November 4, 2013

Adventure of a Lifetime: Author Michelle Pugh talks about completing the Appalachian Trail

Author/Hiker Michelle Pugh

The Appalachian Trail (the AT for short) stretches across 2,184 miles of mountain, meadow, and occasionally asphalt from Georgia to Maine. Some intrepid adventurers begin at one end, usually Georgia, and hike every inch of the AT in one trip, until they summit Mt. Katahdin in Maine. These people are known as thru-hikers and only 10% of the people who attempt the trail this way are successful. Other hikers, called section hikers, do the trail a piece at a time. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says the number of thru-hikers has grown steadily from the early days. Only 5 people completed the journey during the first three years the trail was open, 1936-1939. Compare that to 2010-2013 when 2,203 hikers made the trek -- about 25% of those adventurous souls were women.

Michelle Pugh not only hiked the entire AT, she met and fell in love with her (then) hiking partner, Souleman, and captured her story in her memoir Love at First Hike: A Memoir About Love & Triumph on the Appalachian Trail.

I met Michelle, an energetic and bubbly woman, following an AT Conservancy membership drive in Washington, D.C. She was kind enough to share some of her incredible story through a Q & A. Naturally, my first question was…

AWB: Why?
MP: I heard about the trail when I was about 12 years old. My summer camp group was on a backpacking trip and we met a man who started telling us about the Appalachian Trail. The more he told us about the trail, the more I wanted to do it. I thought about it for years but didn’t start making plans until I was a sophomore in college. My junior year I finalized my plan and then I spent my senior year reading, researching gear, and getting serious.

AWB: Did you go on this grand adventure alone or with a bunch of friends?
MP: I had planned to go by myself and I went to Georgia on my own. , But I had met other thru-hiker hopefuls on one of the Internet sites where people talk about gear. Six of us agreed to meet in Georgia and at least start the first day together. We had no commitments past day one. When you start in Georgia, you register at Amicalola Falls State Park as an attempted thru-hiker and the rangers take your picture for the record book. The seven of us started on March 15 and we called our group The Ides of March.  While we all started together, we traveled at different paces and didn’t stay together very long.  In the end, I only hiked with one other person. He was actually from that starting group. Our relationship grew beyond hiking partners – at least for a while – but you have to read my book to get the full story!

AWB: Was the AT what you expected? Did anything surprise you?
MP: I’m a very type-A person. I spent a lot of time preparing and doing research because I didn’t want too many surprises. After all of my preparations, I was pleased with my gear choices and didn’t encounter the gear problems of some other hikers. Some of the hike was what I’d expected --I had imagined summiting mountains, walking though beautiful areas, and bonding with other hikers. But I hadn’t thought about the time spent in little towns and that was a wonderful part of the experience. Hikers bonded in Laundromats, eating in small restaurants, and staying in crowded hotels.  I also loved meeting locals and being able to patronize small town businesses. We went through so many charming little towns that I might not have ever seen otherwise in my life.

AWB: Was there anything you wish you wished for while you were on the trail?
MP: One thing I ended up adding to my supplies was duct tape.  I wrapped it around my hiking poles to use for random things. I had blisters and found it was the only thing that actually stuck to my feet.

If anything, I got rid of stuff. My pack was much lighter at the end of the trail than it was at the beginning. One thing that surprised me was that I thought I would carry a book. I’m an avid reader, but I had no interest in reading on the trail.  In retrospect, I think that’s partly because the first half of the trail I had mono (which I didn’t know until later), and was too tired to do anything but go to bed after hiking all day.

AWB: I can’t imagine that! How could you hike through mono?
MP: I was exhausted but I didn’t tell anyone because I thought everyone was that tired. After all, I was hiking 10 to 20 miles a day up mountains while carrying 40 pounds on my back. I just thought being exhausted was part of it. I’ve never been a great sleeper, and I was amazed that I could barely lie down before falling asleep each night. In the mornings it was all I could do to wake up -- and that was after sleeping 10 or more hours.  But since I thought everyone felt this way, I just kept going.

AWB: So how did you realize you had mono?
MP: It is a really long story. I had been hiking with serious pain in my feet for hundreds of miles. This was pain to the point that I could barely stand up in the mornings, and I often cried for the first couple of miles of hiking. I went to an ER on the trail because I had a UTI and needed antibiotics. While I was there I asked the doctor to look at my feet. He diagnosed me with a bilateral case of severe plantar fasciitis, which affects the thick tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot from your toes to your heel. Carrying extra weight and walking long distances was aggravating it.  The doctor suggested I quit hiking so I could heal. I wouldn’t accept that, so I returned to the trail. After another 100 miles, conveniently exactly at the half way point of the AT, I realized I wasn’t enjoying myself anymore.

With many tears, I stopped hiking and returned to my parents’ house in Massachusetts to tend to my feet. I did physical therapy, wore night casts, and stayed off of my feet as much as possible. I was in a lot of pain and I missed hiking. But, strangely, even without the physical strain of hiking large mileage, I was incomprehensibly tired. I eventually went to a doctor who did blood work. A few days later the doctor called and told me I had mono.  When I went in for my follow up appointment, the doctor came into the exam room and said he’d heard I’d hiked 11 miles recently. I said, “no” and he said he thought that had sounded like a lot. Then I told him I hadn’t hiked 11 miles; I’d hiked 11-hundred miles. He was speechless for a bit. Then he told me that mono causes your spleen to be inflamed and that I was lucky I hadn’t died with all of that physical exertion. I was ordered to be on bed rest – which was particularly miserable when I was used to hiking outside all day, every day.

AWB: How long did you have to wait before you could hike again?
MP: I spent almost a year getting to the point that I could walk normally again. During that time, my hiking partner and I got engaged, planned a wedding, got married (on the AT), and almost exactly one year after leaving the trail, we went back to finish the trail for our honeymoon! So technically I completed the trail in two 1,100 mile segments. I’m sad that I didn’t make it in one season, but I know it was out of my control. In a weird way, having injured feet may have saved my life, since hiking with mono could have killed me.

AWB: Were you ever really afraid?
MP: Only once having to do with other people. We ran into a man who gave me the feeling something wasn’t right. He was wearing denim overalls but carrying a children’s backpack with a blanket tied to the bottom. He was leaning on a tree watching us. He said he spent a lot of time in the woods and asked where we were going. I gave him a very vague answer. I tried to keep walking and he asked if I knew how to get to Angel’s Rest, a place just a mile up the trail, even though he claimed to know the woods well.  We hiked faster and faster away from him, looking back often. We ended up hiking more than five extra miles and camping in the middle of the trail and spent the night watching for him. We found out a few days later that he was arrested for harassing hikers.

Other than that, I’d say some of the extremes were more extreme than I anticipated. I had the clothes, the gear and the knowledge. But there were times when I had to remind myself that I chose this. No one was making me do this. I was scared when we had to walk across a bald in the middle of a lightning storm, and then there was the time I had hypothermia in Tennessee and I had to be helped off the trail. The other hikers got me to a hotel and warmed me up. It wasn’t until later that I realized how serious the situation had been. I had many of the symptoms of severe hypothermia, including confusion, clumsiness, lack of coordination, and decreased energy. It took me a good four days to recover my energy, but I was out of danger in a few hours.

AWB: You clearly went through some big challenges, what was the best part for you?
MP: The obvious answer is being in love while being on an adventure like that—it was a non-stop endorphin high. It was the happiest I can remember being. A shared experience is different – sometimes better, sometimes harder, but always different.

A less obvious answer was seeing myself overcome a lot of challenges successfully. It proved my determination and strength to me. Another of the highlights was the ability to see so much of the natural world. People say the wilderness is disappearing but not along the AT.

AWB: You must have met some interesting people out there. Who was the most fascinating person you met?
MP: I met a couple in their mid 70s who were thru-hiking for the second time. They had retired and become permanent nomads. Their whole marriage they had saved money to go from dream to dream and now they were living their dreams. After the AT they were going to Utah to a skydiving school and then to Canada for ice fishing. I still get Christmas cards from them every year and I enjoy seeing what they’ve been up to.

AWB: What was the weirdest part of your experience?
MP: The inherent trust in strangers. Getting in a stranger’s car, sleeping in the house of someone I just met. You just do it. I think back now and I’d probably do it again on the trail, but I don’t live like that in real life. I work as an EMT and I see some of the bad decisions people make and the way they lie and hurt each other. I’m glad I had the trail experience early in my adult life, because I think it helps me balance giving people a chance to be trusted and being weary.

AWB: Is there anything you’d like to say to the women who are reading this interview?
MP: I want women to know that they can be feminine and tough at the same time. They don’t have to choose.  I am delicate and strong. I am equal parts skirts and jewelry and hiking clothes.  I wear pink and play in the mud. I’d also tell women they shouldn’t put off an outdoor ambition because someone else doesn’t understand it.

Michelle has a BA in philosophy and currently works as an emergency medical technician (EMT). You can find her Appalachian Trail memoir, Love at First Hike, on 

Her next long distance hike will be the 215-mile John Muir Trail in California’s High Sierra next summer. She has a different (and surprising) hiking partner this time. She hopes you will read her second book (which is already in the works) to learn about that adventure!