Editor’s note: This is a reprint (with Jim’s permission) of an email from Jim Heaney sent in commemoration of his “through-hike” of the Appalachian Trail.
A year ago today, 168 days and about two hours after I started, I hiked my 2,171st and final mile of the Appalachian Trail. You’ve read that story; or if you haven’t, https://www.jarretthousenorth.com/mothman (shoutout to Tim for dutifully posting all of these). Some of you commented that I never disclosed the origin of the “Mothman” Trail handle; to get to it, you have to suffer through ONE MORE email.
- Within a few months of returning to Washington DC, I learned that Iron Chef was living here and that Loa was swinging through town all on the same day. Chef and I were both freshly groomed and unrecognizable to each other. Loa looked the same.
- Just a week later, Chef had convinced Loser, Dutch, and Hot Rod (whom I knew in southern Virginia as Just Brian) to come to DC for a weekend. The DC residents included Monster Button and his brother Searching (who had to get off the Trail last year because of a heart attack) (really), Last Minute, Double Dare, and a woman I never met on the Trail named Charity. We ate at Eastern Market, then proceeded to the Botanical Gardens (where we critiqued the model stealth-camping site in the “rain forest” room—what a good laugh that was!), eventually working our way to dinner and an Irish pub. It was, truly, our hiking experience in microcosm: all we know how to do together is walk through flora, and eat and drink to excess. Proudly, we stayed out until after 1 in the morning, forcing the DJ to play “Rocky Top” (which we climbed in the Smokeys) and generally drawing a lot of attention to ourselves; none of that 9pm “hiker midnight” business.
- I had the great joy of returning to Damascus, VA, this year for Trail Days: The Reunion, with Foz, who is living nearby. So many friendly faces—No Pepsi, Melo Yelo, HepCat, Kodiak, Blink Blink and Scubaman (they have been a couple since Kent CT—it was quite the Trail gossip at the time!), Skittles, Starbuck, Leapyear, Lion King, Billy Boy, Ranger, Chicken Legs, Karma, Face and Blaze, Shifty, Grandma and Skeletor (also known as Chaucy and Clancy at one point). Was delighted to run back into Peanut/Patty from my Georgia days; she told me that Fatman did not finish his hike, so I was happy that I at least carried the alcohol-burning coke-can stove he gave me all the way. I spent some time talking to Froggy Pete, whom I met on the approach trail to Springer Mountain on the first day; and Stumpknocker, a southbounder who was the year before a northbounder, whom I spent half an hour with at my favorite lunch spot all summer (on North Kinsman in NH, overlooking the Franconia Ridge); BOTH hiking north again. And I caught up with Rob (of Rob’s Secret Shelter in Dalton MA). The 2004 northbounders look fit and hungry. And in a strange coincidence, it stormed that weekend! My tent has lost all semblance of water-proofness from being packed and unpacked so many times. I tried sleeping in the resulting puddle for a few hours before reclining the seat of my car.
- Serendipitously, I was invited to a wedding of a long-lost college friend in Seattle, and this provided me the opportunity to celebrate Constant Motion’s birthday with her for the second straight year. We left the salad bar in better shape than we (12 thru-hikers) had the year before.
What are people doing? Well, pretty much the same of what they were doing before. Last Minute has a new job; I need to catch up with him (he lives the town over from mine). Iron Chef was planning to hike the Long Trail in Vermont, then join the Peace Corps; but sadly I haven’t heard back from him in a few months to confirm. Also not heard from is Pace, my hiking buddy for the most miles of anyone. He was expecting to head out west to teach snowboarding, and I’m not surprised that his email didn’t follow him there. Likewise, I’m not sure how Stonehenge is doing, but that’s mostly because I’m too lazy to call him.
Other people who are actually doing different things are: Stripe, who in the post-AT portion of his retirement went to France for three months to visit his daughter, was reportedly bicycling from California back to Boston this summer with the road support of his wife. Tipperary has been assigned to another church mission in Brazil. Both Seabee and Kilroy were having quite a bit of trouble finding work, but were making due. Siesta actually started the Pacific Crest Trail as threatened, making it some 1700 or so miles through California before learning that some financial aid had come in for him, and is now in school somewhere. Wildflower climbed Mt. Ranier for the Washington Lung Association, now is biding time until hiking in the Alps. Loa landed a bird-watching gig in New Mexico (she’s a field biologist).
And Hoops. My first Trail buddy, who got off the Trail in central Virginia, spent a few aimless weeks trying to figure out whether he should hike additional sections or go to graduate school, wound up getting featured on TLC’s “A Makeover Story” (in an episode that aired in January). Yes, the “before” Hoops was still Trail-fresh, with the beard and the long hair. The “after” Hoops had hair coloring and strange skin conditioning products and designer jeans and the odd bowling-type shoes that the young people were wearing last year. You can only imagine. Anyway, he is just starting his second year with a great program called Playing for Peace (www.playingforpeace.org), which brings toget! her kids from conflicting societal groups and teaches them teamwork and getting along through the play of recreational basketball. The organization started in South Africa; Hoops (or “Kris” as they call him now) is managing the Northern Ireland program this year. He indicated that he had really started hiking just so he could figure some things out, and once he had his answers he stopped hiking.
2. Trail Support
John Hollinger, my high-school (and college) buddy who with his wife Judy was my Georgia host, is now a featured basketball columnist at SI.com—gets his picture posted with his columns now!—and has his third edition of his Pro Basketball Forecast/Prospectus coming out this fall. Don’t miss it; his writing is great.
I’ve been backpacking with Gene/Spiritual Advisor once this past spring, with another couple of weekends upcoming this fall. He’s still plugging away at the Pacific Crest Trail in the sections that are feasible with a job that gives less than the six months of annual vacation that would be required to do the whole thing.
Mothmom took a cooler of sodas up to the road crossing of NY17 (entering Harriman State Park) this summer. It was in the middle of a section I remember being light on good water sources. No thru-hiker sightings from her visit.
Chris and Krista, my Vermont hosts, were married in June in what was truly the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever attended (with the exception of any weddings of any of you that I have attended). I tried to climb back to the top of Killington Peak from Sherburne Pass, before realizing how far it was, and how straight up. Those of you who were expecting have begat, and several of you who were not expecting now have young’uns on the way. Circle of life.
I hear through the grapevine that the Four Pines hostel in Catawba VA, closed last year after a hiker punched another hiker and the police discovered that the proprietor was selling beer out of his fridge: reopened, sans beer. Miss Janet in Erwin TN is apparently still involved with the Trail community while fighting to retain custody of her kids. (Rumor has it that Uncle Johnny, who runs the competing hostel, reported that she was neglecting her children while attending to the needs of us scruffy, pot-smoking stranger. Um, true.) The manager of the coffee house I wrote the “anatomy of a zero day” email from in North Woodstock, NH, actually found my Chronicles posted on Tim’s blog, and Tim was kind enough to forward her email to ! me some six months after I was there. And the Caratunk (ME) House is on the market! It’s quite a beautiful place, really—the caretaker ran it as a B&B with a bunk room for the hikers, and he collected antiques and such—but don’t expect you’ll ever pay for it from the boarding fees you collect, even at the low list price of $98,000, because it’s in the middle of nowhere. Hasn’t stopped several hikers from talking about scraping together their pennies and opening it up as a commune.
First, let me say that I’m really flattered that several of you, all so much more literate than I, have encouraged me to compile my collected writings in book form. Believe me, everyone wants to write a book, and dozens have. Unless you are Bill Bryson and can sell more than a couple of hundred books (and this KILLS us, since he didn’t hike more than a couple of hundred miles of the AT, yet his is the most popular memoir), you can’t write the book. You have to think of something new. I’m considering an AT thru-hiking game for X-Box. Instead of a joystick, you get a bucket and pour water over your head while absolutely no moose appear on the screen. It will be the most boring game ever.
Seriously, I have a now-year-old action item to compile my photos, and others that are donated by other Trail friends, and appropriate music; incorporating the impressive numbers from my hike (such as the percentage of days I was rained on—26%—and stayed in my tent—39%—yes, you should have guessed, I have done a statistical analysis of my 168 days); and burning DVDs. If you are interested in seeing this, I’m hoping to have some local (DC) viewings, but I will also send copies to those far-flung of you who ask. Count on it being another year before it’s ready. In the short term, I have the first and last pictures of me available for your viewing pleasure here.
(Let me know if you have problems accessing this. If it has wrapped to two lines, make sure to delete the spaces between, etc.)
Things are good. I landed back on my feet at IBM and am working with several old coworkers on a new project. My ability to hang a bear-safe food bag has yet to prove useful on this project, but I’m hopeful. I attended my 15-year reunion for Mahwah High School this summer; deciding that my walking-to-reunion days are behind me, I drove to this one. Before I came back to DC last fall, I spent an overnight near Rattlesnake Mountain in NJ, overlooking the Poconos in the near-peak of fall foliage. It was very nice, and remarkable how different the Trail looked (a) backwards (I hiked south to camp, then north to return), and (b) with fallen leaves. Otherwise, light usage of the AT, but I continue to day-hike when the weather is good. Am planning a summer vacation to the White Mountains; maybe do some of the side trails that would have meant extra miles to me last summer.
The Appalachian Trail Committee publishes the list of all thru-hikers who applied for 2000-miler status each May. You can find my name listed here. (Warning for dial-up users, it’s a 2.4MB Acrobat file.) It’s on page 22; once you’re in, search for “Mothman”.
4. Yes, about “Mothman”
Travel back in time with me, to April 8, 2003. I reached the summit of Springer and kept going, spending my first night near the second shelter on the Trail, confused about my gear and the weather, and generally too skittish to step too far away from my tent. I had walked away from life as I knew it, straight uphill with 60+ pounds on my back. Trying to hang my food bag, I snapped my rope in half, so slept with the food wrapped in several layers of plastic to suppress the smell. This was a hard night.
On the second night, I stayed at a lightly-used campsite with one other hiker. Lacking a good flat dry spot, I set my tent up on a gentle slope that had me sliding backwards much of the night. I undercooked dinner when the rain started, and mistakenly took an empty CLIF bar wrapper into my tent; a mouse managed its way into the tent while I slept and shredded the wrapper as well as the swag pocket I had put it in. This was a hard night.
On the third night, I ran out of daylight hiking on a high ridge and camped alone and without enough water to make breakfast. On this day, I saw the sun for the first time in my travels—for about half an hour—before the clouds came back in. My thermometer-keychain registered 20 degrees before I went to sleep. This was a hard night.
The fourth afternoon, I stumbled into my first hostel, with its 20 or so thru-hikers, and I stayed. Met some fun people there, saw how badly some were outfitted (someone actually had a machete, someone else had a battery-operated nosehair trimmer), and generally felt better about having a hard time. Ate McDonalds and called home to say hi. This was a good night, albeit not exactly the wilderness experience I had expected.
On the fifth night, I made camp with three hostel companions—Hoops (self-named, big basketball fan), Kilroy (self-named, collector of WWII paraphernalia), and Chilly Willy (Trail-named, had been shivering at a high camp). It was the first night without rain for any of us, and we were really happy. Kilroy built a campfire; we all caught up with our journals. I was distracted with collecting firewood and water and enjoying the daylight, so that I didn’t get around to cooking until the sun was setting.
When I got around to washing my titanium cooking pot, I grabbed my little flashlight—a super-light (0.5oz), surprisingly-bright keychain-sized thing, one you can squeeze or switch on to illuminate (n.b. when I got my headlamp in Damascus, because it was more convenient, I ADDED two ounces to my pack, the only time I added weight for any reason but the cold weather we’d expect in the Whites)—and headed 100+ feet from camp to discard my wash-water. Well, I’ve got a pot in one hand, a sponge in the other, and I’m balancing my clean water bottle on a tree stump, so the only way I could see what I was washing was by holding the flashlight’s key ring in my teeth. So that’s what I did.
And a moth, attracted to the light, flew up my nose.
And when I returned to camp, the first thing I said to my camp-mates was, “Omigosh, you’ll never guess what just happened?”
The consequences of relating this anecdote never occurred to me until it was too late. Immediately it was in their three journals, and by morning, I had been introduced as “Mothman” to hikers heading both north and south. But given that I might otherwise have picked up Trail handle of Totem (in TN, when leaving the town of Erwin, my pack towered a foot taller than my head), Wayside (in Shenandoah, for all the campstores I advantaged myself to), or Trail Mom (in TN again… and this one I won’t go into), I guess it worked out ok.
I hope the intervening year has treated you all well. Please keep me on your mail list if you find yourself involved with anything crazy; I’d really like to be on the receiving end of the stories this time.
Until the next adventure….