Imagine setting out on a life-changing event basically alone. Sure you’ve made contact with a few people who are also doing the event and there are many more you’ll meet along the journey…
… but you are basically going solo.
Then add to this that you are a young female — 19 years old — and are hiking a nature trail from Georgia to Maine. You’ll be backpacking, camping, meeting all sorts of people and having to fend for yourself.
How many young females do you know who would spend a summer doing all of that? Many might be preparing for college. Working. Or doing whatever else.
Not Emily Harper.
Harper, a groundsman for a tree company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had no thru-hiking experience. She said the goal was to lose weight.
So what the heck, let’s hike some 2,180 miles.
Harper also got the chance to live a care-free summer. She met people. Lived independently. But it wasn’t all cookies and cake for Harper, who noted the trail is long and can be quite boring.
Again, however, it wasn’t easy.
Harper took 5 1/2 months to complete the trail. She started March 5 and finished August 18.
That’s a long time to be out wandering a trail.
As for doing future long-distance hikes?
“Not anytime soon,” Harper said.
Who can blame her?
But the future of hiking for Harper, known in the hiking circles by her trail name “Amish,” isn’t something that she needs to worry about now. The reality is she did something that many people won’t ever even try, let along complete. Along the way, she met many people, had a ton of new experiences and found out all about hiking and herself.
She didn’t give in. She took the time needed to complete the hike and she finished. That alone is something to be able to be incredibly proud of. But along the way, she made memories that won’t ever leave her. And that, too, is something that makes a trip like this worthwhile.
Being female on the trail
It’s a good bet that if someone quickly thought about hiking a 2,180-plus, they would be a male. That’s because the bulk of the hiking people appear to be male.
Females are out there, too. And the number of female long-distance hikers appears to be growing. Harper is one of those female hikers. Though she started with a group of people, she eventually separated and began hiking solo.
“Hiking alone can be boring,” she said. “Solo can still be hiking with others, just not a solid commitment, which makes it more fun. People always ask ‘are you traveling alone? Isn’t that scary?’ It’s not that bad. Guys are friendly. If there’s a sketchy character, the other hikers are there to help.”
But fear not for the female hiker. Harper said it’s better to be a female on the trail.
After all, if hundreds of guys are hiking the trail and see one another for many miles. Having a female to talk to and get the different perspective is a good thing, usually.
“On the trail, it is a whole lot better to be a female,” Harper said. “People are more friendly to females.”
Well, Harper said, females are more likely to be given rides into town quicker (hitching), get food or be invited into people’s homes.
“It’s a real treat,” she said. “I’ve met guys who would have to wait hours to hitch a ride. I’d take 10 minutes. Because there are so few females on the trail, I was rare, and felt more special.”
She noted that many guys complain, however, about how females look on the trail and that the females like going into towns. Yet, she said, guys don’t seem to have a problem heading into town as well and beer and meat are two of the things they like to delve into when hitting towns. So, it would appear both males and females could have something to complain about with one another.
Hiking her hike
The original goal, she said, was to lose weight. Seems simple enough. But to hike through sometimes rugged terrain, by yourself, on a 2,180-plus mile trail?
It turns out that this trip became more than losing weight.
For starters, she learned a lot about herself.
“I get lonely and very attached to people,” Harper said. “More so than some. I don’t like hiking by myself and I love staying at other people’s homes.
“I am persistent,” she continued. “Don’t judge people. Everyone has something to offer.”
Persistence goes a long way for Harper, who did things here own way it seems. From hiking with different groups to hiking at night, she did her own thing.
But, even those things could give her the chills a little.
“My first time night hiking was kind of scary,” she said. “I was alone by choice. I was trying to catch up to some other hikers but even so, there were other hikers planning to leave an hour or two after me. I was to anxious to go and I couldn’t sleep.
“I jumped when I heard things rustling and freaked out when I saw eyes staring at me,” she continued. “Which, once I got close enough, I saw it was just a deer. A whole herd of deer.”
Those weren’t the only things that could get to Harper’s spirit.
“It can also be a bit nerve-racking when you start to run out of food,” she said. “And it’s plain annoying when you run out of toilet paper.”
Harper said she had her highs and lows on the trail. Though mostly a positive experience, some things weren’t perfect.
“I wish I took my time,” she said. “Being that I started out with a group that had 20-mile days normally, it was hard for me to justify being slow. I felt like I could enjoy myself sitting all day in a shelter. Or stopping to talk to people. I did though. I tried.”
She said some of her best times were hiking at night and being able to watch the night turn into day. As for the bad, she said there were times when she would push herself too hard and everything hurt, which made her break down and cry.
There were regrets, too.
One included when she was hiking through the White Mountains in New Hampshire. She said the only places for hikers to stay are huts where hikers can work to stay (instead of paying). Hikers would work and get cold food, having to wait until about 7 p.m. to get fed.
The last hut she stayed at was called Madison Hut. Thru-hikers were given a small room instead of the cafeteria floor. The hut people made sure the hikers were fed well.
“It was, by far, the best treatment of all the huts I stayed at,” Harper said.
But, Harper said she did a lousy job of helping. She ended up leaving and said later other hikers were disappointed in her because of her actions.
Funny times also happened for Harper.
Take a day she had a long day and got to a shelter. There were two guys in there and Harper said she knew right away they weren’t thru-hikers. At that point, they were digging for worms to go fishing.
After not finding any worms, Harper said she suggested slugs as they were everywhere.
Turns out the two guys also didn’t have a hook.
“They seemed undaunted,” Harper said. “The one carved out a hook from wood.”
The two replaced that wood hook with a safety pin that Harper gave them. And, being she was looking for some really good food, she even offered to help the two.
“I can just imagine the fish sizzling,” she said. “So I tell them that I’ll make the fire.”
The two fellas had fishing line and tied it to a hiking pole. They kept losing the slugs as bait and then tried leeches, which didn’t work well. In the end? No fish.
But, better than the food was that this was pure entertainment. Other thru-hikers were entertained and the two guys gave Harper their extra food.
“Which I took, most happily,” she said.
Harper said some of her best days included ones with views — such as being able to see wild ponies on the trails. Some of the worst days included one where she was swarmed by mosquitoes all night as she attempted to sleep and it was too hot to be inside her sleeping bag.
Now a veteran of the trail, some people might as Harper for thoughts if they wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Research. Put money toward a backpack, sleeping bag and tent. Don’t have mail drops.
“Be friendly to everyone,” she said. “You don’t know when you might see them again. Be friendly to day hikers. They might give you food and take your trash.”
And now that she’s done the hike, it might be a little easier to prepare for the long commitment it takes to complete it.
“It’s all mental,” she said. “Make sure you have the support of your friends because you’re going to need it.”
Small things that are important include getting pack weight done and knowing why you want to carry each piece of gear.
“You’d don’t want to spend money on things you don’t need and you don’t want to carry something you never use,” she said. “I had a luxury deck of cards, but even that I didn’t hold onto the whole trip.”
Here are some quick-hitting tidbits from Harpers thru-hike.
- On what she did in the days following her hike: Organized things, met with friends and started cooking, other than boiling water.
- How many sets of shoes she went through on the trail: Two pairs of trail runners and got a third pair in Hanover, New Hampshire, though she said she did that unwillingly. Her old shoes had no grip and would slip all the time. “It was nice to be sure-footed once more,” she said.
- Best trail town? Damascus, Virginia. “I hiked my highest mileage (33 miles) into it. I took two days at “the place.” It was such a milestone (that) I was at this town. I knew I had a chance of completing the trail.”
- Worst trail town?: “Any place I couldn’t find a free place to stay.”
- Her trail name, “Amish,” comes from being from Lancaster, Pennsylvania where there is a large Amish population. Whenever she told people where she was from, they asked her if she was Amish, so the name was born from that.
- Would she do the AT again? “Perhaps. I’d want to go with someone nice.”
To read more from Amish, check out her Trail Journal, which she updated throughout her hike.
From her journal, she also had a brief video on YouTube to show her first few months on the trail. This seems like a great way to really be able to keep track of a hike like this. Document it all! Have a look:
- October 16: Win an autographed copy of Bill Walker’s book about his Appalachian Trail hike
- October 17: Preview
- Today: Emily Harper
- October 21: Chris Nadeau
- October 24: Tyler Bedick
- October 26: Bill Walker
- October 28: Wrap and contest winner announced
Reminder! Contest going on! I am holding a contest this week for an autographed copy of Bill Walker’s book “Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail”. It runs from October16- to 12:01 a.m. Oct. 28. You can see all the details on the contest page. Enter for your chance to win!
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