COMMUNITY CONNECTION: RYAN CONKLIN’S 2184.2 MILES ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL
Backcountry.com’s online community comprises a passionate group of wanderers, adventurers, Gearheads, athletes, and guys and gals who make mincemeat of that 5.12b you’ve been eyeing. Community Connection highlights outstanding individuals within the Backcountry herd.
Ryan Conklin is an active Backcountry.com community member and one of our hand-picked hike and camp experts who voraciously tackles trail around his home in southwest New Mexico. Ryan is a Spanish-speaking yogi who loves hiking, fine food, and his dog Osa. In 2012 Ryan tackled a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail’s 2184.2 miles, posting about his progress every single day from his iPhone on his blog “Following Blazes” for the duration of his 136-day hike. His blog is an excellent resource for those who are considering an AT hike. We wrangled Ryan away from his busy schedule and ramblings to ask him a few questions about his trail time. Included below are a few snippets and highlights of his massive journey and his list of recommended gear essentials.
Give the uninitiated hiker a little info about why you chose to name your blog “Following Blazes.”
I chose the name “Following Blazes” because the AT was largely an introduction to backpacking, as my prior experience was limited to a few multi-day trips. I would literally be following white trail-blazes all the way from Georgia to Maine. In a figurative sense I would be following the emblazoned footsteps of those adventurous thru-hikers who had journeyed before me. Writing my blog was my way of giving back to all those who helped me along the way, and I wanted to use my writing to inspire others to push themselves in the outdoors by forging a lifelong connection with the natural world—in essence, I’d blaze my own path for others to follow.
Can you share a little insight on the AT tradition of bestowing “trail names” on fellow hikers?
Life on the AT is very different from life in an urban setting: all men grow beards, laughter is commonplace and often accompanied by tears, showers are a weekly event, food is cooked over a tiny stove, and you burn 5000+ calories a day walking in the mountains. You simplify your life to the point of arguable perfection…it only makes sense to adorn yourself with a trail name to solidify this new, albeit temporary, identity as you attempt your journey.
What was your own trail name, and did you choose it or did others assign it to you?
My trail name was “Rayo,” which was given to me by my wife’s grandmother who’s Venezuelan and couldn’t quite pronounce my name, Ryan. She opted for Rayo (rye-oh), or “ray of light.” I liked it because it reminded me of my Venezuelan family, and since I was planning to hike an average of 17 miles per day for four months, I’d need to move quickly, though not at the speed of light.
Reading your blog, the preoccupation with food becomes increasingly poignant as you log miles. Any favorite trail meals?
I made a few killer meals with way too much butter and cheese, but I still lost 35 pounds on the trail. Towards the end of my travels I could eat in one sitting what a family of four eats on a typical week night. I remember the looks of startled curiosity as day hikers watched me eat. They would hand me more and more as I gobbled up bowl after bowl of stew using giant chocolate chip cookies for utensils. On the trail, food is God. Hallelujah!
Ryan’s List of 7 Absolute AT Essentials
- Western Mountaineering UltraLite Sleeping Bag: 20 Degree Down
- Snow Peak Titanium Spork
- Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra 2 Trail Running Shoe (a non-GTX trail running shoe)
- 3 Liter Osprey Hydraulics Hydration Reservoir
- Sierra Designs Gnar Hoody
- Mountain Hardwear Wicked Lite T-Shirt
- Darn Tough Merino Wool ATC Micro Crew Cushion Hiking Sock
Excerpts From Ryan’s Blog
It’ll be nice to get out of Georgia. The trails aren’t too rocky, but it’s just irritating knowing that I’m not headed north. I explained GA today as the following: when someone first drew the AT on a piece of paper to decide the direction, they scribbled on the paper to get the ink flowing. The result of the scribbling: Georgia trail.
The mountains seemed to be lined up like a family photo with all the siblings aligned by height. Each ridge seemed to crash into the side of yet another bigger, uglier mountain. And worse yet, from afar they look evil: dark, pointy trees shoved into a tar-covered dome jetting skyward.
The 300-mile marker was far from official.
That’s one thing about the AT, you can come out here an amateur and make mistakes without putting yourself in tremendous jeopardy as would be the case somewhere a bit more remote, say, the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail].
The AT is 2184 [miles], and what makes it so special is that just like life, it’s everything in between the start and finish that makes it so sweet. Katahdin takes a tremendous amount of dedication, and […] in a marathon you give everything you’ve got to make the finish, [but] Maine requires you to do the same thing, but every day for over 150+ days.
The last climb I did today was one of the steepest thus far in my journey. It was the standard 1000-feet-over-one-mile arduous climb, but devoid of switchbacks, it had your tongue hanging out like a necktie.
I was sweating like a mascot doing a halftime show in southern Mississippi in mid-July. The combination of spider webs, caterpillars, seed pods from maple trees, and sweat all coating my exterior was a little much. I wanted Gatorade and a swimming pool. (Funny that some ten days ago it was snowing….)
Other things that stop most thru-hikers dead in their tracks are signs.
We love to see mileage markers and signs for shelters, springs, roads, lookouts, upcoming points of interest, etc. I also stop for fallen food and eat M&Ms off the trail—all thru-hikers do.
Brink Rd. Shelter, New Jersey
The views were beautiful, and I even caught a sight of Manhattan. I couldn’t make out what was what, but I could see the skyline as hazy headstones, a few poking up much higher than others, but all grey.
I’m in Connecticut and have five states to go! It’s great to be in New England and able to count the number of remaining states on one hand.
I climbed up to Franconia Ridge about 1:30 p.m., and the next three hours were sublime. The best views I’ve had backpacking, ever. What an amazing place. It should go on your bucket list, now.
The rocks were wet coming down Saddleback Junior and I had to toss my trekking poles down and hike with my hands to aid me—too slippery otherwise. I slipped on a big rock as I crossed a stream today and fell flat on my ass. All I could think to do was laugh. Once I got up and slipped again as I planted my feet, I growled at the boulder—maybe I’m reading too much Jack London lately….
BAM! Katahdin in all her glory stood there, beaming at me like Mordor in the Lord of the Rings. It didn’t strike me with fear though, it was more a sense of awe, almost sublimity. I had goose bumps, and it wasn’t due to the 50-degree temp and 15-mph winds; the journey had a visible end, a finish line is sight.
[The ranger] also asked what number thru-hiker I thought I was on the year. I guessed #98, and she looked at her deputy with surprise. “No, but close. You are our 100th!”
My goal was to be in the first 100 finishers of 2012, and I achieved it. So cool.
The dragon has been slain. All morning a battle was fought in Baxter State Park in the center of Maine, and a victor stood victorious, and scantily clad, atop the conquered beast at 8:15 a.m. on this day Sunday the 29th of July, 2012.