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Appalachian Trail

Anne Stanton - November 30th, 2009
Loving and Loathing the Appalachian Trail
Two from TC go the distance
By Anne Stanton
On a 2,178-mile hike you think. Think, think, think.
For the first rainy and frigid month on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, Tim Keenan thought incessantly about quitting. His trip kicked off on March 28, with an 8.8 mile walk just to get to the start of the real trail at Springer Mountain (and once there, he heard about a nearby parking lot). He thought about quitting the next morning at 5:30 when he dragged on his clothes, stiff, cold and damp from the day before.
The whole week was frigid and rainy. The next week was no better. As he climbed upward, he got caught in a blizzard and trudged through snow up to his knees. The veil of snow hid the white “blaze” signs marking out the trail. He stumbled upon a shelter, relieved that he was still on the trail and quit early for the day. That night, he huddled with five other men on a wood platform underneath a lean-to just to keep warm. One young man, Bobby, had only brought a blanket, wanting to keep his backpack light. He never saw him again.
Keenan said his thoughts of quitting were hard to shake. In Hiawassee, Georgia, he made a phone call to his son, and told him he’d had enough. But his son reminded him that he promised to walk 30 days, no matter what. So the next day, Keenan just kept putting one foot in front of another.
By late April, those cold and wet days became a distant and not-so-fond memory.
Keenan of Traverse City hiked the Appalachian Trail, much of it together with his friend, Gabrielle Spencer, also of Traverse City. Like others, they hiked with a trail name—Keenan dubbed himself Naneek (Keenan spelled backwards), and he tagged Spencer with the name of Solar System for no particular reason.

13.5 MILES PER DAY
They are back from the trip, already missing the simplicity of trail life, the massive amounts of food they wolfed down each day, the intimate “trail talk” with strangers, and their daily surge of endorphins. They often hiked apart and reunited for dinner in the evening. They averaged 13.5 miles each day, which included zero days—days of luxury that involved hitch-hiking into town, doing laundry and eating at a restaurant (the hikers, due to their smell, are often given a special section all their own).
Keenan, 63, a Vietnam war veteran, began planning the trip three years ago, in part, to make peace with the woods again. “I had never hiked and camped other than Vietnam. That’s what we did. We went up hills and got shot at. Every time (after the war), when I went in the woods, I never felt relaxed. You’re looking for snipers, you’re waiting for an ambush, you’re always on edge.”
Early on in the hike, Keenan, a retired community corrections manager, emailed all his friends and asked them to contribute money to either Veterans for Peace or the Women’s Resource Center. So far, he’s raised more than $8,000. “One friend said, I’ll give you one dollar for every mile you do,” never guessing he’d have to ante up $2,178.30.
Spencer, who creates “wearable art” (one-of-a-kind artistic clothing) for her mother’s business, had the flexibility to take off six months. She had no motivation to hike the trail, other than she loved to hike and camp as a child.
“I was really ready for a challenge, and it was something I’d always been interested in. I didn’t know if I’d make it all the way through, but I had real hopes I’d make it to Maine,” she said.

KEEPING PACE
Keenan started his trip in Georgia, while Spencer joined him in Erwin, Tennessee. When they first met up, she was only able to hike about eight miles a day, while Keenan had already worked up to about 23 miles a day. But as the trip went on, Keenan had trouble keeping Spencer’s pace.
After the two reached the trail’s end in Maine, Spencer flew down to their meeting point in Erwin and on September 24, began down to the starting point in Springer Mountain, Georgia.
For her, the southern arm of the trip was the most challenging, although the terrain was much easier. That’s because she rarely saw anyone. Spencer said she was most afraid of an attack by a random creep, although she admits that statistically the Appalachian Trail is one of the safest places in the country.
“I was freaking out, and at first, I thought, ‘I’m not going to call home, tell people I’m scared. But then, I thought, wait a minute, ‘I am scared, and that’s just it.’”
But her mind also became her strength. “I knew I had to finish. There was no option. I knew I had to go for it. I knew from the first months on the trail that things could be miserable one minute, and then the next minute, they can be awesome. I tried to learn from it. There were long periods that I never thought it would be over, and then it’s just old news. Just like in life. When you’re in the middle of it, you think you’re going to die. Some days just weren’t awesome. You put your head down and powered through it, and that was, in its own way, part of the experience too.”

BEAR ENCOUNTER
As it turns out, her scariest moment involved an encounter with a bear in the Smokey Mountains, where bears have become overly aggressive because so many people hike and camp in the area.
“They have closed down shelters due to aggressive bear activity. I had planned out the extra miles to go to a shelter where there hadn’t been an aggressive bear and met another person hiking. We were sitting eating dinner, and it was getting dark out. Behind me, there was this bear. We turned around, ‘Wow.’ There was another one; they were kind of circling us. We were clanging pots and pans, but they didn’t want to go away. Pretty soon, I said, ‘Let’s get out of here; let’s not spend the night here.’ We broke down our tents. We went way on top of this hill, and left all of our food hanging there at the shelter.
“So I finally made it to sleep, and all of a sudden I heard a bear sniffing, his big nose sniffing. I bolted awake. He was under the rain fly, and he was peeking his head under there. I was paralyzed. And then I made some noise, rustling around, and he scurried away.”

ENDURING
Keenan said that only about 310 people make it to the trail end each year; the vast majority are men. (There is a tiny group in Traverse City who have “thru-hiked” the trail; Keenan knows or has heard of most by their first names or trail names: Peach, Thud, Bud, Vern, Jan, Mountain Sailor and Ben. (Apologies to those we have missed.) When hikers give up, it’s usually more for mental reasons than physical, he said.
That said, everyone has an ailment—Keenan lost feeling in his toes, while Spencer suffered with shoulder pain. “It was very frustrating. I was fine one day, and it was taking my breath away the next day. It became part of the way I felt. I got kind of used to it,” she said.
And that’s the key, Keenan said. You just get used to it, and know you can endure.
Spencer wore her hair short on the trip, and even shaved her head once, marine style. She, like other women, seemed to bulk up, while the men became more streamlined. “You didn’t see many small women. I felt awesome and fit and strong. By the end of the trail, you feel you can do anything with your body. It’s an amazing feeling.”

TRAIL MAGIC
One of the best parts of the trip was the trail magic—people who lived in towns near the trail and lots of ex-hikers leaving coolers of food and pop. On one sunny day in North Carolina, a group of kind souls came to the trail to play music, flip burgers and offer a cold beer for all who wandered by. (Keenan said there were a lot of vegetarians on the trail and they got along just fine).
One guy, Miles, a frail looking fellow with glasses, came upon a cooler near a construction site near the trail and thought it was just another act of “trail magic.” He had just sat down to eat a bowl of fruit salad, when a construction guy came charging at him, yelling, “What the #%$%! You’re eating my lunch!” Miles tried to explain “trail magic” to the big guy, who took awhile to cool down.
Keenan and Spencer each went through four pairs of boots and both walked with poles. Equipment becomes a major focus, and they both benefited from the advice of Zach, aka “Thud,” who works at Back Country Outfitters and hiked the trail himself.
Keenan, who finished his 172-day hike on September 16, said he finally did learn to relax on the trail, with his Vietnam anxiety put to rest.
“When it rained, the foliage reminded me of Vietnam—warm and rainy. I was in Vietnam during the monsoons. I learned to relax, to take a deep breath, and not worry. No one was going to shoot you here. It was a wonderful healing experience for me. You really start sucking in the beauty of the trail and all the animals you see.”

If you would like to help Keenan’s cause, send a check made out to either the Women’s Resource Center or Veterans for Peace, mail to Tim Keenan, PO Box 4223, Traverse City, MI 49685.

 
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