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Food and Friendship on the Appalachian Trail | KERRI EIKER

Food and Friendship on the Appalachian Trail

One of my dad’s favorite picnic spots was Gathland State Park where a major battle of the Civil War ensued in Maryland.  After our mid-day Sunday meal I would halfheartedly listen while dad attempted to educate me and my brother on historic facts but my heart and all of my attention was on the Appalachian Trail that ran right through the park.
As a kid the tunnel created by the narrow rocky path and canopy of shimmering green leaves seemed like a magical portal that led to another land or place in time, maybe outside of time.
All these years later I still find myself drawn to the trail, I still believe it’s magical.  Apparently so do many others who hike sections and even the entire length which consist of 2,180 miles through fourteen states along the crests and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the Trail’s northern terminus at Katahdin, Maine.
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with three trail lovers; one thru-hiker, a hiker who completed half of the trail, and a section hiker.
Kathy Reshetiloff of Anapolios MD and her husband Greg started planning six months in advance for their hike that began in March of ’06. They found trail friendly recipes and spent much of their free time buying, preparing and dehydrating their meals.
Kathy, a very organized person, calculated their estimated miles per day (about 15) and worked out their caloric needs as well as coordinating their estimated arrival at the towns along the trail.  She packaged up their food and other essentials for 20 mail drops.
“Having never done this before,” Kathy seemed to only just realize as she spoke “…it worked out perfectly!”
For breakfast the couple enjoyed coffee, oatmeal or protein bars.  Lunch usually consisted of cheese and crackers, canned fish, anything you could roll up in a fajita and chocolate.   Greg would often hike on ahead of Kathy and the two would meet up as the sun was setting.  Vodka mixed with water and crystal light packets was the cocktail awaiting Kathy as she arrived at the camp site.  Water would be boiling in a pot over the camp stove during happy-hour which would rehydrate their choice of chili, spaghetti, stir-fry, stew, soup or Kathy’s favorite; crab frittata and there was always plenty of chocolate.
“I never thought food would be an issue other than just energy.”  Kathy explained that taste as well as proper nutrition was vital.  “So many of our ‘hiker family members’ (a trail term used for fellow hikers) were tired or depressed, bummed out.  They would say things like ‘I can’t make it’ or ‘this [hike] is stupid.’ What it really came down to was they were hungry all the time.”
Many hikers try to survive off of food they can purchase in the towns along the way but foraging in the local minimarts, which are often the only food stores available, their yield often consists of just a hand full of slim jim’s and a few stale snickers bars.  There is typically a 4-5 day span between towns on the trail.  Surviving on gas station snack foods can easily exhaust the body and the spirit.
Kathy relished in observing daily the subtle incremental change of seasons as well as the camaraderie she experienced with her trail mates as they came together usually around a campfire and communal meal.
“The people were spectacular! People are called to the trail from all over the country and even from different countries.  We all share this common purpose and everything else just falls away.  No one ever asks you what you do [for a living] on the trail. People ask, ‘what brought you here?’ but very rarely what political party you belong to or what religious beliefs you hold.”
Adam Silcott of Frederick echoed Kathy’s experience of need for healthy tasty foods as well as the connection with people and nature during his half-trail Hike.
Even though his hike ended several years ago Adam looks like he just rolled out of his tent, refreshed from a sleep in nature.  His cargo pants, long wavy hair and bushy beard are a common trail style he also has a genuine deep peaceful smile that includes the eyes.  I have seen that smile on many hikers over the years.
While living at the base of South Mountain my kids and I would enjoy picnics at the park just as I did with dad but our focus was on the trail, specifically on the hikers and their appetites.  On late afternoons in May- July we would unload from the trunk of our car guitars, coolers full of salmon, bread and cheese, pasta, beer and fresh fruit.  As we began grilling hikers would begin emerging from the south side of the tunnel.  The kids took turns eagerly inviting the hikers to join us.  We never got a “no thank you”, it was always a “yes please”, “right on” or an “indeed” and usually more than one hiker in each group knew how to strum a guitar.
“Ah, so you were a trail angel.”  Adam said after I told him how I recognized his smile. And what the kids and I were doing apparently was providing what hikers call “trail magic”.
In June of 2011 Adam began his hike from the mid-point north bound.  He was a bit nervous at the beginning as he was unable to keep up with the thru-hikers who had 1,000 miles already behind them.
“I didn’t have my trail legs yet.”  Adam said.  The hard part about that for him was that he would meet other hikers and experience an immediate connection, echoing back to that bonding common purpose Kathy referred to.  “Then they would take off ahead of me, I might never see them again.”  Adam explained.  “Although, it was a good lesson in the impermanence of life…the way people come and go.”
Adam had intended to maintain a vegetarian diet on the trail and like Kathy, planned for mail drop-offs. Unlike Kathy, Adam was not quite as organized, hiking anywhere between 15-30 miles a day he would often miss his package.  He filled in the drop off plan with food items he bought in towns and of course he gratefully accepted the gifts of “trail magic”.
Adam held up a long red bag with a loop like handle. The “bear bag” is designed to hold food and hang high on the limb of a tree to keep from attracting bears to your tent.  Inside the bag were individual packets of seeds and beans, flat bread, instant oatmeal, dehydrated lentils, a bottle of olive oil and a bottle of sea salt, and chocolate.
“I sprout the seeds and beans. In a damp cheese cloth I tie to my pack.”  Adam explained.  Then he would roll the fresh nutritious super food up into a tortilla.
Adam decided to abandon his vegetarian diet Idea when he and his ‘trail family’, whom he was now able to keep up with, found themselves at a hut in New Hampshire where hikers can lodge and buy food.
“The guy in charge of the hut was closing when we arrived.  We were all really hungry and asked if he could help us out.”
As is typical along the trail trade works as well as money and the group bartered some maintenance work for food.
“We walked into the hut to get our food and there was this big canister full of precooked bacon!”
I envisioned the lid from the container being removed and beams of light shooting out into the dim room full of ravenous hikers the way an open treasure chest gleams in a Disney adventure movie.
“So now I consider myself a pescaterian with a bacon exception.”  Adam laughed.  It’s all about getting enough calories.”
Adam also packed an alcohol-fueled cook stove he designed himself.  After demonstrating how to set up the simple device he lit the sterno-like vessel containing the fuel with a flint instrument and the fire immediately ignited. The small (invisible in daylight) fire sounded angry and powerful as it burned.  Adam said the fire is indeed very hot and will boil water in just five minutes.  The preferred fuel for this stove is an alcohol called everclear.  A multi-purpose fuel in that it can be used also as an antiseptic and you can even drink it.  It is illegal in several states though so sometimes the fuel used is a product called heet found in hardware stores. “Multi-purpose items are always good to carry.”  Adam added.
Regina Clark of Braddock Heights and her trail buddy Dottie Rust of Frederick have been hiking the trail in sections for three years.  The pair intend to complete the entire trail in sections ranging from a ten day 100-mile hike to a month long 300-mile journey.
“We have food that makes the thru-hikers mouths water.”  Regina told me as she pulled out non-mouthwatering appearing clear Ziploc bags of dehydrated food.  “A lot of these kid (through hikers the pair meet) just carry a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, or Raman noodles.”
“This is minestrone soup.”  Regina said as she handed me a bag that looked like old stale cocoa pebbles.  “It’s really delicious! The trick is to cut all the vegetables in small uniform sizes so they rehydrate together.”
Regina and Dottie prepare the soup which consists of White Beans creamed through a food processor, potatoes, carrots, celery, parsley, oregano, vegie broth, spinach and tomatoes.  Then the soup is poured into trays and placed in the dehydrator.
“The thing about dehydrating food is that fats don’t dehydrate well so we add fats after they are rehydrated. Olive oil is a great fat to add, it goes with most things and has many uses.”  Regina said.
A sandwich-sized bag contained a food that looked like a handful of grapenuts cereal. “This is dehydrated ground turkey.  It dehydrates wonderfully! If we are really hungry we will add it to the minestrone soup for dinner.”
There were bags of something called pasta bark which is dehydrated spaghetti, bags of mac and cheese, “We bring good old Velveeta along and add it to the dehydrated mac.” Regina said.
“This is cool…” Regina grabbed a bad of tiny sliced bread. It was banana bread, dehydrated and hard as a brick.  “You can add water to it, but we just dip it in our coffee in the mornings.  It’s great!”
Regina leafed through her recipe book. “Dottie is big on fruits, we bring strawberries, and pineapples, pineapple is easy and really good.  We haven’t had much luck dehydrating things like blueberries yet.”
Regina explained why she goes to the effort of planning and preparing all their own meals. “You can buy readymade meals at hiking stores but they are expensive and you don’t know what they are processed with.  I have a sensitive belly.  I wouldn’t want to be out there eating stuff that wasn’t good.”
“Water is the heaviest item to carry.” Regina explained that carrying cooking water would add too much extra weight to her 32-pound pack and opened a small black draw string bag containing a water pump and filter.
“It’s a bit of a time-consuming process.”  Regina said as she demonstrated how the tiny pump sucks water through a tube and passes it through a small filter. “
Some people just get water right from the creek and boil it but I’d rather be safe.”
Kathy, Adam and Regina shared thoughts on how the magic of the trail has touched their lives.
“I tried to hold onto that ‘trail attitude’ as long as I could.”  Kathy said describing the loving, laid-back and simplistic perspective she had while living so closely with nature and kindred spirits. “But then [back at home] I soon began getting irritated at a red light or with an obnoxious driver.”  Kathy said that she so longs for the trail way of life that she and Greg are planning to move to Colorado where that laid back pace exists off the trail.  They are also planning to hike the Pacific crest trail which runs from Mexico to Canada in the near future.
Adam gleaned a perpetual sense of gratitude and simplicity that emanates from him.  “There was so much generosity on the trail.” Hikers helping each other, trail angels and trail magic. “When you receive a gift you’re left with so much gratitude.”  Adam shared that witnessing the abundance that is available for each of us and having absolutely everything he needed contained in a pack on his back helped him to “de-clutter and simplify” his life off the trail.
Regina is enjoying the experience of a very unique developing friendship with Dottie whom she only knew as one of her students when they decided to hike.
“She was taking my boot camp class at the Y.  We did a trial hike for a weekend to see if we could tolerate each other.  Now we hike for days and not a sour word is ever passed.  We are finding that our lives are parallel.” Everyone should have a friend like that.
Regina keeps connected with the trail on her breaks in-between by planning for the next hike and leaving gifts of trail magic regularly throughout the hiking season.
“On memorial day weekend I plan to leave a couple of coolers (full of food and sodas) at Harpers Ferry.  I’m going to label them ‘trail magic.’”

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