For today’s post we’re talking to Megan Maxwell, who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2012. She has also gone on some other seriously awesome adventures, such as spending 14 weeks trekking in the Nepalese Himalaya. You can read more about Megan’s adventures at appalachiantrailgirl.com
Hi, Megan! Thank you for speaking with me today! I’m really impressed with some of the adventures you have gone on. Have you always been into hiking?
I have always liked being outside, but I didn’t get into backpacking until I was 20. I wanted to do a section of the Appalachian Trail and no one would go with me. I just decided to go by myself for a 3-week hike and it felt like exactly what I wanted to be doing. After that I kept doing section hikes until I graduated college and could do my thru-hike (that’s what it’s called when you do an entire trail, start to finish).
What was it like being on the trail for so long?
It was one long journey that is a mix of excitement and mundane moments. Some of the time I felt like I’d been walking an absurdly long time and still was nowhere near my end goal (which was true). Other times I was grateful to have such a large amount of time to be doing what made me happy and I didn’t really care when I reached the end. The trail is like one big roller coaster ride, where I had some of the lowest and highest points of my life. There’s a great sense of freedom that comes with long distance hiking. It’s just you in the mountains living as simply as possible and literally walking towards a far off goal.
What is a typical day like on the trail?
Every day on trail brings something different, be it in the form of an obstacle or a pleasant surprise. Generally, though, I would start my day by waking up in my hammock and eating some breakfast before packing up everything. Then I would walk all day, sometimes stopping to enjoy views, fill up water, have snacks, or chat with other hikers. I usually had a general idea of where I wanted to stop for the night, and when I got there I would cook dinner, hang out with whoever else was camping in the same spot or read a book, and go to sleep. At least twice a week I would go into town to resupply, which involves hitch-hiking from the trail head to wherever the closest grocery store is.
What was your favorite thing about hiking for so long?
I enjoy the lifestyle and the community that comes with it. Giving up the luxuries of home and a paycheck allows me, and many other hikers, to be our most genuine and kind selves. There’s a camaraderie on trail amongst long-distance hikers. Everyone is smelly and dirty and we’re often close to broke financially, but we all have the same goal that we’re striving to achieve which is getting to Maine. Any glamorous notions of what thru-hiking is quickly disappears, and you have to embrace the challenges at the forefront in order to find the bliss that lies beneath. I like the greater metaphor for life that thru-hiking brings about, which is you have to work really hard to find what makes you happy.
What is the worst thing about hiking the Appalachian Trail?
It’s six months of walking over mountains every day. There are times where it feels mentally impossible and the only seemingly logical choice would be to quit. The difficult part is having all of this spare time to think and examine yourself and your past choices. It’s a lot of time for internal reflection that is often fueled by shitty weather or minor discomforts. I think the people that succeed in their thru-hike often possess an extra dose of stubbornness (like me) or competitiveness or can’t stand the thought of quitting something they’ve committed to. Often times there’s a level of dissatisfaction with the ordinary that drives hikers to want to achieve something extraordinary.
What was the most surprising thing about your time on the trail?
I was surprised by the ease of which hikers can bond with each other, in spite of surface differences. In regular life I mostly end up forming friendships with people who are my peers, who are a similar age and have similar interests. On trail you can become close to anyone. The standard social restraints disappear. One of my hiking buddies was a 40-something carpenter from the South. I wouldn’t typically find myself hanging out with someone that fits that description, but our sense of humor and hiking style meshed well.
I’ve got to know…what’s with the nickname “Hashbrown”?
Long distance hikers for the most part earn trail names. You might hike with someone for hundreds of miles without ever asking or remembering what their real name is. You sort of take on the persona of your trail name as if it’s an exaggerated, more spontaneous and outgoing version of your real self. For example, the Hashbrown version of me might stand by the side of the road trying to hitch hike a ride to a music festival. The Megan version of me is buying a bus ticket.
Hashbrown is recycled from my days as a camp counselor. When I started the hike I still felt like the name fit me. I’m contemplating whether or not I’ll keep it for my next big hike. Some hikers do and some don’t.
What about moments that were scary?
There was a nasty storm in Maine where it rained hard all night long. The next day me and my two hiking buddies came to a river crossing first thing in the morning. We were eager to keep hiking since we had only made it 3 miles so far that day, so we decided to ford it even though the smart decision would have been to wait it out. The river was moving fast and was chest deep. We made it to the middle and got caught in the strongest part of the current. I couldn’t lift my feet without the water sweeping them out. That was a very scary moment, as there were large boulders just downstream from us.
It was difficult, but we made it out without any injuries. All of my gear was soaked and we had to build a fire to dry things out. It was autumn in Maine, so it was a chilly time to be out backpacking. I spent the night in a damp sleeping bag and woke up every few hours to throw more wood on the fire. I could have easily gotten hypothermia. It was one of those lucky situations where everything turned out alright and I learned what not to do in the future.
What does it take to prepare for a journey like this?
It really just takes whatever you want to put into it. Some people buy their gear last minute and get dropped at the trail head having never even read a blog post about hiking. Some people spend the entire winter training and planning out all of the logistics of everyday on trail. I would suggest finding a balance in the middle. It’s good to have a firm sense of what you’re getting into, but be aware that pre-trail plans rarely work out how you anticipated.
Any advice for people who might want to follow in your footsteps and thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (or any other really long hike)?
Just do it. Everyone has a different style and there’s no one way to guarantee having a successful hike, or even what a successful hike would look it to any particular person. You really don’t know if hiking is for you unless you give it a try.
What was it like after you finished your hike?
It was a whirlwind. I was 22 and clueless about what I should do from there. I ended up going home, and applying for ski resort jobs on a whim. Within a month after finishing my hike I was in Telluride, Colorado working at a pizza shop and learning how to snowboard.
You’ve gone on some other really great treks as well. Tell me about your time in Nepal.
Nepal was amazing, so amazing that I want to go back. I was there for 3 1/2 months and I hiked in the Annapurna, Everest, and Lang Tang regions. I liked Everest so much that I went there twice. I enjoyed the additional challenge of trekking at a high altitude. There were times I couldn’t sleep or eat because of the thin air.
The highest elevation I made it to was 18,400 feet. The most memorable day was hiking over Cho La pass in the Everest region. There was two feet of snow on the ground and I had a nasty cold. Nearing the top, I had to stop for a break after every few steps. It was a struggle. I was so relieved when I finally made it over the pass.
How about your time in Peru?
I was in Peru for 2 1/2 weeks and I hiked the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit while there. That hike was tough because I had to carry 8 days’ worth of food and I didn’t acclimatize well. I could hardly eat for the first few days and was still hiking to elevations over 15,000 feet daily. The scenery was gorgeous however and there were not a lot of people out. If you’re looking for views of the Andes without the crowds, this is the hike to do.
High altitude trekking is a challenge for me that I’m happy to embrace.
What are your plans for the future? Any adventures on the horizon?
I would like to do another long hike next year, possibly the Pacific Crest trail or the Great Himalayan Trail in Nepal. After that I will probably look for some sort of international employment. I want to do as much traveling and hiking as possible for the next few years.