Appalachian Trail: the ultimate solo traveller experience?


As a great fan of the author Bill Bryson in general, and his Walk in the Woods book particularly, I return to that story regularly because of the feelings it evokes in me.

I’ve travelled quite a lot on my own and, as you’ve no doubt guessed from this blog, I really enjoy the different experience solo travelling brings. However, I think I would draw the line at tackling the Appalachian Trail on my own, as several of the people Bill encounters, are obviously doing.

The Appalachian Trail, or AT as its known to hiking aficionados, is a 2,200 mile wilderness hiking trail along the eastern coast of the United States that begins in Georgia and ends in Maine taking in the geographically ancient Appalachian mountains including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Bear Mountain State Park and the ominous sounding Hundred Mile Wilderness.

To me, who can barely walk around Bath on a warm day, the prospect of using my feet as the sole means of propulsion on a 2,200 mile journey that takes in significant portions of sub-alpine climbing as well as some more challenging peaks. Put it this way, if Ben Nevis were on the AT it would be regarded as a minor obstacle.

However, each year some several hundred determined souls actually walk the entire length of the trail IN ONE GO. I repeat, IN ONE GO! These through-hikers as they are called usually take between five and seven months to accomplish the feat, whilst others, who come back year after year, starting off from the point at which they finished the year before, are called section hikers.

What’s most amazing about the accomplishment in my mind is the fact that many people do this marathon hike alone. They carry a pack weighing at least 40 pounds, containing food, water, clothing, a tent and everything else they may need to survive. As Bryson recounted in his book, the weather is unpredictable in the mountains, with snow an ever-present danger in the spring.

Why am I talking about this on a blog about solo travel you may ask? Well, one of the characters Bryson and his now famous friend Katz encountered on their adventure was a woman named Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen is portrayed as casually obnoxious and despairingly ignorant and under-prepared for the Herculean task she is attempting. For a few pages of the book she provides excellent entertainment as Bryson describes her amusing lack of self awareness.

But, and it’s a big but. She is a woman attempting to walk 2,200 on her own, carrying a huge, weighty pack, daring the wilderness of the AT and its black bears, her only company being the strangers she meets on the trail, some of whom do their best to avoid her. Whilst she is obviously hugely annoying to Bryson and Katz you can’t deny her courage and determination, albeit she did drop out after a few weeks. Lets face it though – most who attempt the AT stop after just a few days.

Bravo to Mary Ellen I say and all those woman like her who are taking to the idea of solo adventure holidays. I had a brief look on the internet and couldn’t believe how many companies are out there catering to the more adventurous female traveller. As well as hiking, you can go cycling, white water rafting, paragliding and pretty much anything else you can think of and not be deterred by being a lone female traveller.

So, I would urge all of you single women out there, and even perhaps some attached women who desire a change, to do two things. One, read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, its just brilliant. Two, seriously consider a holiday on your own. It is empowering and enjoyable at the same time. You’ll make friends and grow as a person.