“Planning is everything, the plan is nothing” — Dean Smith
Journal entry . . . (4/10/2017) “I made it to Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap in good time. The trail goes right through the building, the only time the Appalachian Trail is indoors. I ate an entire pizza (except for the olives) . . .
“Planning is everything, the plan is nothing” — Dean Smith
There he was in the photo, with a very bushy white Santa Claus-like beard wearing a tee shirt that reads “Not all who wander are lost,” holding a cake. This was just Dean Smith being Dean. It was at his welcome back party at the Public House last October. He had just returned from hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trial (A.T.) which took him 181 days. The retired principal from B.W. Robinson School said it was a bucket list item for him for decades and when he retired (though most know he isn’t really retired), it just seemed like the thing to do. “Stick in the woods,” (his trail name), seemed to be enjoying himself surrounded by family and friends and all things familiar.
Dean started his trek in April, where he registered at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia. He was northbound to the state of Maine and was hiker #1621. He writes in his on-line journal that he faithfully kept throughout the entire trip, “tomorrow I will stop being Dean for awhile and will become Stick in the woods.”
He prepared well for such a long, arduous journey in the wilderness, passing through towns on the way where he would be a stranger to all.
When he had cell phone service, he sent his ‘I’m not dead yet’ texts which he relayed to about 10 people, such as his wife and kids and his mother.
“When you get on the tops of mountains, which you get on the ‘A.T.’ I would be able to get a text out,” he said. The trail goes through many small towns, so he would have an opportunity to charge his cell phone at these stops to send his texts and journal entries, where he would eventually upload 1500 photos of his trek.
“The thing that really touched and humbled me was how much that journal came to mean to people that I’ve never met,” he shared.
4/10/2017 “I made it to Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap in good time. The trail goes right through the building, the only time the AT is indoors. I ate an entire pizza (except for the olives) . . .
Dean describes a trail marked by white-painted “blazes” on rocks or trees—165,000 markers the length of the AT—so hikers can stay on the trail without getting lost, though some still manage to do it. He says the trail isn’t always so obvious, particularly in New York State. He describes breath-taking scenery, the monotonous and dangerous hiking over rocks of all sizes and the frequent and infrequent meetings of people hiking the trail. As one of the older hikers on the trail, Dean said he was known to some as “Trail Dad.” He took his time just taking it all in, other hikers floating in and out of his journey on this pipeline of humanity that could connect (or not), by sharing information, food or a campsite for an evening, identified only by a trail alias—everyone, strangers on a wayward journey bonded by the experience of walking a famous, but very challenging path.
All of those hikers have their very personal reasons for such an undertaking and not everyone finishes their hike due to injuries or a fleeting mental toughness. Dean had no “Cheryl Strayed” angst, nor was he seeking a late in life catharsis moment. He just thought it would be a cool thing to do, which his friends that know him well might say, ‘that is so Dean.’
“It’s a walk,” he says. “If you’re doing this to expect a life change, I think in a lot of ways you might wind up being very disappointed. When you get back, your life hasn’t probably changed a whole lot—the only thing you’re going to change is yourself.”
Dean says when he got home, it was like no time had past. “It was like reading a good book,” he quipped.
4/13/2017 “I got to the trail and immediately got confused about which direction to go. Those who know me will not be surprised. . .”
“The thing about hiking the AT is it’s day-after-day-after-day,” Dean explained. “O.K., I made it today with the idea that I’m going to do the same silly thing tomorrow and the day after that, and the day after that.”
More rocks, another spam burrito . . .
Dean says the highest point on the trail is Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, a little over 6,000 ft. in elevation. The lowest point is at Bear Mountain State Park Zoo in New York.
“They say that hiking the AT is like starting at sea level and hiking to the top of Mount Everest and back down, 16 and a half times,” he said. “It is not a walk in the woods. It was amazing to me sometimes just how difficult the trail was.”
Dean said there was another saying he heard on the trail for northbound hikers—“No rain, no pain, no Maine.”
“If you’re not going to hike in the rain, you’re not going to get there,” he said.
4/16/2017 “The approach trail to Albert Mountain was incredibly steep and rocky. Several times I had to crawl up on hands and feet over solid rock. I was impressed with how alone you can be on the trail. I spent over 30 minutes on the top of the mountain and never saw anyone else. It makes you extra careful as the trail can be quite challenging at times . . .”
Dean gained wisdom that helped him during the hardest times. He said you have to have a personality where the little things (or big things) don’t get to you—you just don’t care. “O.K., now I’m wet—big deal.” Second, he said if you shoot your mouth off to enough people that you’re going to hike the AT, you have to do it—you’ve obligated yourself. “For forty years, I shot my mouth off,” he said, to illustrate the point.
The third thing, he says, “Dedicate the trail to something that is so important, short of injury,” he shared.
Dean relayed a story about a young man he knew by the name of Beau he had met and helped in scouting, when he was involved in that organization. They bonded and hiked together and Beau said one day he would like to hike with Dean on the AT. As Beau grew into his teen years, he still reminded Dean of their promise to hike the AT together. Unfortunately, when Beau turned18, a drunk driver hit his motorcycle near Salem Street and Soest Road. He passed away three years after the accident from his injuries. Dean stayed in touch with his parents and contacted them with a plan when he made the decision to hike the AT. Some of Beau’s cremation ashes were given to Dean, which he kept in a small vial on his hike.
During an incredibly hard day he said he would talk to Beau and looking at a white blaze on a rock and say, “well Beau, at least we’re not lost.”
At certain places on the trail, Dean would release some of the ashes, so in essence, Beau’s spirit was with him on their hike—after all these years, the gap of time and distance from other worlds closed with a promise among friends.
Dean wove trail stories in and out of his whole AT experience like sunshine peeking in and out behind clouds on a cloudy day. There was his story about “Polecat,” who was a friend of “Gravity” (a camp mate of Deans) who is in his 60’s and waiting for a hip replacement. “There are bears around, so you’re supposed to hang your food up on a pole—there’s a long fork up there and you hang your food bag on that. You couldn’t do it, it was too crowded here (lots of hikers), so Polecat (cuts the line) shinnies up this pole while we handed him the food bags—he was an animal—great guy—lots of fun!”
4/22/2017 A thru hiker named Woodford wanted to give back to the trail by providing trail magic at the shelter. Along with his mentor, Wildcat, they provided brats with peppers and onions cooked in foil. He “convinced” me to have a double brat. They were delicious. True to his trail name, he also offered some Woodford Bourbon to all takers.”
Dean finished his hike at the northern terminus of the AT at Katahdin, Baxter Peak, at an elevation of 5267 feet. To hear him tell it, it was great to finish, but it was nothing earth shattering. He didn’t feel like a changed man from the experience. He chose to look at the growth of the people he left behind—his wife and kids.
“I felt like I was the one who stagnated,” he said. Dean talked about all the new things his sons and daughter were doing—just in the time he was gone. He’s proud of his wife, who handled a flooded basement from the floods last spring.
But that is starting to change. “I guess I have changed, but I just haven’t seen it!” he said. “I live in the moment now, which is something I always wished I could do. When you spend six months at the speed of walking, and 15 miles is a big day . . . or three miles is a big day . . . they say the trail hikes you, more than you hike the trail. I was doing 20 mile days in Vermont, but it wasn’t me—the trail allowed that to happen.
Dean says he is simply more comfortable being where ever he happens to be, doing whatever he happens to be doing and enjoying every minute of it.
Dean’s journal and photos of his Appalachian Trail adventure can be accessed at trailjournals.com/stickinthewoods