Always looking for mountains to climb: why two classical musicians are drawn to backpacking.

“Look Jimmy, those are real hikers on the Appalachian Trail.”

“Wow! Mom, Dad, do you think I could be a real hiker some day?”

“Oh no Jimmy, those people are crazy.”

At least that’s what I imagined was the conversation in the car that drove past my friend and I as we prepared to cross Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah Mountains in northern Virginia. We had decided to hike a 93-mile section of the Appalachian Trail over the course of about 6 days. This would be the third section that this particular duo had attempted together and we were extremely excited about it!

The Appalachian Trail is a footpath stretching from Georgia to Maine: over 2,000 miles and is one of the most popular hiking trails in the United States. Its sheer magnitude is baffling to think about. Most people take at least 4 months’ worth of hiking to complete the whole thing, some all in one go and some, as we plan to do, in smaller sections. Most people in the United States won’t walk that far in a whole year. In fact, the “ideal” amount of walking per day for a healthy lifestyle (10,000 steps) adds up to only about 1825 miles per year and many people won’t even make it that far. And hikers are carrying everything they need to stay alive on their backs! Not to mention they are traversing topographic features which are much more significant than can be found in a typical city. I think you would agree that a 5k is a pretty standard goal for most casual walking/running enthusiasts; if you walked/ran a 5k every day, it would take you just under 2 years to complete the AT.

But it is this magnitude that attracts both of us to it. We see mountains and we want to climb them: literal mountains and figurative ones. Both of us enjoy tackling large-scale classical pieces in the same way that we enjoy a good 3,000 foot elevation change. And by “enjoy” I mean we generally hate them when we are in the thick of them. You reach a point during a three-hour uphill climb where you think you might vomit if you continue any further. It is a feeling similar to the one that you get after the 1,000th repetition of a particularly ornery section of technical passagework in music practice (any flutists who have studied the Nielsen or the Ibert can most likely relate). I’m not exaggerating, there are people who actually throw up. But you persevere because it seems like the top could be just around the next bend and then you finally reach it and it is the most amazing feeling in the world. To pass through flames and come out on the other side not only unharmed but also stronger than you were before is an experience that can never be undervalued. This is why we seek out mountains to climb.

My friend is a pianist and we met by playing together at our undergraduate university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For the purpose of this blog, I will refer to her as “OF” which stands for her trail name “Old Faithful”, a name she received by establishing consistent tempi both in performing music and hiking. I mean, when she hikes she goes the same speed up- and down-hill. It is quite taxing to follow her along the trail.

Hiking, for both of us, is how we recharge our batteries. We live in a world in which we must be in constant interface with our phones and laptops in order to stay connected and to establish networks in the primordial stages of our careers and it can be very exhausting. So, every summer, we switch off our phones and leave our laptops at home and adopt an attitude of “if it is important enough, they can wait until we get back”. We use the sun instead of our watches and alarm clocks and our stomachs tell us when to eat. When our bodies have had a sufficient amount of punishment for the day, we generally fall asleep without the need for some kind of electronic device to tell us to do so. We only have nature, books (if we choose to bring them), and each other for entertainment and it always occupies us sufficiently. I usually hike with at least one kind of flute because a vacation without music making just makes me anxious to get back to my instrument. This earned me my trail name “Peter Pan”. That also had something to do with my various stories about leading younger and often “lost” boys in the Boy Scouts.

But now to return to our itinerary: 93 miles in 6 days. When planning for this trip, our previous adventure was still fresh in our minds: we had hiked a section of the AT including the Smokey Mountain National Park in the summer of 2013. This is no small feat for even experienced hikers (if I may say so). Bill Bryson, as told in his book A Walk in the Woods, was so daunted by the idea of the Smokies during his through-hike attempt that he skipped them altogether by catching a taxi around the back side. We encountered one gentleman during our hike of the famous North Carolina Mountains who had previously completed a through-hike of the AT but who, upon crossing Fontana Dam into the Smokies National Park, decided he was not up to the task of tackling the tallest mountain range on the whole trail and droped out. So, needless to say, we were feeling pretty good about ourselves when planning the 2014 chapter of our AT section hike. OF and I are good for each other, I think, in that we encourage each other to tackle the mountains we set our sights on. But that means our trip-planning sessions include an abundance of phrases like “Hell yeah!”, and “We can do that! We hiked the Smokies during a hurricane!” Other favorites are “Oh that one doesn’t look too steep” and “We can do 23 miles in a day, it’s basically all downhill”. For anyone to whom these numbers are meaningless, a typical hiker is carrying 40-50 pounds on their back and burning 8,000-10,000 calories in a typical day of hiking (depending on several factors of course). For most inexperienced hikers, a day with double-digit miles is a long day because they will average 2 miles per hour with an additional hour for each 1,000 feet of elevation change traversed. Because of this, anyone who knows anything about trip planning knows a few basic rules:

  1. The first day should be very short (2-6 miles) to allow for travel time to the trail head
  2. The first full day of hiking (day 2) should also be an easy day to allow acclimation to elevation and level of physical excursion.
  3. Longer days should generally be followed by shorter days to allow for rest.
  4. The last day should be relatively short because you have to drive home afterwards.

Our trip consisted of the following:

  • Day 1: 6.5 miles
  • Day 2: 18 miles
  • Day 3: 10.5 miles
  • Day 4: 18.1 miles
  • Day 5: 15.3 miles
  • Day 6: 23.4 miles

As you can see, we broke several rules. The phrase “Hell yeah!” had gotten into our heads a little too much.

But it was an adventure! The simple fact that it was a seemingly ridiculous itinerary made it more inviting for us. It was a mountain to climb. We basically were hiking on pace with the through-hikers who had been honing their skills and leg muscles for 2 months when we had literally just hit the trail running. We were definitely in agreement with Jimmy’s parents in the car that passed us on Skyline Drive by the time we were done and, as you will see in my next post, we had some great experiences that only the wilderness can provide along the way.


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