CATSKILL, N.Y. — Carey Kish of Hall Quarry got back onto the Appalachian Trail (AT) here last week after a quick visit to Mount Desert Island. As he crested Bear Mountain and prepared to cross the Hudson River on a soaring suspension bridge, his pace was quickened by the sight of familiar ground – the friendly hills of New England, looming just 25 miles ahead in the haze.
Starting on Springer Mountain in Georgia in March, he already has walked some 1,400 miles. Everything he needs to survive in the wilds he carries in the backpack on his back.
Now, he’s got just 800 miles to go to get back to the northern end of the trail in Maine. There’s still Mount Washington and the rest of the Presidential Range to tackle. And Mahoosuc Notch, the AT’s toughest mile, awaits just over the border from New Hampshire.
Once through the 100-mile Wilderness, he’ll be standing at the foot of Katahdin, the finish line in sight. That’s all tough hiking. But for the 56-year-old veteran outdoorsman, hiking guide book author and outdoor columnist, it’s all familiar ground. In fact, for Kish, that’s doubly true. This is his second hike along the AT. He first was nearly four decades ago.
“I hiked the Appalachian Trail at age 18, and it ruined me for life,” Kish joked during a chat while back on MDI. That was in 1977 when he was fresh out of Bangor High School.
“I think the freedom of the trail, that hiking DNA, got instilled in me,” he explained.
Although his older body may take longer to adjust to the insults and indignities of hiking 15-20 miles a day over mountaintop after mountaintop, the lightness of gear now – and its quality – is way ahead of where things were in the 1970s. “Back then, there really wasn’t that much available,” he said.
Preparing for this AT hike went smoothly, Kish said. “I already had most of the gear,” he added. He said it took about 20 hours of preparation. He put together an Excel spreadsheet. Reference materials such as detailed section maps and the “Appalachian Trail Data Book” are indispensable aids. “Basically, I sketched it all out on the back of a beer napkin,” he said.
Each year, approximately 2,500 people set out from Springer Mountain in Georgia to hike the entire AT. Around 250-300 actually finish.
The rush to get going often leads to as many as 100 people beginning on the same day. They form a fluid wave heading north, often crowding the shelters and the best tent sites. “I started on March 18,” Kish said. “Lucky for me, I seem to have missed most of that.”
Especially on sections below New England, chances to resupply and to divert into a nearby town to rest, shower and eat something other than backpacking food are plentiful. Kish’s Facebook page and blog, “Six Moon Journey,” often mentions copious consumption of food and brew, along with the progress of other hikers (all known by their trail names), the natural wonders and how places have changed in the 38 years since he saw them last. Still, despite eating all he can, Kish has managed to drop 30 pounds so far on his trek.
While some worry the AT is getting too crowded, Kish said there’s ample opportunity to connect with nature. “There’s still a lot of solitude to be found. I find it especially during the day. There’s company at night around the shelters, but you can always tent elsewhere if it gets to be too much,” he added.
Every year, sections of trail get improved, moved away from development or rerouted. Back in 1977, as much as 200 miles of the AT involved walking along busy roads. Today, that is down to less than 20 miles. “It continues to grow and improve,” Kish said.
Kish, who retired from his day job with the Portland Council of Governments last year, is a well-known Appalachian Mountain Club guide book author. Among his titles is “AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast.”
He is editor of AMC’s “Maine Mountain Guide.” His hiking column appears in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. A Registered Maine Guide and wilderness first responder, Kish also has done long-distance hikes in Canada, Europe and other places in the United States.
He tried to repeat his AT trek before in 1989 and in 1994. Each time, he had to cut it short for various reasons.
Along with retirement that gave him the time to repeat his AT adventure, Kish credited his wife, Fran, for serving as support crew and understanding his need to hit the trail. “My wife has been a trooper,” he said. “She’s been wonderful.”
According to Kish, finishing the AT a second time has been a very long-term goal.
“It’s been in the works since the day I finished the other one 38 years ago. It has been my major influence.”
‘A Walk in the Woods’
After getting back on the trail in New York, Kish posted a passage on his Facebook Page that he called “my favorite passage, from Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods,'” about the Appalachian Trail. The movie based on the book is due out in September.
“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception.
“The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret. Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark, you go to bed, and when it is light again, you get up, and everything in between is just in between. It’s quite wonderful, really. You have no engagements, commitments, obligations or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, ‘far removed from the seats of strife,’ as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it.
“All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge. There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It’s where you were yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very large, pointless circle.
“In a way, it would hardly matter … Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as breathing. At the end of the day, you don’t think ‘Hey, I did sixteen miles today” any more than you think “Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today.’ It’s just what you do.”