How CS2 became Mudfoot and The Fireman
By Carrie “Mudfoot” Stambaugh
The morning of March 18, 2010 dawned clear and cold at Amicalola Falls State Park in northern Georgia.
As we crunched down a gravel road, our friends and family waved goodbye then drove off, leaving us alone in the still, leafless woods. “I guess that’s it. We’re walking to Maine,” my husband, Carl remembers me saying as I adjusted my heavy backpack.
Several hours later we stood on the summit of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of The Appalachian Trail.I was overcome with emotion as we gazed north at the Appalachian Mountains undulating endlessly to the horizon.
These mountains, the oldest in the world, would be our home for the next five months as we attempted to walk all 2,178 miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine.
Ultimately, we would not complete it in a single trip. We would hike more than 1,400 continuous miles from our starting point in Georgia to Waywayanda State Park on the New York- New Jersey border, before hanging up our boots for 2010.
We have approximately 700 trail miles to walk in order to reach the AT’s northern terminus on Mt. Katahdin, which we intend to complete in the coming years.Our trip was never about just completing a “thru-hike,” it was about enjoying everything the trail had to offer along the way.
We were not disappointed. Our first hike on the AT was all we imagined and more.
We took in countless breath-taking views of the American landscape and encountered its rich biodiversity at every step. We were challenged daily by terrain and weather. We learned to rise to the physical and mental demands of daily life on the trail and to cherish its simplicity and richness.
We met and forged friendships with individuals from an assortment of backgrounds and experienced the diversity of our nation’s culture and history. We came to treasure the vision of those who created the AT and appreciate the dedication of those who care for and protect our national natural and historic sites today.
We even were given new identities through our bestowed “trail names.”I became Mudfoot. No matter what the trail conditions were, my feet were always covered in mud at the end of each day, and everyone noticed.
Carl became Fireman. His beloved profession was never far from his mind, whether sharing stories about his experiences on the job or trying to recruit potential new firefighters, his passion for the fire service was always evident.
Preparing to Hike
Hiking the AT was a challenge even before we took our first steps on to the trail. It required months of planning and saving, a lot of explaining, a fair amount of soul-searching and a dash of recklessness.
It also gave us our first glance at the generosity and support we would experience throughout the endeavor, showered on us by our friends, family, co-workers and perfect strangers alike.
Carl’s co-workers embraced our dream first, making it possible for him to secure the time off we needed to hike. He spent months before the hike and a few weeks after, working other’s shifts to ensure an income while we were gone.
I, on the other hand, quit my full-time job as a newspaper reporter. It was a deeply frightening yet exciting life decision. I had long dreamed of becoming a freelance writer but could never muster the courage to leave a guaranteed paycheck behind.
Physically leaving our home was a challenge too. We shuttered our doors and windows, put our bills on auto-pay, and recruited friends and family to water our plants, check the mailbox and mow the grass. Our dog and cats went on vacation to my mother-in-law’s farm, while our most valuable possessions were put into storage – just in case.
Life on the Trail
A day on the trail was always simple yet challenging. Always the same, yet always different. We averaged 15 miles of hiking a day, but logged as many as 28 and as few as 3. We had one rule: Each day we hiked as many miles as we felt like and no more.
We never began hiking before dawn and aimed to stop before sunset. The sheer variety of ecosystems we crossed – sometimes in a single day – was striking. We often remarked that each mountain had its own personality.
We crossed boardwalks over wetlands and picked our way through delicate succulents on rocky ridge tops. We scooted across knife edges and tip-toed through burned areas, just coming back to life. One afternoon we spent two hours photographing the varieties of wildflowers we found while climbing a single hillside in Tennessee.
We often dawdled along, taking in views, bathing in cool rivers, napping during rain showers and observing wildlife.
We saw hundreds of birds and insects, logged fourteen varieties of snakes, encountered a half dozen bears, a porcupine, rabbit, deer, and counted nearly 100 salamanders in a single afternoon.
We also did a fair amount of “blue-blazing,” finding it almost impossible to pass up a noted view or landmark. (The AT is marked in white blazes while most side trails are marked with blue blazes, hence the slang term blue-blazing as opposed to white blazing.)
These habits were most responsible for our fate of becoming “section hikers.” By the time we reached New York, we were running short on time. We simply couldn’t bear the thought of rushing through any section of trail– particularly not the scenic New England stretch – just to finish a thru-hike.
Most nights we slept in our tent at designated camping areas around shelters. On a few occasions we crowded into a shelter with other, often snoring, hikers and one or twice (or three times) times we “stealth” camped alone, away from the designated area.
We did our business in the woods or in privies, which ranged from the well ventilated, “moldering types” to rancid, darkened shacks, to the occasional, unrestricted viewing platform toilet.
We hitchhiked or walked into town every few days to get a shower, do laundry and resupply with food and gear. We shipped ourselves a few boxes of supplies but relied mostly on local markets, gas stations and dollar stores for supplies.
When we needed a few days of rest and more nourishment than we could carry, we would stay in a hotel or hostel.
Getting enough food was a never-ending challenge. Carl lost more than 40 pounds during the hike while I shed 30. Food and water made up the majority of weight we carried in our backpacks, which averaged about 35 pounds each.
A typical trail dinner was a box each of Velveeta shells and cheese with a half pound of summer sausage followed by several handfuls of trail mix. We also ate all types of prepackaged noodle dinners and canned meats.
Breakfast was a couple of sticky buns each, two packages of Pop Tarts or a half box of cereal with dried milk. Lunch almost always included peanut butter, served with honey, or jelly and whatever kind of “bread” product we could find to eat it on served, of course with more trail mix, cheese and meat.
We snacked whenever we stopped walking, on granola and meal bars, candy, fruit, trail mix, cheese, jerky or whatever else we had found at our last resupply.
We drank quarts of water at a time, which we pumped through a ceramic filter from springs, rivers and streams.
Trail Magic and Trail Friends
Human kindness was as prolific as trees along the trail. It buoyed our spirits and rekindled our hope in society.
The personalities too rivaled the scenery. People of all ages, races, professions, socio-economic backgrounds and experience level came across the country and world to hike trail.
We experienced more than our share of “Trail Magic.”
Once miles away from a Blue Ridge Parkway crossing, I smelled hamburgers cooking. Carl thought I was hallucinating, but when we arrived at the road, a former thru-hiker was grilling hamburgers and hotdogs for hikers and offering an array of soft drinks, beer, and fruit pies.
Another time, on a scorching New Jersey day, a very well-dressed woman in a new Mercedes drove us to a nearby air-conditioned hostel, and then insisted on buying us dinner.
I am most grateful for “Lumpy,” a former thru-hiker and employee at Mountain Crossings in Ga. Lumpy rescued us from our first major setback, which came four days and a mere 36 miles into our hike. We were descending into a gap when I slipped and hyper-extended my right knee.
Lumpy was the only one willing to chance getting a ticket for driving on a closed roadway and raced to pick us up and drive us back to town. I will never forget his kindness and his words of encouragement, rooted in his own AT setback. After five days of rest, I was able to continue hiking.
Carl is perhaps most grateful for “Stray Mom,” the middle-aged female section hiker who found his wedding ring. He had taken it off to apply sunscreen and left it sitting on a rock. Carl met “Stray Mom” after running back five miles to look for it, while I napped in a Rhododendron thicket.
Sharing the AT not only strengthened our bond but educated us both on how to be better partners, on and off the trail. The dangerous and extreme conditions we occasionally found ourselves in forced us to communicate efficiently and resolve conflict quickly.
The night we spent huddled on the side of Punch Bowl Mountain in Va., 100 feet below its summit while a terrific thunderstorm raged around us, illustrates this lesson perfectly.
Before the storm began but was very obviously approaching, we spent an hour bickering over where and if we should stop. When lightning struck several feet in front of us and the torrential rains began, we were forced to find emergency shelter.
We hurriedly pitched our tent in the only clearing we could find, on a steep slope beneath some precarious looking trees. By the time it was up, we were soaked and it contained about two inches of water. Outside the rain turned to hail, the winds howled and the lightening intensified. We spent the night, sitting on top of our packs to avoid electrocution and reflecting on our foolish mistake, which could have easily cost us our lives.
In the morning, we were greeted with clear skies and one of the most striking views of our entire trip. When we reached the summit, we were above the clouds. From a rolling ocean of white and gray, rose the green peaks of only the tallest mountains.
That day, we resolved to use “Paper, Rock, Scissors” to solve any urgent disagreements. It is a strategy we still use.
The sheer amount of minutes we spent together was time we enjoyed then, but it is even more treasured now. Many a nights, we lay in bed, reminiscing about the evenings we spent snuggled in our tent, listening to owls hooting, the whippoorwills calling and once a bear sniffing around.
We dread the sound of the alarm clock in the morning. It not only forces us apart but each morning it tries to lure us back into the stressful rat race that modern life so often is.
Our hope is that the legacy of our first AT hike is that it marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment to enjoying the hike through life – no matter what trail it is on, or where it leads.
– This piece appeared in the South Eastern Outdoor Writers Press Association newsletter in Spring 2011. –