On the morning of Monday, September 4, I summited Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Usually, Labor Day signals the end of summer: settling back into the routines of work and school as the weather gets colder and the days shorten. Instead, I turned southward to begin a 2,194-mile adventure on the Appalachian Trail. Without further ado, here are…
5 Reasons I’m Enjoying a September Start to the AT
1. The people
By the time I started in Maine, the first wave of the “bubble” of hikers who started their trek northbound (Nobo) this year in Georgia in March or early April had already finished. But, there were plenty of hikers still out here. It was fun to get a taste of the more traditional AT experience, with businesses and services that cater to hikers in full swing. For example, at my first two resupply points, I pulled up to the trailhead and another hiker was there having already called a shuttle into town—no need to hitchhike. In the 100 Mile Wilderness, my sleeping pad which had been slowly losing its internal seams started actively and noisily dying. No problem: at my first stop, Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson, I had about 10 different pads to choose from to buy a new one. I’d meant to resupply in Rangeley after that. But when I crossed ME Route 27 at 5pm and it was raining, 30 miles sooner, Jenn of the Maine Roadhouse kindly scooped me up along with the other hiker there and made a home for me for the night on the day bed in their bunkroom, even though I didn’t have a reservation and it was still peak season. I got a full resupply to last me to Gorham, NH and a charged-up phone and headlamp, a delicious blueberry pancake breakfast, and a ride from Jenn back to the trail at 8am the next morning on her mini school bus full of Nobo hikers.
Crossing into New Hampshire, the tide of hikers traveling the other way has definitely slowed. I’ve loved the bustling trail community, and I’m also happy for the shift to a more peaceful, quiet trail.
2. The (lack of) bugs
I’ve heard horror stories about the mosquitoes and black flies in Maine. A few years ago, my sister day-hiked Mount Katahdin and came back covered in red welts from the latter that took months to fade away. In my opinion, nothing is more demoralizing than trudging through swarms of buzzing, biting insects. I had a few pockets of mosquitoes at the beginning of the Hundred Mile Wilderness that were easy to hike through quickly. Other than that, zero biting bugs. None. They have died off for the season. It is awesome, especially because I sleep out (cowboy camp without a tent) every night that it isn’t raining.
3. The weather, sort of.
Statistically, it is much less likely to rain on me than during a traditional thru-hike that begins in the spring. So far, in true East Coast fashion, the weather has proven that it does not care about statistics. One night, I got to a shelter and it was full. There was no guarantee that the next one ten miles further wouldn’t be too. So, I nestled under some pines and did my best to go to sleep. It turns out that my bivvy sac, which is waterproof against the occasional midnight downpour in the Sierras, doesn’t hold up so well to the steady downpours that visit the Appalachians. Too cold to stay asleep, I gave up trying at 2am. I dumped out the water that was in with me, and moseyed up the next mountains in the dark. Definitely type 2 fun. On the days without rain though, the weather has been the most gorgeous autumn days that are a dream for hiking: not too hot, not too cold, crisp fall air.
4. Sunrises and sunsets
I live for sunrises. Watching the fanfare in the sky as the ball of the sun approaches is the best and most hopeful thing in the world. It’s what keeps me going on hard days in New Jersey, where I live and work in regular life. The silver lining to shorter daylight is that I am way more likely to be at the top of a mountain for sunrise and sunset, without having to hike at ridiculous hours.
5. The leaves!!!
Yellow and red are are starting to tinge the green hills. Maple leaves and birch leaves are piling up on trail, splashes of cheerful color against all the green. If I hike fast enough, I will be basking in the famous fall foliage of the Appalachians all the way to Georgia. On a personal level, more than any place in the world, the leaf-littered trail is home. It feels and smells like cross-country meets in middle school and high school at woodsy parks outside Boston, and like raking leaves in the backyard of the house where I grew up. In the last year and a half, I’ve been all over the place: I graduated college and left the apartment where I’d stayed the longest in one spot since high school (nine months). I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. I rented a room in a house for six months, where strangers were often in and out and I slept on a futon. I did a month of field work in Oman, a month in Nevada, and a week in Colorado. For work, I’ve also travelled to Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont. Recently I’ve been staying with a professor emeritus in her beautiful home, sleeping on a sofa in a sunroom full of cacti surrounded by a fairytale garden. I’m still on the move on the AT. But, this motion is the most peaceful and homey place I’ve been in a very long time.
So far, I would definitely recommend an autumn thru-hike! With the caveat that, it does require moving pretty fast to avoid getting caught in winter. I am not a fast walker—in thru-hiker terms—but I will happily walk all day, without stopping, pretty much every day, which lends itself to big miles. I have had a good amount of on and off-trail hiking recently, in addition to running 10-100 miles a week in daily life, so I was able to start out this way. Otherwise, I would allow for a little more time to build up momentum at the start, for the long mosey towards Georgia.
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