Most of us know that the Appalachian Trail runs through the Upper Valley. We've all gazed with admiration, or at least grudging respect, at the scraggly visage of a "through hiker" standing outside of a Laundromat or Country Store on a hot summer day. We've all wondered how, like so many migrating monarch butterflies, they have made it THIS FAR with a smile on their face.
Bill Ackerley from Lyme Center, NH, knows more than we do. For well over a decade now, Bill has established himself as The Ice Cream Man, whose home is known far and wide among AT hikers as the place where they can stop for free ice cream, maybe a cup of tea, and a comfortable rest on Bill's front porch.
Today I stopped by to see how the year has been shaping up . Each Spring, about 4000 hikers set out from Springer Mountain, GA, intent on completing the 6-7 month, 2000 mile journey to Mt. Katahdin in one continuous push. Another 500 hikers depart Mt. Katahdin in June and do the hike in reverse. The attrition rate is high - only about 20% of those who set out will reach their goal. So far this year, only eight northbound hikers have signed Bill's register (it's still early).
By Fall, Bill will have collected over 500 names and heard countless stories from visiting through-hikers. Most adopt enigmatic trail names like "Tea Time," ''Blood Orange," or most fittingly, "Ishmael," a 24 year old Male NoBo (Northbound) hiker from Hudson OH who signed Bill's register on September 2, 2013. I sure hope Ishmael brought some warm clothes for the final push in Maine during September and October...
I asked Bill if he could generalize about the motivations or mental cast of the hikers he meets. He started by reminding me that by the time they've gotten this far, only the strong-willed and able-bodied remain. They are mostly in their mid-20's, 25% of them are women, and they usually travel in small groups that form and re-form spontaneously along the Trail. They are an inspired lot, Bill says, the kind of people who have the perseverance and determination to attain a distant goal. Very few fit the description of a "loner" or "dreamer" that one might imagine trudging endlessly through the woods; conversely, the successful hikers are practical, social people who never stop reading the "signs" around them - whether an incoming cold front or a signal from their right knee saying it's time to slow down for a few days. And there's one sign that none of them miss - "FREE ICE CREAM!"
So next time you see a through-hiker on the streets of Hanover, take the time to say "hi," answer questions or lend a hand if appropriate, and you might just learn something that will help you achieve YOUR distant goals.