impaired man. The attacker’s name is unimportant. In the late hours, after a long hiking day, four people were harassed by this not to be named person, eventually leading to Ronald Sanchez’s death and a woman being left critically wounded.

Importantly, Sanchez was a veteran that suffered from PTSD as a result of serving in Iraq. Ronald had decided to hike the trail this year to help cope with PTSD and his ongoing depression. Known on the trail as a shy man, but exceedingly polite. At home in Oklahoma, he was thought of in the same way.

His sister in an interview reflected on her brother and his attempt to recover from the effects of serving in Iraq. He came home and became divorced. Struggling to try to fit in he joined many sports clubs. He rode his bike with a riding club in his hometown. He was a member of the local Dragon boat team. He participated in local events as a way to overcome his natural shyness.

He was fit and strong for the age of 43. He used athletic activities to break out of his shell and recover from PTSD and depression. His sister stated his death was devastating to those back home in Oklahoma. Having survived a number of stints in Iraq, it is ironic that he met his demise in the country he defended.

While much has been written about the events that led up to his death. We feel that it is more important to recognize who he was as a person and to ask for prayers of comfort for his family and the woman wounded with him. The woman, not yet identified, is going to survive, but likely scarred for life, both physically and emotionally.

We are saddened by this gentle person’s death and in our minds struggling with why this had to happen. It doesn’t add up. So we turn to prayer for his family, his soul and the woman. While we would love to do more, this is the best we can do. Perhaps letting others know more about the victim in some way honors his life. Perhaps creating a few more prayers of comfort for his family and the wounded woman.

It has been harder to hike the last few days knowing about these events. We are a little more suspicious about those we meet. We have reviewed our own self-protection plans. We won’t be sleeping outdoors for a while. We will be wearing the letters R and S to honor Ronald.

We know others of this wonderful hiking community feel the same. For the group of thru-hikers of the class of 2019, the hike has changed. It will be forever remembered by the death of Ronald Sanchez.

Our joy of being surrounded by God’s creation lifts our spirits. Our being part of this wonderful community of hikers, who are gracious and giving of themselves, restores our faith in humanity. Particularly over the last few days, all we have met have shown their goodness. Like a man we met whose trail name is, “The Rev”, his gentle spirit is symbolic of whom you meet out here.

It is still hard reconciling how a gentle and kind man, whose goal in hiking this trail was to recover from the effect of serving his country, died. Our hearts are broken for those he left behind and the woman in recovery.

We know we are supposed to pray and ask that others pray for those who were affected by this tragedy.

We ask that those who know about this tragedy, say a prayer for Ronald and the injured woman, in Jesus’s name.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

We are arriving in Roan, Tennessee, mile 395. Another great small town on the trail. We have had many moments of wonder. The joy of climbing up another mountain, amazing vistas, the serenity of being on top of Max Patch, and having a nap alongside a bubbling creek. There are many moments of joy from being surrounded by God’s glorious creation.

By now the trail is less crowded and many have dropped off. We don’t judge those who have quit the trail, because they have already encountered and accomplished many great things. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “It’s not the critic that counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the diet of good deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the person in the arena.”

Being out here you appreciate this quote. Those who leave, leave not because they quit, but because of unexpected circumstances. There are many things that pop up along the way that can wear you down; weather, injuries, illness, lack of money or the pull of home. It is hard to climb two or three peaks in a day. It is hard to scramble over boulders. It is hard to trip and fall, once again.

Weather is a constant companion that needs to be watched carefully. Hiking in the rain, wind or cold makes for a long day. While many days are sunny and the trail gleams with the life of spring, thunderstorms, wind, and the cold spar with those who trudge on. A shelter may be many miles away.

Injuries pop up, not just from a single incident, but from the repetitive use of muscles and tendons. Some leave because walking long miles outstrips their bodies ability to recover. Perhaps it is blisters that won’t heal or maybe a knee that got twisted and couldn’t recover. The most common injury we see is knee pain, caused by the steep downhills. Knees that got wrenched from an ill-placed step. Or perhaps some unknown structural issue that pops up on a four mile downhill littered with roots and rocks, creating pain that prevents sleep.

Illness is a constant prey, waiting for an unsuspecting victim who forgot to wash their hands. It comes in the form of a Noro-virus. Many of the hikers at some point get sick because of this constantly lurking ailment. It takes up to four days to recover. Some have to leave because of this illness. Personally, we avoid shelters and tent to avoid disease. Even with this precaution we still caught the Noro-virus.

Many, particularly the younger hikers, run out of money. Unexpected problems pop up and require money to resolve. Perhaps a failed tent or an ill-fitting backpack, all of which requires money to fix. Perhaps a freak snowstorm and freezing temperatures that force us to go to a hotel.

When we are away for 6 months our families, friends, and home are far away. There are weddings, funerals, and illnesses that can be missed. The events of our families create homesickness and obligations to return. For some this long period of being away doesn’t create a need to go home, for others they have no choice.

Many focus on the miles and not the adventure. Focusing on the miles can be daunting and overwhelming. They miss the babbling brooks, scenery and people. Focusing on the miles is a mindset brought to the trail from the outside. Creating an adventure is missed with this mindset. Sure we are proud of ourselves when we walk fourteen miles or make one last late day climb. But there is so much more to experience than just checking off the miles walked. Our friend Steve, a former thru-hiker, told us that those who worry about the miles fail to finish. Just walking the miles isn’t enough to overcome the hardships. The experiences keep you on the trail. Every day is a new day with a new blessing.

It would be easy to judge those who leave, but those of us who are left know how hard they worked. From the third day climbing Blood Mountain and it’s soaring heights. Followed by an extraordinary descent over boulders, we know what they accomplished. Getting to the 100-mile mark requires climbing 20+ peaks in a period of 8-12 days. Perhaps camping out in below freezing weather. By mile 100 they have tumbled and had a significant fall.

In our minds, those who were in the arena have tried. They haven’t failed, they have experienced.

We march on knowing something new is down the trail.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

One of the most frequent questions we get is, “What do you eat?” Well, we eat a lot and often. Keeping the body fueled is almost as important as drinking plenty of water. Generally, the average hiker carries two pounds of food for every day between resupply. Some carry as much as a week, our most has been five days. Plus, we have learned to carry an extra day of food to prevent running out, which we have heard of and talked to hikers that have had this happened.

For us, we eat five times a day. Our first breakfast is either oatmeal or breakfast flats. After we have hiked for a couple of hours we have a second breakfast that consists of Belvita biscuits. These biscuits give us another two hours of fuel and taste great. Lunch is usually beef jerky, raisins, and trail mix.

Our midday snack is a Snicker Bar! This is the highlight of my day. The commercials are true about Snicker bars, they really do give you extra energy. We usually save this to eat just before a steep climb. Other hikers eat Skittles or Starburst for this extra energy. If we walk past five, we will have another snack before we make camp.

Dinner in camp for me is the same as lunch. Others boil water and pour it into a prepackaged meal. While prepackaged meals taste great and provide a lot of calories, they contain a lot of sodium. Cooking also adds time to set up camp, which can take an hour. Many hikers send their stoves home and eat those things they can out of a package.

We eat a lot because we burn a lot. If we hike thirteen miles or so, we have expended well over five thousand calories, including the amount the body needs just to survive. Some hikes burn as many as eight thousand calories in a day.

It is hard to eat this many calories and most of us suffer from a deficit. So when we hit the town, we crave burgers, fries, and beer. Some hikers look for, “all you can eat buffets” and have three to four plates.

Being older hikers, we have to be careful about what we eat. Our bodies don’t process food as well and we are far more susceptible to hypoglycemic reactions. For older hikers, walking on an empty or poorly fed stomach will show up. Causing irritability and fatigue. Early on we discovered this and had to adjust. Now we never hike for more than two hours without eating. We make sure we get a healthy balance of carbs, fat, and protein. Maybe we won’t eat the French fries in town, trading it off for Brussel sprouts.

We admire the younger hikers, who order hamburgers with four patties and fries covered with bacon and cheese. I am always so envious of what they can eat. I draw my line at beer, and always have one when we are in town. The twenty-year-old’s eat whatever they want and still hike many miles the next day.

Try as hard as we can, we still lose weight. We met one hiker that had lost twenty pounds in four weeks. The average at this point of the trail is around ten pounds.

The issue with food is also with the weight you have to carry. Thru-hikers discuss their backpack weight in terms of total weight and base weight. Base weight is the number of pounds for everyday items; like sleeping bags, clothes, tent, electronics, and personal hygiene items. Our base weight, including the weight of the pack, is around twenty pounds.

Total weight includes food and water. If a hiker is carrying seven days of food and two liters of water, this adds eighteen pounds; four pounds for the water and fourteen pounds for the food. Bringing the total pack weight to between thirty-five and forty pounds. A very heavy pack!

We don’t carry that much, at most five days of food and usually only a liter of water. So at most for at least one day we carry around thirty pounds. As we eat our food and drink our water the pack weight goes down considerably, almost to the point where we feel like we aren’t carrying any weight.

We don’t carry as much food, because we are in towns a lot. We have the resources to be in town more often and love visiting these small towns. We don’t carry more than a liter of water, because there are many streams to replenish and we love the break.

Most hikers resupply when they get into town, but some have a person who sends them food via the post office. Before they left they created twenty or so packages that they have a friend mail to a designated town.

Others of us visit the local grocery store. So far, we have found that this is easy and most stores have what we need. In general, the stores in these towns know we are coming and are well supplied with hiker food.

Eating on the trail, for some is an event much like at home. They break out their portable stoves and enjoy their meals. For others, it is a functional necessity to stay fueled. On the days we hike, the key is to eat often for the fuel. On the days we are in town, to the goal is to store up calories.

The stoves people cook with range from small homemade cans surrounded by a windscreen. A little white alcohol fuels the can and creates enough heat to boil water. Some have very fancy Jet stoves that almost instantly boil water. The trade-off in the stoves is the simpler the stove the less weight. Because we like to keep the weight of our packs down, our stove is simple and small.

Food is important on the Appalachian Trail and many hours are spent learning and discussing what works and what doesn’t. We all develop our own method over time and find out what works.

We pray over each meal, thanking God.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

THE PEOPLE OF THE TRAIL

We have arrived at Hot Springs, North Carolina. 150 miles of rugged mountains to go before we hit Virginia. This tough stretch includes days where we will climb over 4000 feet many days. Not until thru-hikers get to the White Mountains is the trail this difficult.

We have stretched out our hiking miles and hours per day. We have been achieving 13+ miles a day and walking 8 or so hours a day. While it may seem slow, you can’t really walk at a pace that you would walk if you weren’t on the trail. There is rocks, roots, steep climbs and steep descents that slow you down. The average hiker without breaks averages 2 miles per hour.

When you walk you have to keep your eyes on the trail or you will trip and fall. The trail is littered with exposed roots and rocks. Plus we have 25-30 pound backpacks that slow us, but also make our balance more difficult. Any slip, the backpack acts in a way that accentuates any off-balance activity.

In bad weather, the older hikers have an advantage over the younger hikers. Older hikers have more financial resources and can head into town for safety. But the younger hikers have fewer resources and many times have to stay out in the weather. The younger hikers also have less money to buy food, get gear repaired or have the luxury of a going into town for dinner. They walk a much harder trail.

Every day we meet new people or get to catch up with people who hike in our wave of people. When we go in town we meet people that own or work at places to stay. These places are B&B’s or cabins. Theses modern innkeepers do everything, from making breakfast to giving advice on where to go or important aspects of the trail in their area. The hardest part is leaving. You meet these people and become friends with them. But know you have to move on and when we walk out their doors of hospitality they are gone from our lives.

In one B & B, we met Steve and Maggie. Steve completed his thru-hike in 2010. Even today, almost 10 years later he remembers many of his days on the trail. Past thru-hikers like Steve give you information that you won’t find in the books you read.

For instance, Steve confirmed what we found. That socio-economic status has no weight on the trail. Your relationships are based on who you are as a person. Hiking this trail has nothing to do with your life off the trail. It’s all about helping, caring and treating others with respect. There is no privilege on the trail.

Steve also reminded us to avoid rules and counting miles. That each hike is very personal and a common phrase is, “hike your own hike.” In other words, it is our hike and not someone else’s. Nor is it ours to decide how others should hike. We are all on our adventure. It’s the adventure and people you meet that are most important. Miles don’t count in the journey, it is about your individual day and who you meet.

Steve is right, do whatever it takes to stay on the trail. Walk the miles you are comfortable with and don’t worry about if others are faster or slower. By now, statistically of the 3000 or so hikers who started, over 50% have dropped out. We see smaller numbers on the trail. Steve’s theory is that people drop because of not being focused on the adventure. Instead, they focus on the wrong things and they are too impatient with rules, their own abilities and find they can’t live a life where the rules are different every day. In other words, if you can’t hike ten miles that day, rest! If camping out every night isn’t good for you, go into town.

As we go, we find we have to be creative in how we walk. While we have plans for each day, we have to adjust to terrain, weather and how we are feeling that day. That means some days we walk longer than we planned or other days quit after 6 miles.

Along the way, we have discovered many other wonderful people like Steve or Mike. Some on the trail or others in town. But one thing we discover every day is kindness and faith. On a particularly cold, windy and rainy day, we had decided to hunker down at Steve and Maggie’s B&B. Maggie had gotten a call from a “Lady Bug” who wanted to hike but stay that evening with Maggie and Steve.

Steve told Lady Bug that he wouldn’t pick her up at her planned destination but at a much closer and safer location. This meant Lady Bug wouldn’t be hiking very far that day.

Steve knew she wouldn’t make it and was worried about her safety. It turned out Steve was right. When Lady Bug arrived she was in the early stages of hypothermia. She was shivering and soaked from the rain driven by winds that reached 60 miles an hour. Steve had rescued her.

When Lady Bug settled in and was warm again, we got to know her. A woman of grace and tenacity. Her faith was out in the open and clear. This is the one surprising thing we have found about the trail. People of faith talk about their faith. Not in a way that is commanding or demanding, but how their faith affects them.

Lady Bug later told us she saw the same thing on the trail. It’s another rule from the outside that doesn’t exist on the trail. Off the trail, back home, we are told not to discuss our faith with others, because it can be volatile. But on the trail, you need your faith. Simply walking is a demonstration of faith. We are advised to walk as if there is a string pulling us up from heaven. Both a practical suggestion to have good form, but also a statement of the importance of faith.

We have also met the Ozark Mountain Boys. Yep, they are from the Ozark’s and live a different life off the trail. Each night they build a huge campfire and invite others over to share stories. They are the community social butterflies. They say hi and welcome all. In the world away from the trail, they are part of “the deplorables.” They may not have a college degree, but they love their wives and children, know about the woods, have strong faith lives and are inviting. In this world they are kings.

Each day, I see God at work in our lives. In the trail as God’s creation, by the unusual events that occur, but mostly in the human capacity to be extraordinarily kind to each other. People talk about their faith without any insistence to see things their way, but with thankfulness.

Steve, the Ozark mountain boys, and Lady Bug are people you meet on the trail. We have and will meet many others. We are all equal and the mountains we climb don’t differentiate between who we are outside of the woods. You go up hills like everyone else. These hills don’t care who you are off the trail.

The people of the trail carry their home on their back and learn what is most important, fellow humanity.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

TRAIL TOWNS

We have left the Great Smokie Mountains, National Park. Foiled by weather through two significant weather events that closed the roads to the park over the last week. The recent storm has left the roads closed for three days. An experienced hiker in the Smokies relayed to us that the weather has been extraordinary and the worst he has seen in 25 years of hiking. Some days the winds have blown well over 50MPH. Our comfort level is below 35MPH. Because there is little in terms of “bailout” points, we are moving on and returning to the Smokies in the fall to complete the miles we missed.

When we were able to hike in the Smokies, we were treated with spectacular vistas and wonderful hiking. During this time we reached a 6000-foot peak and slept at over one mile high. Thankfully we were able to get into town just hours before the roads closed. However, many people weren’t as lucky and got stuck up top. Some had to huddle in the 3 sided shelters or in the two public bathrooms that are on the mountain. We read the tweets from these people and prayed for their safety.

This puts us at mile 241 and headed to Tennessee. There is a term used on the trail called “hiking legs,” which means you can walk effortlessly for many miles. While better, we are still a few weeks away from having them. The younger hikers have them now and are starting to do 20 mile days.

One of the unexpected joys has been with the Trail Towns. Generally, they are spaced 20-30 miles apart. They offer a chance for a shower, laundry, food resupply, and a warm bed. In March and April, a bubble of thru-hikers appears in these towns. They are ready for us and very welcoming.

Getting to know and visit these places has been a special part of our journey. We meet the shuttle drivers who take hikers from the trail into town. Sometimes the town pays for the shuttle or other times a local church runs the shuttles. There are also paid shuttle drivers and having their phone numbers, which we do, increases our flexibility. The paid shuttle drivers charge about $15 a person. These drivers work most of the year shuttling hikers, both thru-hikers and week-long hikers. This is how they make their living.

All the towns have places for hikers to stay, ranging from hostels to B&B’s to Holiday Inn Express. When we stay in town we are recognized as thru-hikers. Even if we see people we haven’t met on the trail, they invite us to dinner. All the town people know what we are looking for, whether it’s the Post Office, supermarket, outfitters or innkeepers. They know how to help us and most do it with a smile.

These towns are closely knit and each town person knows the next. In one case a shuttle driver took us to the Post Office in Fontana, which is only opened from 12-4, and proceeded to have a fifteen-minute catch-up session with the person working at the Post Office.

We go to the Post Office in each town to move our “bounce box” along. A “bounce box” contains those items we don’t need for the next week and if you don’t open it the Post Office moves to our next stop for free!

The supermarkets stock what hikers like, such as Beef Jerky, Belvita Bars, breakfast bars and trail mix. Most of the places to stay have a laundry facility where we wash our 2 sets of clothes.

All the towns have that one place to get a great hamburger, french fries, and beer. We don’t worry about our diet, we crave calories. By now most hikers have lost 10-15 pounds and need to eat more.

The towns we have visited are, Blairsville GA., Hiawassee GA., Franklin NC., Fontana NC. (Population 7) and Gatlinburg TN. Small towns that represent the best of small-town America.

I asked one person, “What is social life like in town.” They reply it revolves around our church.

Churches abound in these towns and beside faith development, they also provide social support, shuttles, free breakfast, and trail magic. It is like going back in time when churches were the hub of a town.

When Myron Avery, the visionary who helped create the Appalachian Trail, first thought on the trail he wanted it to run through small towns. His goal was not to just hike but experience the diverse communities that existed. His belief was that a real trail experience was both in the hiking, but also in meeting people off the trail. Now that we have been out for three weeks, we understand his goal.

During our time in Gatlinburg, we met Mike. When we were in the Smokies and decided to bail out, Connie had called a shuttle driver who agreed to meet us at one of the two parking areas in the Smokies. We arrived early and met Mike. He was also looking for a ride down. So we offered him a ride. Eventually while standing and waiting, two other people needed a ride and came up.

People that were passing through kept asking if anyone needed a ride and received rides. Around 5 it was just the two of us and Mike. We went into town together. Over the two days we were in Gatlinburg we hung out with Mike.

Mike was thru-hiking as far as he could go until August. Mike looked like a mountain man, long silver hair pulled back in a ponytail and a wonderfully full beard. Mike was hiking for the same three reasons we were hiking. To become a better person with friends, physically change through hiking and grow spiritually.

Mike understood that “it’s not about the miles, but the smiles.” He was enjoying meeting new people, testing his body and looking for meaning in the woods.

Mike has slept in a tower by himself at Albert Mountain and watched both a sunset and sunrise. He walked slowly at first, but over the last few weeks has worked his way up to 10 miles a day.

He has no idea how far he will walk. But his deadline in August 31st and then go back to his life. He is one of those people who have many friends and knows many people. He will be a friend to us long after we have all left the trail.

His faith is very simple, be moral, help others and search for God. His faith is more communal than specific. He is still trying to grasp God and why God exists. He is in the investigation phase. We gave him our views and pray that it helps.

Mike smiles every day and laughs loudly.

Mike is one of the many people we meet and get to know in the trail towns.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

MILESTONE ON THE TRAIL

This week we passed two milestones that are important in providing a sense of accomplishment. We left Georgia and entered North Carolina. The first big test of any true hike! Then two days later we got to the 100-mile mark. While small for the entire journey, they are huge for our confidence. By now at least 25% have dropped out. Hitting these marks at least told us we were accomplishing something.

The trail is both hard and eye-opening. For us, the climbs are acts of patience. The younger trail hikers storm up the mountains and we plod along. Walking with measured steps and creating benchmarks to hit on the way up. In doing this we make the 1000 foot or more climbs manageable. Sometimes each tenth of a mile is hard and that is all we can focus on. When we get to the top, we replace patience with joy. Another peak climbed. Each one gives us more confidence.

We are also seeing that life can be very simple. Sometimes our entire day is just walking, setting up our tent, and eating. In this simplicity, we see what is important. Life boils down to food, water, and shelter. But for us to be happy, that is all we need. It is fun to walk with each other, Connie and I alone for most of the day just discussing our daily goals, life, our friends, our daughters and where we are going. The days are simple and fun.

The only thing we get anxious about is where our next water supply will be. Learning to never pass by a stream close to the trail. It takes fifteen minutes to get water. We must filter, put in our electrolytes and make sure we know where the next water source will be.

At each stop, we have to be very disciplined in making sure we leave nothing behind. We always take one final look before we leave. We have heard this is so very important. In fact, we heard about a person losing his tent. Everything we carry we have to use every day.

At night in the camps or shelters, we find people. Sometimes a dozen and sometimes forty, just setting up their tents, having dinner and then socializing. A wonderful community of people who help and provide each other support.

The younger people go faster than us and some do twenty miles in a day. Some are faster than us but walk the same ten to twelve miles a day we do. We are slower, at 65 I can’t walk as fast as the twenty-year-olds, but we walk longer.

When we venture into town, we see a different world. People going to work and living lives. Many very ordinary people just living life. In the trail towns, they care for the thru-hikers.

As thru-hikers, we are very recognizable when we are in town. We wear clogs in town. The men are unshaven. The women wear bandanna’s or scarves on their heads. We all have the same clothes on from yesterday. We buy food for the next few days and rest our legs. We are minor celebrities and the town people accept us and help us.

The stories of faith keep appearing on the trail. On a tough climb this past Sunday we met Pippi Rambo, her trail name. A very large woman in her twenties that walks slowly because of her size. But every day she comes into the camp, maybe a few hours after everyone else, but she arrives.

On top of this mountain, we talked on this Sunday morning. Pippi told us that she was tired of being an inspiration to others. Because of her very large size, people come up to her and tell her she was an inspiration. She doesn’t want that; she just wants to be a thru-hiker. And she is.   Being an inspiration isn’t why she hikes. She wants to be normal and nothing more.

She is a quiet Christian, who recoils at overly zealous evangelicals who told her she must proclaim her faith every day. She is shy and doesn’t want that. She just wants to love God and help others. That is her way of proclaiming, not talking just doing.

I reminded her of the Good Samaritan that Jesus talked about. How two proclaimed pious people walked past an injured man. Even to the point of walking to the other side of the road. Followed by a person from Samaria and a different community, who helped tend to the injured man and provided him with safety. For me this was an example of our Christian attitude, we should have within us, doing versus saying is the essence of faith.

We left her with a closing comment that she was a good person. Typical of Pippi, she said we were as well.

On another morning I sat down with a man for breakfast. He had intended to hike last year. But five days before he was supposed to leave his wife came down with pancreatic cancer. His next nine months were spent nursing his wife, who died this January.

He told me he had seen things with her death that no person should ever have to see. But dutifully he fought alongside her, despite the inevitable.

He was a shaken man; over the horror, he saw and loss of a thirty-five-year companion. As we talked the emotions of that year came out in the stoic man.

Grief is a difficult companion. It knows no appropriate behavior. It let’s go slowly and comes in the nights of life; creating anguish and teardrops. It prevents a life of normalcy and its only purpose is dismay.

But slowly the tears will go away, each drop of anguish replaced by the grace of God. Until that sunny day where memories replace the grief. No one knows the time. But in a perverse way grief will heal him.

We left each other, with me praying in Jesus’ name that he would heal on his thru-hike. Perhaps a place of respite from his awful companion called grief.

We live life in segments and milestones, surrounded for a few days by wonderful people. Then we move on never sure how to say goodbye.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

INTO THE WOODS

We have finished the first 69.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Quite an experience being immersed in the woods every day. Every day is hard, educational and very different than living out of the woods. Each day is its own day and each hour has exciting moments.

Each morning, our schedule has us climbing a mountain. Sometimes it is 500 feet over one mile or tougher climbs like 1400 feet in a mile and a half.

We try to walk around ten miles a day, which involves 2500 to 3500 feet in total ascent. At the end of each day, we are tired but grateful for what we have seen and learned.

We have learned to go slow and break the day into four or five segments. Sometimes it’s a two-mile downhill segment. Or perhaps a key vista a few miles out. Doing this makes the ten miles manageable.

We have learned water and food are the number one priority each day. Any time we find a stream, we “Water Up.” This is always an event because we don’t just go to a tap. We first fill up from a stream into a separate container. Then using a filter we drain the water through a filter into a Smart Water bottle. Next, we add electrolytes to replace those we have lost. We drink around 3-4 liters of water each day.

Likewise, food is also fuel for walking. In general, we eat 4000 calories a day. This is spread out over five meals. Breakfast is eaten before we start, usually cold oats or a couple of breakfast bars. Followed about two hours later with enriched biscuits called Belvita biscuits. Lunch usually is another two hours and consists of peanut butter sandwiches or salami and cheese. Followed then in another two hours with a Snicker bar. The commercials are true about Snicker bars, they really boost your energy for the final hills of the day. Dinner is trail mix, which might seem odd. But it is easy to carry and from a small package, you can get 700 calories with a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

We have also learned to carry only what you need. We use a bounce box that contains items we will need in the future and forward to our next rest stop a few days later. The weight of a pack is very important from both an exertion point of view and balance. Too much weight and your balance is affected and subjects you to falls.

They tell us we pack our fears. For instance, if you fear running out of food, you will pack too much food. If your fear is being cold, then too many clothes. Fortunately, there are good examples of what a well-packed backpack contains. With this reference you know to only pack 2 sets of clothes, rain gear, and a puffy jacket. Or to pack 2 pounds of food for each day you are going to be between resupply points. In total, keeping your gear to 25 pounds is vital.

We have learned that we can climb 4000-foot peaks. We have learned on those nights that are close to freezing, you keep your entire body in your sleeping bag. We have also learned that of the forty or so items you carry, you must be very disciplined in keeping track of each item. We have learned to be very disciplined in all that we do.

We have learned to go slow and be purposeful. At first, we got dismayed when much younger hikers would go by at a quick pace. But we also were told that can cause injuries by an experienced hiker. Even an inchworm can climb a mountain. He told us to be patient and in a few weeks we will have caught up.

We have also discovered God, not just in nature and our personal circumstances, also in other people. On our fourth day, after a very tough morning and having forgotten our lunch, we came to a parking lot to find a man who was giving away pork soup and coffee.

The weather was horrible that morning, forty mile an hour winds and freezing temperatures. The wind blew so hard that it pelted us with ice crystals that came from tree limbs. In all this, we got to see the magnificent scenery of a grove of trees encased in shimmering white. (The picture from that scene is the image for this blog)

No lunch and being cold, the soup was a welcomed sight.

This is an event is called, “Trail Magic” on the trail. It happens at some road crossings, where local people feed or supply water to hikers. It may be soup or donuts or jugs of water. Bob, the man who provided the soup is called a “Trail Angel.”

Bob, was the first trail angel we met. In 2014 he had been diagnosed with cancer. Concerned with his health and the uncertainty of his condition, he went up into the mountains to pray. He felt that God told him he would be okay. Overwhelmed and in tears, he promised God that he would help hikers as a way to give back.

Bob, was cured. Each weekend during hiker season he hands out trail magic. He is kind and offers a great conversation with his gifts. A man who was saved through his faith that helps others.

On our seventh day, after a very hard climb, we found a summit with incredible views. We had arrived there with a woman called, Coyote. This was her trail name. Thru-Hikers on the Appalachian trail don’t use their real name, but their trail name. Trail names are very personal and tell you something about the person. Names are given out by others or something you give yourself. Coyote was named because each time she summits a peak she howls.

We had spent the previous night camping next to her. During that time we discovered a remarkably happy person with a very fast wit. Coyote came from a modest background, growing up in rural Tennessee. What she had in life was earned in a very hard way.

She had mentioned to us twice she was a cancer survivor. So we probed to find out why she mentioned it. She proceeded to tell us that she had stage 3 cervical cancer when she was 25. After a number of surgeries, she was cured but left infertile.

When she was young, she wanted to have a family. This was her big dream. Now that dream was gone. For the next tens years, she was depressed and suffered from anxiety. She spent these years angry at life, her friends, her husband and especially God.

She started hiking. At first with groups and then herself. On these solo hikes, she talked with God. At first angry and then questioning why this it happened to her. Over time she regained her natural gift of joy. She had found God again. She had a new purpose and it was to live life with purpose and joy.

She is walking the Appalachian trail to discover more about her future. She is grateful for her husband, who stood with her on all those difficult days. I am not sure where her story ends but am thankful for the joy she gave us.

We have learned a lot, but mostly no matter how much we prepare, God is in charge. We find this out each day through events and our lessons.

One of the highlights of our day is our morning prayer. We pray for guidance and thank God.

On the trail, there is a saying, “The trail will provide.” And it does, through God, the trail has provided to us.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti

We love giving credit to budding photographers to help them gain more exposure.