Monday, January 8, 2007

Two for the trail

This article will appear in Macalester Today, our alumni magazine.

When news reached me last summer that Ari Ofsevit `06, a fellow Bostonian and geography major, was attempting to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, I thought first of his collegiate devotion to GIS computer mapping and cross-country skiing. I also thought that to begin just after graduation in early June was foolish; most thru-hikers, as they’re called, start before April to avoid finishing the 2,176-mile journey in winter.

But I hoped that I would see Ari, whom I got to know well during a drive home from Mac a few years ago, at Mizpah Hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where I was working another season in environmental education. The hut is only a couple hundred miles from the trail’s norhern terminus atop Mount Katahdin in Maine.

When Ari, having completed the bulk of the trail at a blistering pace, appeared in September—we nearly missed each other due to the difficulty in communication—he looked thinner than I remembered and bore the customary thru-hiker stink. But despite his 15-mile day, he brimmed with energy and opinions. Almost all thru-hikers take a trail name—his, he told me, was Ziploch. “That happened in southern Virginia,” he said. “I had dumped all my food out—everything was in a Ziploc bag—camera, lighters. A guy looked over and said, ‘You got a trail name yet?’" uch is the prevalence of Ziploc bags that the trail name recurs from year to year—misspelling it made it Ari’s own.

All thru-hikers delight in quirks and stories. As Ari puts it with typical frankness, “A lot of people [on the trail] are well balanced. But anyone who sets out to hike 2,200 miles is nuts. Every so often you snap back to reality when you meet a real loony.” At Mizpah, I heard stories about a thru-hiking family, a man looking for a wife on the trail, and a roving band of Mennonites—all of whom, to my surprise, eventually appeared.

The length and isolation of the AT make the trek a profound experience. Ari says, “There’s a mantra on the trail—hike your own hike. It’s a really good ethos and a hard one to adhere to.”

Since Ari started so late from the trail’s southern end in Georgia’s Springer Mountain, he hiked at a speedy clip to finish before winter. He reached Katahdin on Oct. 17, having encountered snow and sub-freezing temperatures. “I had people telling me you’re going too fast, you’re missing all the people. But that’s not what I wanted to do, what I set out to do.”

Along the way Ari encountered 13 bears, a bald eagle, two rattlesnakes (“I almost stepped on a third—I’m not sure if it was a rattlesnake or a copperhead”) and two moose (“when you’re in Maine and you hear something that sounds like Bigfoot, it’s a moose”). “I don’t miss having to carry my stove and my life, treating my water, tripping over roots,” he said. “I don’t miss the rainy days and the hot days. I miss the beautiful nights, having the weather and terrain playing such a big role in my life…. There were times I’d sit down for a half-hour and absorb things. It could be overwhelming.” (For Ari's Web site of his adventures on the AT, see

We spent the next night at Mizpah, where I introduced Ari to the rest of my croo (slang for staff in the huts, all eight of which are run by the Appalachian Mountain Club) and our cooking and food packing chores. Hut life is simple and repetitive, livened by irreverent banter, the immediacy of the weather and the delight of 60 guests when you present them with a surprise chocolate cake dessert. Both Ari and I are considering working in the White Mountains next summer.

By morning, the weather had turned raw as Ari headed on across the Presidential Range. But first, we shared that most pleasant aspect of the trail—an evening by the warm stove, telling stories and chewing over Macalester gossip while the cook prepared coffee cake and eggs for breakfast.

In the months since, I’ve missed the simplicity and sense of purpose I found working along the trail. The huts and the AT cannot exist by themselves; rather, they are a reservoir of tranquility when crowds and schedules threaten to overwhelm. Ari is heading off to Maine for work with the Quebec Labrador Foundation at the Center for Community GIS; at my current job selling outdoor equipment, I find myself contemplating a hut caretaking position for the spring. As Thoreau wrote, it offers, amid the delicate beauty of the changing seasons, the chance “to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life.”

1 comment:

Eliot Brown, DDS said...

not too shabby an article there, Riely