The reality of the Appalachian Trail is that not everyone who attempts to thru-hike it will finish it.
In fact, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 75 percent of the people who have tried to hike the trail have not finished. That’s a lot of people not finishing.
But, the trail isn’t easy. It covers 2,180 or so miles from Georgia to Maine. The AT climbs over rough terrain, high mountains, dense woods and narrow ledges. It’s not always for the faint of heart.
People will plan this hike for years and still not finish. Even with all the time and money vested in planning for this hike, not everyone will complete the jaunt, which could take six months or longer.
All in nature.
The goal, of course, is to finish the hike. And it would be hard to think that anyone starting out in March in Georgia would have different thoughts.
Chris Nadeau certainly did not when he began his hike earlier this year.
Alas, four states and 815 miles into the hike, Nadeau called it quits in one of the toughest decisions he said he’s ever had to make.
“I decided to end my hike about two weeks before I actually did,” said Nadeau, a 22-year-old business management major at East Tennessee State University.
The Portland, Maine native, who moved to Ashville, North Carolina in 2003, said he and his friend Laura has been close for about five years. And as things seemed destined to turn into a relationship, he was preparing to leave for the hike, a move he notes probably wasn’t the best for at that point.
“Leaving in March with such an important relationship on my mind was not smart,” he said. “Along with that, I wanted to finish school. In the back of my head, I knew I had one more year to go, and I wanted to be done. I spent Memorial Day Weekend with Laura at Lake Keowee in South Carolina, after being picked up. It was then I decided I would stop this hike and do a complete thru hike when I was more firm with other things in life.”
That move was probably the best for Nadeau as having thoughts, worries or doubts about other things wouldn’t be a good way to hike a massive trail, such as the Appalachian Trail.
Still, when you are doing something you’ve wanted to do, it’s not easy to back away as evidenced by the two weeks it took him to actually get off the trail.
“That was the hardest decision in my life to date,” he said. “I’ve never been faced with such a hard decision. I was deciding to stop the goal I’ve wanted to achieve for the longest time.
“I shed many tears for weeks after,” he continued. “I felt lost. I felt regret. I felt let down. … I had worked so hard for what?
As much hurt and regret Nadeau had at the time is now erased. He’s more than six months into a relationship with Laura, he’s getting excellent grades in the business program at ETSU and he’ll graduate in a year with a bachelor’s degree in Business Management.
Don’t think there aren’t moments, however.
“There are still nights I cannot sleep and feel very sad, but that is completely normal,” he said, especially knowing that many of the people he hiked with were still on the trail and several of them were scheduled to summit Mount Katahdin in Maine in early October.
Fear not — from the ashes of bad come good.
“Laura plans to hike the trail with me in 2013,” Nadeau said. “We both agree that if we can make it through the trail together, we can be together for life. With that said, we’ve been best friends for the longest time, and are still best friends today. I’ve always thought how great it would be to marry my best friend, and she is that.
“The last day I was on the trail a lady told me, ‘end you hike now before you ruin your love for hiking altogether.'” he said. “That was a very true statement and I did so without any regrets.”
Memories are still there
Despite not finishing the trail this year — something Nadeau said he will eventually do — the trail was full of memories and things happening. He made it 815 miles, which is something the majority of people in this world couldn’t claim. With those miles, he went through Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. The final state has more than 550 miles of the trail.
“There are too many good times to list,” he said.
Even the bad times seemed to turn into the good times, Nadeau said.
The first could almost be a clip from an old 70s or 80s movie. He left Silers Bald Shelter in Swain, North Carolina at 8 a.m. with about five inches of snow on the ground. His goal was to make it to Newfound Gap some 13 miles away to meet his mother.
Knowing it was 2.7 miles to Clingmans Dome, he set out on the hike. But with nobody going before him, he was on his own. Most, he said, were going to wait for the snow to stop and get a half-day of hiking in.
But, Nadeau had a plan and he was going forth.
“After starting out, I realized it was the most dangerous move I had made yet,” he said.
He arrived at the shelter before Clingmans Dome at about 11 a.m., so it took him three hours to hike about two miles. He got lost twice. Couldn’t see the AT’s famed white blazes. Worse, his water was frozen and he was out of cigarettes.
When he got to the shelter, he was greeted by some medical students from Ohio, who gave him a cup of coffee and a smoke.
Of course they wondered what Nadeau was doing hiking in that weather.
“I simply said, ‘I want a hot shower.'”
Another hiker, Blue Stick, showed up 30 minutes later and said he would have never made it if not for Nadeau’s footprints.
Nadeau then set out for Clingmans Dome, hoping to hitch a ride from the summit. Alas, the road was closed because of the snow. Not seeing any signs and having a hard time staying on the trail, Nadeau wondered why it took so long to get to the summit.
Then he saw it. A sign with an arrow pointing to Clingmans Dome — 4.6 miles away.
“I had hiked right past the summit not even knowing it,” he said. “I was practically sliding down the trail of ice, my water was frozen solid, and I was mad to say the least.”
Six hours after leaving Silers Bald, he arrived in Newfound Gap. The road had since been opened and tourists looked at him funny. He kept getting the questions about where he had come from, what the AT and wonderment about hiking in the snow.
A teacher from the University of Kentucky gave Nadeau a lift into Gatlinburg and was dropped off at a gas station, where he promptly bough a soda and two packs of smokes. He chain-smoked five and 15 minutes later, his mother arrived to pick him up and take him to Asheville, where he rested and spent time with his girlfriend.
Nadeau said some other good times included meeting up with a lot of people at the Low Gap Shelter in Georgia for their annual St. Patrick’s Day reunion. He also had a good time at Fontana Dam Village when they walked up on a Frat Spring Formal and were invited to take part.
He said, too, his hike almost ended way before it did when his leg slid between rocks and he thought he had broke it. He hiked four miles into town, which took about seven hours. After going to the emergency room near Bland, Virginia, he was told to stay away from hiking for a week or two.
Being on the trail
First things first, Nadeau hiked under the trail name “Blue.”
He was ahead of a bunch of hikers one day and arrived at the destination, which was about 1.2 miles from civilization. So he hiked that distance with an empty pack to load up on beer. He ended up with about five cases of brew and worked his way back.
On his way back, he met a fellow playing a banjo on a footbridge. He stopped to listen to him play and chatted with — trail name — Shaw. He lived near there and made small banjos and other musical instruments. They had a beer and smoke together and Shaw said “You’re my boy, Blue.” That name stuck.
As with most things, there are positives and negatives of being on the trail.
“This depends on the person,” he said. “I believe everything that comes with hiking the AT is ‘positive’ for the most part.”
But, he said, there are days that you feel negative. Nadeau said he learned more on his 815 miles than in any classroom. You learn basic skills, but you also meet people you will stay in contact with for life.
A fellow hiker noted to Nadeau on the first day that one will always want more. Nadeau said that is 100 percent true
The negatives are about things away from the trail, such as making sure you have bills covered, loved ones are ready for the mentality of you being away and things like that.
“Positives certainly outweigh the negatives when it comes to the AT,” he said. “What bad is to come while enjoying Mother Nature at her best?”
An average day on the trail is routine, Nadeau said. Wake up with the sun, drink some water, pack gear, some more water, eat breakfast and another liter of water.
He’d then strap on the pack and start walking. The hiking between breakfast and lunch went fast as he said he thought about everything. He said he tried to stop every 2.5 miles or so for five minutes. He always checked his guide to see where he was. Despite not having a “true” schedule, Nadeau said he knew where he wanted to be by the end of the day.
A big thing he said, was to always make sure he was drinking water and to fill up whenever he had the chance.
“I ran out twice and it isn’t a fun feeling,” he said.
One he got to his destination, he set up his tent and got things ready. he’d cook, drink more water and relax, which often included a smoke or two. Some people asked why he smoked on the trail and Nadeau said it was meditating.
At night, he would reflect on the day and drank Crystal Light mixed in with his water, which he noted tasted great after nothing by water all day. When it got dark, he went to bed and always wrote in his journal before sleeping, so he had an ongoing account of everything that happened on the trail
Nadeau said he will attempt is again, in 2013. This time he won’t have 58 pounds on his back. The goal, he said, will be to have his pack at about 24 points.
“I’ll know what I am getting into, how to cook my meals, what to eat and how to make sure I sleep at night,” he said. “I know absolutely nothing about long-distance hiking last time, even though I had read numerous books about the trail.”
And he’ll have time to prepare, too.
This time around, he walked every chance he got.
“Honestly, I don’t believe you can prepare for such a hike physically,” he said. “Your body will physically adapt to hiking every day within the first month on the trail.”
Mental preparation, he said, is the biggest part.
“Make sure you are ready to endure weeks of rain, very cold nights, and days without showers,” Nadeau said. “Get used to eating trail food, make sure you can cook your food or have a plan.”
In the beginning, it took him a long time to set up his tent. Now, he said, he could practically do it with his eyes closed. It all comes with practice. Everything eventually becomes routine on the trail.
And with 815 miles under his belt, that routine shouldn’t take too long to get rolling again in 2013.
Here are some quick-hitting tidbits from Nadeau’s thru-hike.
- On why he wanted to hike the AT: After summiting Mount Katahdin on Sept. 10, 2010. “I’ve always loved the outdoors. I’ve always done a lot of car camping and so on. I had never hiked more than 60 miles before starting the AT.”
- Going in, had he done any other long-distance hiking? “Not much.” Nadeau said he spent 10 days in the Grand Canyon with his mother when he was about age 12. They did day hikes and always returned to the same campsite. Last November, he hiked about 60 miles around Buena Vista, Virginia.
- Plans to maybe do other long-distant hikes? Nadeau said if he won the lottery, he’d do the AT next year, the Pacific Crest Trail the following year and the Continental Divide Trail the third year, thus completing the United States Triple Crown of hiking. “I do not have the time or the money, so therefore I’ll stick to the AT for now. I have much support all over the East Coast and that is nice feeling to have especially when it is really needed.”
- Best trail town? Hot Springs, North Carolina. “It’s the closest to my house and I had an unbelievable feeling when hiking down into town.”
- Worst trail town? Gatlinburg, Tennessee. “I’ve been there too many times to count so it was old news for me and I had a very bad day hiking into the town,” Nadeau said. “It’s a great place, unless you don’t like tourists. It is a very tourist-friendly town and there are people all over the place.”
- Anything he wished he did on the trail? Finished and hiked New England. Being originally from Maine, he thinks about hiking New England all the time. Too, he said sometimes he pushed too hard to get miles under his belt instead of slowing down and enjoying the surroundings more.
To read more from Nadeau, check out his Trail Journal, which he updated throughout his hike.
Below is a video that Nadeau’s brother put together using photos from the 815 miles that he hiked. It’s about 45 minutes long. Enjoy!
- October 16: Win an autographed copy of Bill Walker’s book about his Appalachian Trail hike
- October 17: Preview
- October 19: Emily Harper
- Today: 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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