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Spring 2003
Volume 39, No. 3
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PCMOnline Editor
Sarah Dolinar

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Last year two Pomona students set out to test their outdoors acumen, their knowledge of backpacking equipment and their knowledge of themselves...

With less than 200 miles of trail to go, Li knew she needed a rest. After hiking most of the 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail, she told her friend Alex she wanted a break.

"I needed to shower. I wanted to file down my calluses and sleep in a real bed."

Getting off the Trail is easy, but as any dedicated "thru-hiker" would warn, itís getting back thatís a challenge. Facing only a couple of hundred miles to reach the end, Li and Alex stopped to talk. Alex wanted to continue, but Li wanted a hot steaming shower. Li told Alex she should go on without her, and reluctantly, Alex agreed. So after four months together on the Trail, they separated. For their family and friends, it was like the splitting of the atom. For Li and Alex though, it was exactly where the Trail was taking them.

Falling down the rabbit hole
 
  Nicole, Alex and Li at the start of their Appalachian trek.
In early March 2002, Sara "Li" Lieber ’03, Alex Messerli ’03, and Alex’s sister Nicole hugged their parents goodbye at the base of Springer Mountain in Georgia. They each donned a 30-pound backpack stocked with equipment and food, tightened the laces on their boots and started the walk to Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

Beginning the trek with more than a hundred other hikers that day, Li and Alex were determined to test their outdoors acumen by walking entire spine of the Appalachian range, come hell or high water. Along the way, they went through several pairs of hiking boots, many dozens of bagels and their entire karaoke repertoire while meeting a cadre of souls pushing through to trail’s end.

"The Trail is not unlike the Mad Hatter’s tea party," says Alex.

The nomadic caravan of through-hikers, known on the AT as "thru-hikers," guaranteed an almost daily adventure. Alex tells of one hiker who seemed to fit right into Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. He would "sprint-hike" to cover large distances and speed past other hikers. Occasionally, they’d find him perched on a trailside tree trunk, casually smoking a cigarette. "He’d be smiling at us just like the Cheshire Cat."

With its scantily marked trails, picture-perfect vistas and roadside attractions, the Appalachian Trail is part myth, part rugged truth, and the dividing line is sometimes hard to find. Alex and Li tell stories of a seemingly magical transformation. They admitted they were incredulous about the generosity people showed them. There were times that strangers gave them a place to stay on cold wet nights and even fed them home-cooked meals with no expectation of reciprocity. Alex was inspired by it. "The boost you get from knowing that someone wants to brighten your day is beyond compare," she says.

The Carnival Girls
The third of four sisters, Alex spent many summers roaming the wilderness on the eastern seaboard. A native of New Jersey, she and Nicole worked on the Trail one summer at Bascom Lodge on Mt. Greylock, Massachusetts’ highest point at 3,491 feet. Every day they watched through-hikers coming and going, and by the end of the summer they began making plans to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail themselves.

Though always an adventurous spirit, Li, on the other hand, never considered herself a hiker, much less a backpacker. "I’m basically a city girl," she says, talking of growing up in industrial Pittsburgh, trolling the city for amusement.

While she lived with Alex during the first semester of their junior year at Pomona, she heard Alex’s idea. At first, Li just helped her friend train for the Trail by walking and running around town.

Eventually though, Alex won her over. They each went home for the holidays and took off the spring semester for the trip. In Pittsburgh, Li practiced in city parks. "I hiked around one park with bricks in my pack. It’s funny because it’s in the middle of the city." People watched her with worried looks on their faces and even cautioned her not to stay overnight at the urban park.

Once on the Trail, the trio was known as the Carnival Girls because they shared a large tent, a striking contrast from the average through-hiker who slept alone. Everyone had Trail names, says Li, providing a sense of security and even whimsy for strangers whose only connection was a shared path through the woods.

While she went by her own name most of the time, for a while Li went by "Tall Tale" because as she says, "a lot of really weird things happened to me, like I got attacked by a cow." Moreover, bovine attacks notwithstanding, Li topped five-foot-eight in her hiking boots, making her companions appear very short by comparison.

Don’t buy gear from people who sell gear
At first, the trio was very conscientious about having all the right equipment and they cleaved to rules in the authoritative Appalachian Trail Data Book and Companion Book, both of which provide information about necessary supplies, along with locations of water sources, towns and shelters along the way.

It wasn’t long, though, till they shed a few pounds from their packs. Even before getting on the Trail, Li ditched her beloved drawing supplies to avoid the extra weight on her back. Later when she had to part with her heavy water purifier, she elected to keep the oh-so-comfortable two-pound sleeping hammock, one of the few pieces of equipment she still has today.

 
  Signs mark the state line crossings.
Li describes living on the Trail as an almost monastic experience. "In some ways, it is a really desperate life, but I like the simplicity of the lifestyle." Carrying only two or three days worth of food and picking up water at springs along the trail or faucets in towns, they learned to pare down on the luxuries of sedentary living.

"It’s almost like joining a cult. You have to get rid of so much stuff, which is really scary," she says, "but it’s also really great that you live on only what you can carry on your back."

They walked an average of 15 miles a day, sometimes covering as many as 24 miles in a day or as few as only ten. Between them they carried, among other things, a camp stove, bug spray, clothes, a scant first-aid kit, and carefully measured portions of toilet paper.

Equipment was often the target of terse arguments. Alex recalls a tiff over toothpaste. It had become a sore issue because she didn’t like having to get out of bed at night to dig the toothpaste out of her pack for Li or Nicole, so in the end they each carried their own tube.

Despite some of the quarrels over equipment, Alex and Li are hasty to warn other hikers off buying gear from so-called experts. "The people who sell gear have no idea what they’re talking about," says Li. Having gone through five pairs of hiking shoes and two whole shoe sizes on the Trail, she is not one to be argued with in the footwear category. "They’ll tell you that you need six-pound boots to wear, but really, you don’t want to carry six pounds on your feet." Eventually she opted for running shoes and Alex settled on Merrell hiking shoes, which she continued to wear throughout her year studying abroad in Paris after finishing the Trail.

On the Trail by nine
"The thing about the Appalachian Trail is if you see a mountain it means you’re going over it," says Li. "After a while you couldn’t appreciate the views because you were like, ‘Aargh, I have to go over that one, too.’"

Mornings on the Trail seemed the hardest. Usually up between 7:30 and 9 in the morning, they fought exhaustion, cold weather, hot weather, and sometimes damp gear to collect their food from bear-proof storage, treat their water, pack their equipment and leave a note in the shelter logbook. Once they checked the Data Book and maps to determine where they aimed to spend the night, they’d start out.

"We usually walked until we felt like we earned a snack break," says Li. Alex admits that they took a lot of breaks, sometimes just to sit—ironically, the favorite pastime of most through-hikers on the Trail. Once they reached camp for the night, they set up their tent, rested, treated water again, cooked dinner, then spent time reading, writing, or chatting until bedtime. In the morning, they’d start it all over again.

 
  A white blaze is painted on a pile of rocks along the Trail.
In the national parks and forests, the Trail is well-marked with signs to help the day hikers, says Li. Otherwise, it’s marked with swipes of paint called "blazes." Different colors mark different paths: white blazes mark the sanctioned Trail, blue blazes mark shortcuts, and aqua blazes mark ways to travel on water. Hitchhiking, a method often scorned as cheating, is called "yellow-blazing" for the yellow stripes on the roads. "Really, though, it’s only frowned upon if you do it and don’t tell anyone," says Li.

Generally, they averaged two miles an hour, except where the terrain was rocky or hilly. Sometimes they found no water at their planned campsite, so they’d have to hike several more miles to the next shelter or water spot. Once, when they had walked far into twilight and her headlamp's battery was fading, Li decided to sprint down a wooded hill towards camp to catch the last few rays of sunlight. Luckily, she made it down without injury.

At first a purist, Alex refused to listen to headphones because she wanted to hear the noises of the wilderness. After a while though, she recalls, "the distraction was necessary just to get the ache in your feet off your mind, or whatever it is that is keeping you down on any particular day."

Stud, Dr. Bug and Trail Angels
"What with the world coming apart at the seams," says Alex, "I couldn’t think of a better thing to do than to disappear into the woods and lead a different kind of life. I wanted to do something and do something great, stop being a bystander and make something happen."

She wasn’t alone in that aspiration. Today people from the Trail flash in her memory as snapshots, each one captioned with a memory and nickname, like Lone Star from Texas, who gave a discourse in a fake British accent on the integrity of the H-beam versus the I-beam. Or Phoenix, who lectured like the Wizard of Oz on the proper method for hanging a bear bag. Mako talked about his Rhode Island Mafia bicycle gang known as Satan’s Serpents. Runaway took naps on the side of the Trail, and Dropout sang Dylan songs and played his pack guitar for the crowd. Turkey Bacon with his mouse catapult, or Birdnut who sang ‘Doom despair and agony on me’ in a Tennessee drawl.

The Carnival Girls often hiked with a husband-and-wife team known as Stud and Dr. Bug, who were computer engineers taking a break from programming. For a while, the couple watched out for the younger trio, then eventually hiked on ahead. Later, Alex and Nicole ran into them in New Hampshire, and while in Paris, Alex got to visit with them while they took a break from backpacking through Europe.

"I felt part of a community very early," says Alex. "Our names were in the shelter logbooks, the names of people I knew or had heard of were in the logbooks, and we exchanged messages with people through the grapevine. There was an immense amount of trust and camaraderie." The grapevine, though always active on the Trail, was not always accurate. "Our friend Stud told us some guy had been trying to catch up with us because he’d heard we wore makeup and smelled good all the time," says Alex, explaining that, in fact, the truth was quite contrary to the rumor.

Another presence on the Trail, "Trail Angels," do "good deeds" for hikers, like leaving a cooler of sodas and snacks on the Trail or buying pitchers of beer at the local bar for through-hikers.

Despite the many wonderful people they met, both Li and Alex admit that it was what they learned about themselves that meant the most. "I guess the trail was sort of about finding my voice, or getting me on that track, you know, going somewhere where no one can hear you in order to discover what it is you have to say," says Alex.

The first mountain is the hardest. The last is just euphoric.
After splitting up late in the trip, they both reveled in the last month on the Trail. Li hooked up with a few friends they’d met earlier, and Alex and Nicole got to catch up with friends from their summer at Mt. Greylock. And befitting her natural stubborn streak, Li had no problems getting back on the Trail after her respite. "I never thought about quitting. It’s just not in me." For her, the Trail just solidified things she already knew about herself.

On the Trail, they say you keep short-term goals, like reaching the next town, the next state line, the next shelter that might be haunted or that had a good water source. Concentrating on the newness of the terrain, stories about cantankerous old hermits who lost their entire fortune twice in a gold rush, sandwich shops with ice cream and sodas, cheap hotel deals or one-of-a-kind hostels, and the excitement of a mail drop with care packages and letters from friends kept the girls from thinking about going home.

At Harper’s Ferry, the midway point, Li called her grandfather to check in. Not fully understanding her tenacity, he pleaded with her to stop and come home. "He said to me, ‘When you tell people you hiked 1,000 miles, what are they gonna say, 'Wow'? And when you tell them you hiked 2,000 miles, are they gonna say, 'Wow Wow'?’"

 
  Li entering the "100-mile wilderness" with Mt. Katahdin in the background.
The northern end of the Trail in Maine takes hikers through the "100-mile wilderness" punctuated by the singular Mt. Katahdin rising into the clouds. Recalling the majestic site, Alex says, "The first mountain is the hardest, but the last mountain is just euphoric."

Today they both are introspective about their months away from the real world. Li calls it being gone from life. "By the end though, it’s like you’re not gone any more. It’s just the way you live."

"I think it was in Georgia that I got to the top of a ridge," says Alex, "and I looked out over this amazing valley with this late afternoon wintry light. I realized, sinkingly, that I was still just me. I had wanted to become someone different in the process, but I’m always going to be me. I’m glad about that now. I wouldn’t want to be anyone else. I’ve done something incredible and I’m still doing things that amaze me."

—Sarah Dolinar