A month in backwoods Maine with Heather’s Choice
How do you write an un-tellable story? How do you summarize an experience greater than words? Not only did 4 weeks on the Appalachian Trail exceed my expectations, it shattered them like a windshield in a high impact collision. Before I left, I had visions of my physical struggle and thought often of the discomforts I would face, but those aspects of my journey were merely footnotes compared to the unpredictable wild times and breathtaking encounters with Mother Nature along the trail.
In late July I embarked to join two of my closest girlfriends and their significant others for their final 4 weeks on the Appalachian Trail. These incredible women had been hiking since March on their legendary trek from Maine to Georgia. I joined them in Gorum, New Hampshire and set out to hike the remaining 300 miles to Mount Katahdin in Maine. When I arrived I was painfully aware of my ignorance of backpacking culture and protocol compared to NoBo hikers with nearly 2,000 miles under their hip belts. My equipment was fresh and my clothes untainted by the incomparable wear and tear of 5 months in the woods.
What I learned over the next few weeks is that backpacking isn't really about the hiking. (That part is pretty straight forward.) It's about the scenic snack breaks and dinner time with your “tramily” (trail-family). It's about the people you meet along the way, both on and off the trail, who touch your life with their kindness and inspirational worldly tales. You don't learn how to hike on a thru hike, you learn how to be a better person.
Which brings me to shattered assumption number one: A 4 week section hike of the Maine Appalachian Trail does not constitute a thru hike. These crazy, amazing people that embark to conquer long trails, like the AT, PCT, or CDT are a whole different breed. It's takes mental and physical stamina like nothing I've ever seen to get out of your sleeping bag every morning for months on end, cram your feet into your boots, and keep trucking. Before I left, I had thought 4 weeks would be a pretty good "thru hike", but upon reflection, I realized that I only dipped my toes in the experience that is thru hiking. I only glimpsed the magic, the weirdness, the absurdity.
Another shattered assumption? Live large, because no one is judging your luxury items. I spent months fussing over my backpacking gear list before I left for the Appalachian Trail and had convinced myself that all luxuries must be spared in the name of an ultralight baseweight. On one of my final trips to REI I stood before the backpacking pillows and danced from foot to foot. Should I make this small investment in my comfort and add just 4 ounces to my pack? No! Surely, if I carried a 4 ounce inflatable pillow all of the other backpackers would scream in laughter at my ineptitude. Well folks, I was wrong. Plenty of backpackers carry pillows and, moreover, I found that most of the time other hikers simply thought luxury items were ‘cool’.
Speaking of things I thought it would be ‘cool’ to carry… anyone remember that 4 pound sleeping bag that I justified in my first blog post? It only took a day or two before I was burning with envy every time I saw another hiker pull their 1 pound sleeping bag out of a 5 liter stuff sack. My giant 4 pound bag consumed a very un-cool 11 liters of my pack (even in a compression sack). It was bulky, heavy, and if anything, too darn hot! The majority of the Appalachian Trail thru hikers that I encountered were carrying ultralight, and ultra compressible bags. Even in the White Mountains of New Hampshire or the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine, these ultralight bags were completely adequate.
But that’s all I want to say about gear for now! Let me get back to the adventure! In the months I spent preparing for the Appalachian Trail, I had assumed the biggest highlights would be the hiking itself, but let’s face it. When you’re hiking 20 miles a day, day after day, just to make sure you don’t run out of food before you get to your next resupply town, the hiking becomes pretty monotonous. It only took me a few days of being on trail to realize that my favorite moments were the ones when we all stopped hiking and crowded around some beautiful view to feast on some bizarre combo of snacks, and laugh and share stories. (Jerky dipped in peanut butter? Yes! With M&Ms? Yes!)
I’ll never forget one evening that we camped in front of a lake. We were exhausted from a long, humid day of hiking and collapsed in a big pile on the tent platform. Human limbs, trekking poles, and backpacks all scattered clumsily about. Slowly but surely food bags and stoves started to emerge. The hot air filled with the gentle purr of propane humming away as Chocolate Bison Chili, instant mashed potatoes, and ramen noodles came to life. As the spoonfuls of much needed sustenance made their way to our hungry mouths we all started to come back to life. Soon there was talking, laughing, and giggling echoing out over the lake. We sat there for hours that night, until the sun fell low in the sky, swapping stories and greeting other hikers as they rolled into the campground.
Throughout the day we might all hike at different paces, but meal time is when we all would come together and truly bask in the glory of each other’s company. Yup, hot cooked meals with my tramily was definitely my favorite part of the adventure. And let’s not gloss over the fact that I was eating like a queen in the Maine backcountry! I woke up every morning and feasted on my Heather’s Choice buckwheat breakfast while other hikers suffered through their 99th serving of instant oatmeal. In the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine I was even able to treat myself to fresh blueberries picked along the trail! And at the end of each weary day I had heaps of protein to look forward to in my Heather’s Choice dinners.
Attentive readers may recall from my last blog that I was extremely concerned about my caloric intake on the trail. Prior to my departure, I was incredibly privileged to work closely with Heather to create a custom 4,000 calorie/day backcountry meal plan, and I’m thrilled to report that I didn’t lose any weight on the Appalachian Trail! I gained some serious muscle tone on my calves and thighs, and was thrilled to keep a perfect fit with my hip belt. Heather’s advice to consume 1 gram of protein for every pound of body mass was spot on! I learned quickly that my body was craving protein above everything else and adjusted my meal plan to lean more heavily on jerky products and meat bars (namely Wilde bars, and Epic bars) than any carbohydrate based bars (like Cliff bars, Larabars, etc). I was thrilled at my athletic stamina and ability to build muscle with this protein heavy diet.
If you’re interested in learning more about meal planning for a section hike, tune in this September for my next blog; Backcountry Nutrition on the Appalachian Trail. We’ll be taking a closer look at some of the diet plans I observed on the AT, the general thru hiker’s attitude toward nutrition, and some fun hacks for increasing your caloric intake on the trail. Be sure to signup for our email newsletter or follow Heather’s Choice on social media for updates when new articles go live!