By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Wired wilderness

It was right around noon on Tuesday, Aug. 9. We had just reached Clarendon Lookout after an exhausting vertical scramble through the heat and humidity. Sweat was pouring off me; my heart was pounding. And there, perched on the rock before me, was a young couple who had arrived shortly before us, looking like they had just stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalogue.

She was chatting away on a cellphone. After she hung up, she apologized and introduced herself and her husband as “Bug and Ms. Priss.” Way back last spring, they had left their home in Memphis in order to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, some 2,000 miles. As you can see from this, “thru-hikers,” as they are called, have become something akin to marathoners – that is, it’s a Herculean feat, but a lot more people do it than used to be the case. More than 500 a year, in fact. (The thru-hiking experience was documented to hilarious effect several years ago in Bill Bryson’s excellent book “A Walk in the Woods.”)

Unlike most of the thru-hikers we met, Bug and Ms. Priss seemed almost normal. After three and a half days on the trail, our band of three adults and four boys looked pretty bedraggled, but Bug and Priss seemed as though they had done little more than stroll up a hill for a picnic. It turned out that – other than being in far better physical shape than we were – they had stopped by a relative’s house within the past day or so and had gotten cleaned up. Priss told me that they hoped to reach the end of the trail, at Mt. Katahdin in Maine, by mid-September or so, and then relocate to the Carolinas.

Before they moved on, they urged us to look up their trail journal online. If I’d had the presence of mind, I’d have asked them a few questions about how – and why – they would do such a thing. I’d have taken their picture, too. But I did manage to swipe a photo from their site, which I’m sure they won’t mind. I e-mailed them some questions a few days ago, but they haven’t responded; in fact, as you’ll see, they haven’t updated their journal for a bit.

You will see that Bug and Priss are, in fact, Bryan and Bethany Love. Their journal notes that they’re thru-hiking this year to mark their fourth wedding anniversary. Bryan’s first entry, from last August, begins with this:

BRYAN: Currently, I’m a 31 year old pharmacist at a very large hospital in Memphis. I started in my current position fresh from my residency with the intention of only staying a few years, then moving back to SC. Seven years later and I’m still in Memphis. Before continuing on with my professional career, I want to take some time off. What better way to take some time off than to take a little “walk in the woods.” I know most of my colleagues & friends couldn’t understand my desires to spend 4-6 months walking to Maine. Luckily for me, my wife understands completely and is looking forward to the trek also.

You’ll also find photos and even some notes on their gear.

What I find fascinating about this is the need to take part in media of some form even when going through such an elemental, off-the-beaten-track experience as thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Of technological necessity, this is obviously a new development. I’ve been backpacking since 1968, and the first time I ever brought a cellphone into the mountains was in 2001. Now it’s common, and you see people chatting away wherever there’s a cell signal.

Since Bug and Priss didn’t respond to my e-mail, I can’t tell you exactly how they’re able to blog from the AT. But their e-mail address suggests that they’re using a tiny Pocketmail computer, which taps into the cellular network. Photos, I imagine, are taken on their cellphone. And thus are the Loves able to engage in some DIY media even while hiking from Georgia to Maine.

Our goal, on the other hand, was simply to hike from Bromley Mountain to Mt. Killington in five days – a 50-mile backpacking trip in southern Vermont encompassing the final stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Vermont before it turns east toward New Hampshire, with Vermont’s own Long Trail continuing north to the Canadian border.

On Saturday, Aug. 6, I headed up with three other adults and four 14-year-old boys – all of us from my son’s Boy Scout troop. The trip had been a year in the planning, and for me, at least, it was pure nostalgia: I had gone on two such trips when I was in scouts, and a third as a 21-year-old helping out my old troop. Of course, at 49, I knew the hiking was likely to be more difficult this time around.

Day One was warm but not particularly humid. That, combined with the fact that we were fresh, made for a relatively easy day’s hike, even though it was supposed to be our toughest day on the trail. We spent our first night at the Griffith Lake Tenting Area and our second – following a very easy day of hiking – at Little Rock Pond, a beautiful, deep lake in which some members of our party went swimming. (Not me, though I wished I’d brought swimming trunks.) Little Rock Pond was presided over by Rick, a student at Unity College in Maine who’s majoring in adventure education.

By Day Three, Monday, the weather had turned humid again. And after a fairly easy morning, we had a brutal hike in the afternoon, staggering up an unheralded peak called Bear Mountain. At this point, our backpacks were weighing us down, and there wasn’t much we could do about it: a good deal of the weight was water, and it would have been dangerous for us to carry any less than the two to three liters we were each lugging.

It was also on Day Three that we met “Doc,” another thru-hiker and by far the most colorful character we encountered. A Floridian by way of Woonsocket, R.I., Doc was hiking the entire AT for the second summer in a row. It was unclear what he did for a living, though he mentioned something about working in a veterinary hospital. Doc was middle-aged or older, and he smoked a lot of cigarettes – not exactly conducive to effective hiking. In fact he tended to keep pace with us, whereas most of the other hikers blew past us with depressing vigor. Talkative, profane and filled with wild stories, he told us about growing up amid the gang wars of New Haven and New York City, and of hiking over Mt. Washington at night, bombed on vodka. He was an interesting and engaging guy, although a little Doc tended to go a long way.

We camped for the third night at the Minerva Hinchey Shelter, the only night I decided to stay inside rather than set up my tent. (The shelters along this stretch of the AT are three-sided structures with a roof, but open in the front.) Around 9:30 p.m., someone whom I took to be a thru-hiker made his way into camp and parked his malodorous head about six inches from my nose. The next night, at the Governor Clement Shelter, I was back in my tent.

By far our most difficult stretch was from 3 p.m. on Monday, when we started up Bear Mountain, until 1 p.m. on Tuesday, when we reached the peak of Beacon Hill, a bit beyond Clarendon Lookout. (Beacon Hill refers not to Boston, but to the fact that there’s an airplane beacon on the summit.) These were three extremely difficult uphills, all the harder because they are minor summits that don’t get much attention. In other words, it’s a lot easier to bust your hump when you know ahead of time that you have a tough hike ahead of you.

As we did on Wednesday, Aug. 10, our last day on the trail. That’s when we climbed Mt. Killington, at 4,235 feet the second-highest peak in Vermont. The AT actually skirts around the summit, but we scrambled to the top along a steep, rocky side trail. We had several hours of hiking in front of us, but it was all downhill from Killington. The feeling of accomplishment was palpable.

My apologies for not posting any photos of our hiking party. The four boys, obviously, are all minors, and I don’t have permission to post their pictures. But it was quite a feat for them and an even greater feat for the adults. Only one of us (not me!) was in good physical shape, and none of us enjoys the resilience of youth at this point in our lives.

What I keep thinking about, though, is how much the experience has changed over the past 30 years. It used to be that when you took part in a backpacking trip, you were cutting yourself off from the world – there simply wasn’t any way you would hear about anything, from national catastrophe to personal tragedy, until you emerged from the woods. Now, it’s a given that you’re going to stay in touch.

Maybe not to the same degree as Bug and Miss Priss. But, in fact, all of us were calling our families, and one of the adults even left in mid-trip after he learned that his wife was sick. I checked my voice mail and returned a work-related call. It’s a wired nation, and that applies to the woods and mountains just as much as it does to cities and towns. Is it better? I’m not sure. But it’s different.

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  1. Anonymous

    Nice tale, if off the beaten path (sorry!) from media watching.And Bill Bryson’s book is a must read, if only for the part in which he finds divining the true distance of the Appalachian trail is almost as hard as walking it.Mike_B

  2. blogadoo

    Great story. As an Eagle Scout, the story brings back a lot of great memories camping w/ my troop. You’re absolutely right about Cell phones and the internet capabilities changing the way camping is. While i’m not really old, it was only 10 years ago that you go camping and find out news when you get home on sunday. For instance the Sox, returning home i’d find out they started a 2 game losing streak and the Yankees took over first place. I learned Jerry Garcia died over a radio that barely got reception, and learned Ronald Reagan passed away by reading the highway warning signs returning from a trip. Recently I went up to upstate Maine for a trip, everybody brought their cell phones, 30 miles before we arrived at our destination reception was gone, as was any likelihood of speaking to anyone unless we sat by the good old pay phone. Trips like those help ya realize how great a weekend,or a week out in the wilderness can be. =)

  3. Anonymous

    Dan, nice post about your experiences meeting the thru hikers, however . . . as a thru hiker (GA>MA ’90), I have to take issue with one thing: “Unlike most of the thru-hikers we met, Bug and Miss Priss seemed almost normal.”I think most thru hikers are normal, or on the other hand, happy to not be normal (what’s that?!), if being normal means holding the same values we see reflected everyday in the mass media. I think most thru hikers are different (we have to be to finish), but we’re normal. Does that make sense?Oh, and the Bryson book, speaking as a thru hiker, was not excellent. I felt he made too much fun of my fellow thru hikers and the small town folk we encountered along the way. I know I am probably being sensitive, but that’s okay.Like your work, Dan. Good luck at NE.Bill

  4. Anonymous

    oops. I meant GA>ME ’90; I ate the whole thing.Bill

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Bill -I’m aware that Bryon’s book is not universally loved (to say the least!) among thru-hikers. But it’s a great read, and I agree with him that the lack of facilities in the backwoods goes somewhat beyond what is necessary to preserve the backcountry experience. A few years ago a buddy and I found ourselves camping illegally in the Pemi after a very long day’s hike because the campsite that had been there for years had been dismantled. I mean, really, to what end?By the way, last summer my son and I were talking with a thru-hiker who goes by Big Foot. He, too, is not a fan of “A Walk in the Woods.” He told us about some interesting evidence that there was never any such person as Katz. Apparently there are thru-hikers who remember Bryson, but recall that he was hiking alone. And there are supposedly some hut registers that Bryson signed, but no Katz. No idea what the truth is, but as someone who likes his non-fiction to be 100 percent “non-,” I was a little flustered.

  6. Secret Agent Cathy

    Just got my first cell phone. It became pointless to hold out. What’s frightening to me is how instantly addictive they are. I even make daytime calls from the cell when the land line phone is sitting right next to me and wouldn’t cost me any “minutes.” I can see from now on I’ll be giving most of my money to Working Assets. Nice to have you back Dan.

  7. Anonymous

    Am I correct that one cannot buy a “Pocketmail” computer in New England? Their website showed no stores or resellers in MA. Does the service, in fact, work in cellphone-served areas?

  8. Anonymous

    Dan – Great story on your trip. Having done that same segment once with the Scouts myself (did you notice BTW if the Jarvis Snodgrass Memorial Outhouse is there with Governor Clement Shelter?).Mike WyattNorwell, MA

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Mike -I didn’t notice anything special about the Governor Clement privy. Last year, though, we did a 20-miler and stayed at the Thistle Hill Shelter, which is the new home of the famous Cloudland privy, with its 360-degree view. Here’s a photo.Highly recommended.

  10. Anonymous

    Hi Dan:Just thought it was amusing that the Governor’s cabin was paired with his Lt. Governor’s outhouse (of course this is going back to the 70s at this point).Glad to see that Scouts are continuing to hike the AT/LT. Our troop kept rotating chunks of the Long Trail every summer, so if you kept at it, you hiked the whole of Vermont.Mike WyattNorwell, MA

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