On the AT with Shade
Mujeres con Visión interviews Julie Laske, a thru-hiker currently walking the Appalachian Trail:
1. The first one is obvious: Why thru hike?
Well, I fell in love with nature when I was a child. After the first time my father took me backpacking at the age of 15, I knew hiking would always be a part of my life. Thru hiking is a way to remove complications from life and to get back to basics. You only have to worry about 3 things: Food, Water, and Shelter
2. What’s your trail name? How did you get it?
My trail name is Shade, like the shade of a tree. It was given to me when I was hiking on Texas. I was leapfrogging a couple to shady spots to take breaks out of the sun. They named me shade because I was always looking for it.
3. But you are not doing it the “usual” way: NOBO or SOBO. Was your decision to do it this way born out of necessity or by design? What are its advantages?
It was born out of necessity really. I wasn’t able to begin my hike until late April because of my work schedule. Starting a NOBO from Georgia so late would not give me enough time to make it the 2192 miles to Maine before the snow closed Mt. Katahdin to hikers. My solution was to begin a Flip Flop. I would start at the middle in Harpers Ferry, WV and hike north to Maine, then come back to Harpers Ferry and begin hiking south to Georgia.
Its advantages seemed many in the beginning. I would miss the "hiker bubble". That happens when a large number of hikers begin their hikes within a few weeks of each other and they move down the trail together. In the "bubble" hikers compete for resources and are more likely to contract/spread the dreaded Norovirus.
Another advantage is better weather. I do not like hiking when it is really hot. It is draining to me and less enjoyable. Starting in the middle in late April would mean I would likely miss the worst of the hot summer season in the southern states.
There are some disadvantages I was not expecting. I was not expecting the terrain to be so difficult. They say it takes about 3-4 weeks for your body to become conditioned to hiking all day/every day. I did not anticipate that the trail conditions would be so drastically different from state to state. In West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania the trail is extremely rocky and difficult. I was not in shape nor ready for that kind of terrain and within my first week, I was injured.
Instead of leaving the trail to allow my injury to heal, I traveled further south to Virginia. There the shelters/campsites are closer together allowing me to hike fewer miles to let my injury rest and heal. Also, the terrain is much smoother.
4. Tell us a little about your regular day on the trail.
I usually wake up when the sun begins to rise around 6am. I usually have to go to the bathroom right away so I'll crawl out of my tent, aching joints and muscles protesting the whole way, find a primitive toilet, do my business, then crawl back into my tent to plan my day.
I'll look at my maps next to decide how many miles I want to hike and where the water sources are. By this time my stomach is rumbling and ready for breakfast. As I make breakfast, I'll assess how many days of food I have left and adjust my mileage if needed.
After breakfast, I'll breakdown my tent and pack everything I have into my backpack. Then, I check to make sure I have enough water to last me until the next water source, use the toilet once more, and begin hiking.
I try to take a break every 1.5 - 2 hours to eat a snack and make sure I'm drinking enough water.
When I reach my destination, the first thing I do is to setup my tent and sleeping bag for the night. I know if I sit down, it will be harder to get up so getting camp setup right away allows me to rest and relax the rest of the evening. Once camp it set, I may socialize with others or I may make dinner right away. It usually depends on what time it is. Hikers go to bed when the sun sets so everyone is usually in their tents sleeping by 8:30/9pm.
5. Several women (non-hikers) have told us that one of the most difficult things to picture is going to the “wild bathroom”. What recommendations do you have for them?
The only thing you can do is to "just get over it". Its not pleasant, but our ancestors used to go to the bathroom like that before modern toilets were invented. It's natural, your legs will get stronger and more used to it and it will not feel as awkward. One of the nice things on the Appalachian Trail is the privies. They are moldering, or composting toilets found at most shelters along the trail. The privies feel more like a modern toilet and eliminate the need to dig a hole to bury your waste in.
6. Talk to us about Moxie. Why did you decide to bring her on the trail?
Moxie is a joy to have on the trail with me. I decided to bring her because she is my service dog so my life is a lot easier with her along. She also alerts me when strangers are nearby, when animals are near, and she points out snakes that may be hard to see.
7. Tell us about her special training.
Moxie is trained to alert me when it's time to eat, or when my blood sugar gets too low. I also taught her some basic trail commands, such as "stop", "off-trail", and "hike-on".
8. Any particular segment that you found spectacular for some personal reason?
As of today, I have completed less than 250 miles of the trail. My favorite section has been the Grayson Highlands. Seeing the views and the wild ponies was amazing!
9. The most difficult segment?
The entire trail is difficult. There is no easy part.
10. Talk to us about life on the trail, especially your fellow hikers.
Life on the trail has been amazing for me so far. Life is much simpler and more rewarding. You begin each day with a blank slate and end each day with a sense of accomplishment. The community along this trail is unbelievable. Everyone supports the hikers and they do what they can to help out. Hikers help each other and encourage each other. When a hiker has a problem, there is usually at least one other person that has experienced the same thing and can offer advice on solutions. It's really amazing how close two strangers can become on the trail without ever knowing each other’s true name.
Follow Shade and Moxie on Instagram: @TrailswithShade