Writing My Way Out Of A Week-Long Panic Attack

Only four days left. Eek.

Only four days left till we leave for Millinocket! I’m running out of time! I’m not actually running out of time for anything, I’m just walking around in a permanent state of alarm. My gear is packed, I’m ready to go. All I have left is to finish a couple things around the house and survive this week-long panic attack. So today, why don’t you help me help you help me get my mind off pointlessly freaking out by answering a few more of your questions.

Ralph asks: Do people still eat trail mix? Or is it all GUs and high-performance energy bars? I think you mentioned writing about cooking, but what do you eat while you're on the move? A State of the Gorp, as it were.

Trail mix? You mean M&Ms with obstacles?


I hate obstacles 😂🍬🍫 #wisewordsfromneve #trailmix #chocolate #funny #mood #relatable #sotrue #motivation #gasstation

The algorithm delivered that Tiktok at exactly the right moment, but I suspect GORP is actually more popular than ever. Trail mix is a classic for a good reason because a combination of raisins, peanuts, M&Ms, and granola hits four of the big five snack food properties: salty, sweet, fruity, and crunchy. The other one, for me, is meat (or I guess “umami” if you want to assign it a flavor).

Personally I never find myself in the mood for that many different snack food properties at once, so I am not really a GORP guy. I like my snacks to deliver a more discrete experience, so I try to carry something that hits each of the big five properties and eat whichever I’m in the mood for at the moment. I usually have a selection like:

  • Clif bars: Crunchy peanut butter is the only one I can eat an infinite number of without getting sick of them, but I will try other flavors sometimes. This is my “I need a snack that’s actually half a meal” snack, and I eat them for breakfast a lot too. (Salty, crunchy, sweet.)

  • Rx bars: Objectively disgusting, but I like them? These are incredibly well tuned to be exactly the size where the last bite is the last bite of Rx bar I could possibly eat. I like every flavor I’ve tried, which is most of them. (Salty, sweet, and kind of umami somehow? These things are a real mystery. According to the label they’re made of like “one egg and seven almonds,” which, bro, what?)

  • Chocolate candy: Those Ghirardelli squares are the GOAT but in hot weather they can turn into a mess. M&Ms are good. Peanut butter M&Ms are even better. The other varieties of M&M are sub-par IMO. (Sweet, sometimes also salty.)

  • Fruit candy: Skittles, Starbursts, sour gummy peaches, basically anything you could describe as “froot.” (Sweet, frooty.)

  • Apples: The day the fresh apples run out is a sad day. They’re relatively heavy but I really start to crave something fresh after a day or two, and apples travel well. One per day is ideal. (Fruity, wet.)

  • Potato chips: There’s something indescribably homey and comforting about potato chips. I get the little one ounce Utz bags and poke a hole in them, so they flatten out. The chips are just crumbs by the time I eat them, but it doesn’t matter, potato chips always calm me down and remind me that everything is going to be ok, no matter the circumstances. (Salty, crunchy, emotionally soothing.)

  • Meat: Friendship continued with pepperoni, despite everything (Bridgford please, Hormel is greasy). Jerky is good but can get kind of dry (Old Trapper brand peppered is the best). I’ll eat any sort of meat sticks, though. Around here the Vermont Smoke & Cure sticks are easy to find, and they’re very good. Once I got some landjaeger from Amazon and it was amazing—just perfectly in between pepperoni and jerky in its balance between too greasy and too dry. It’s expensive though, and the name is somehow a little fascist. (Meat, umami, salty.)

  • Surprise Candy: I like to grab one random snack item and stash it in the bottom of the food bag for a moment when everyone’s tired and kind of bummed out. This can be literally anything, I’ve done root beer barrel hard candies, fun size snickers bars, whatever. I just cruise the snack aisle and see what catches my fancy. Surprise candy is a very good way to make friends on trail, and it’s fun to give away because that’s weight I don’t have to carry anymore! (Surprise.)

Mica generally agrees with my snack categories, and admits that as a vegetarian there’s a bit of a hole in his snack selection where “meat” would go. He typically carries:

  • Protein bars: Luna bars, for preference. Mica is more picky about the protein content of his snack bars than I am, because that’s where a lot of his protein is coming from on trail.

  • Cheerios: This is my fault, on hiking trips when the kids were little I always had a big bag of cereal for them to snack on. I’d hand it out when everyone started to get quiet, which is a sure sign of low blood sugar and impending crankiness. I think Mica imprinted on it and now it doesn’t feel like a proper hike without a bag of Cheerios. Cereal is for him what potato chips are for me, emotionally.

  • Potato chips: “Sometimes you need a snack that isn’t sweet,” he says. Can’t argue with that.

For the record, Mica is much better than I am about not packing too much food. I’m always afraid that I won’t have the one thing I really want at a crucial moment, and it leads me to overpack. I’m working on it!

Jonathan asks: Near Unionville, NY… there's a deli I still haven't actually been to called Horlers that is said to be really good and gets a ton of thru-hikers. I looked it up -- this is one of several stops on the "deli blaze" section. Hikers stop at one or more of these delis, almost all of which are less than a half mile off the trail.

Is this a popular thing, outside of Reddit? Do you plan to hit any of these delis? I'm guessing it's not really possible to plan on stopping at a specific one. Are there other parts of the AT that are known for stuff that you have to leave the trail to experience?

I think virtually every part of the trail is known for its must-see off-trail experiences. I should probably clarify for everyone who isn’t steeped in the trail lore that this is absolutely not a solitary six-month wilderness experience. A huge part of the A.T. is trail culture and the off-trail and near-trail infrastructure that supports it. We will camp a lot of nights, but we’ll also stay in hostels, inns, B&Bs, and cheap motels when the need or opportunity arises. The trail passes through or near towns at least every few days, and in some stretches much more frequently. There are tons of local attractions, and we’ll try to see as many of them as we feel drawn to.

I hadn’t heard of the deli blaze section, but I’ve been kind of haphazard about doing my research. I have the Far Out app, which lists a lot of near-trail food and rest opportunities, and we’ll surely meet north-bounders with recommendations along the way. Trail culture is an oral tradition and word of the good stuff coming up tends to find you, along with gossip about who’s hooking up and news of the latest norovirus horrors. In general I want to be open to having experiences when they present themselves rather than trying to plan too much in advance.

I will definitely try to hit some delis though, that sounds amazing.

A picture of my dining room table, covered with everything I will be taking with me on trail, which just barely fits.

I spread everything out today and checked off my lighterpack list. Everything is present and accounted for. This is 24 lbs total, all packed up, minus the clothes I’ll be wearing.

Danna asks: Did you have to work super hard to shape the possibilities to get Mica to agree to go? And are you worried about always being simpatico together on this trip? I’m thinking about kids hormones and general screen withdrawals.

This question came in before the last post, which I think answers some of it. After he read that post, Mica said he felt the same way I did—that it was never even a question of whether he would do it, just what the practical details would be. So no I didn’t really have to convince him. I was actually dithering about asking him last fall, because I was afraid that either he’d say no and I would be crushed, or he’d say yes and I wouldn’t be able to make it work. Ultimately my wife asked him because she was tired of watching me fret and she already knew we were going to do it. The first conversation Mica and I had about the trip was more like “so we’re gonna do this, and here are the things I have to figure out…”

He’s also not a big screens guy, for the most part. He’s been home from college for a couple months now and I think the thing I’ve seen him spend the most time doing is sewing. He listens to a lot of podcasts, so there won’t be any withdrawal from that. A through hike offers all the podcast listening time you could ever want.

I’m not worried about traveling with him at all. Mica and I have traveled together before: we did a two week road trip up the Pacific coast from L.A. to Seattle a few years ago, camping most of the way. The two main things we learned on that trip were that we travel well together and that we both need to make sure to schedule some alone time occasionally. There wasn’t any friction, we just both finished the trip realizing we’d have been happier if we’d taken a half a day or so every week to be apart for a little bit. That won’t be a problem on this hike, I would imagine. We’re both happy to hike alone sometimes.

Will we ever bicker? I don’t know! Probably. I can’t think of something we’re likely to bicker about though. We’ve had hard moments on the trail before, and gotten through them without fighting. Ever since he was a little baby, we’ve thought of Mica as our traveler. He was always easy to take anywhere, from a restaurant to a long drive to an intercontinental flight. As soon as we got underway he would just be up for anything, and that hasn’t changed.

If you’re looking for advice about how to have kids like this, I think all I can offer is: be very lucky.

This is all the same stuff as above, but bagged in the units that actually go into my pack. From left, it’s: clothes worn, poles, cooking and water, toiletries, first aid, and trinkets, extra clothing and sleeping pad, sleeping bag and pillow, tent (the rectangular orange bag), food, and my pack.

Alicyn asks: For a handful of years now I’ve been kinda living for visits to the mountains. Unfortunately, I’m fair weather day hiker with limited resources (like my parents before me). So every summer I watch for clear days and do 7+ hour round trip commutes to the Whites of NH. I hike hard and bliss out and experience all the requisite suffering which I conveniently forget, so I can go back and do it all over again ASAP.

The hard drives bracketing these hikes seriously limit the trails I can choose, as does my inability to camp on the trail even just one night. I’ve recently realized that I deeply want to double down on spending time in the woods and mountains. because those snatched days away from regular life have an indelible and vaguely religious quality, etc, and they just don’t last long enough. This newsletter is happening at just the right time to feed my curiosity about thru hiking, or else the fact of it has put the thought in my head and now it’s running away with me. If there’s a way for me to get out adventuring myself, I want to find it.

Can a small queer afab just start thru hiking on their own outta nowhere? The best actual advice I’m sure is to find a person or a group that I can accompany on an overnight or multi day trip. But in the meantime I’m already looking for inspiration in books about backpacking (Grandma Gatewood is on my list). So if you happen to chuck a few more book recs in Today On Trail I’ll be grateful. Particularly if they are concerned with the practicalities without totally ignoring some exploration of…idk the emotional fortitude that I assume sleeping outdoors and carrying everything you need to live on your back requires. Then again maybe I’ll just get that from your newsletter.

I have good news! A small queer afab (or an any-sized any-gender any-ab) can indeed “just start thru hiking on their own outta nowhere.” It’s probably not the most prudent approach, but plenty of people do it successfully so if that’s what your heart wants then send it my dude. One book I recommend is Chris Cage’s “How to Hike the Appalachian Trail,” which isn’t the most complete or emotionally inspiring book about hiking ever written, but it’s a very clear and well organized overview of the basic things a through hiker will need to consider, and it doesn’t get too into the weeds.

If you want a slightly more gradual introduction to overnight backpacking, I always recommend the basic strategy of learning new outdoor skills in a committed but low-consequence environment. In this case that means pick a trail you can reach in an easy drive that offers camping a distance from the trailhead that’s far enough that you won’t be inclined to just run back to your car in the middle of the night, but close enough that you feel like you could if you really had to. I’d aim for like, two or three miles. Make it a very easy day hike, and maybe something with an optional second-day objective a couple more miles on. A lake or a summit or something nice to look at. The point here is stay well within your hiking comfort zone, and give yourself the time and emotional energy to tackle the new skills of camping.

Collect your day hiking gear, which I assume already includes reasonable layers, some rain gear, and basic health and safety items like a headlamp (ALWAYS CARRY A HEADLAMP). Add to that: a tent of some kind, a sleeping pad and sleeping bag appropriate to the climate, a water filter, and a way to boil water (canister stoves are the easiest). Pick up a couple freeze-dried camping meals, see above for the requisite types of snack, and that’s pretty much it. Now go out and spend one night in the woods! If you can get an experienced friend to go with you, that will make it easier. But if not, look in my eyes: you can do this. The hiking is the hard part, and you already do that. Camping is just “cook meal” and ”lie down.”

The gear you don’t already have you can borrow from someone, rent from REI, or even search YouTube for “budget backpacking gear” and watch a few videos. There is perfectly decent stuff available on Amazon these days for peanuts. Maybe it won’t last forever, but then again, what does? I’d recommend you just buy a water filter if you don’t already have one, because they’re like $20 and you’ll use it day hiking anyway. Wherever you get a tent from, set it up at least one time in your backyard. Look for YouTube set-up videos for your specific tent. It’s so much easier to understand how to set up a tent from watching someone do it.

At the end of this project, you’ll have camped for one night. Let me tell you a secret: camping for one night is the same as camping for any number of nights. You get dirtier but the gear doesn’t change at all. I’m not really taking anything on a 5 month through hike that I wouldn’t take on a two night trip or a one week trip. So if you can do one night, all it takes to add more nights is more food.

The reward, as you already suspect, is more than worth it. Starting the morning at a campsite, listening to the birds wake up as the sky first starts to gray and then brighten. The quiet of early morning in the woods gives everything else that happens that day a completely different character than seven hours on the interstate. You can take your time, make some coffee or tea, nibble on a Clif bar, sit on a log and stare at the trees for a bit, pack up your sleeping gear. Maybe make another cup of coffee. Watch a chipmunk absolutely lose his tiny mind in indignation at the sheer gall you have to exist within his purview. Hit the privy one last time. Pack up the rest of your stuff and start walking, and it’s still only, like, 7:30 AM at this point. It’s still cool and damp under the trees. The ferns wipe their dew on your bare legs, and it’s chilly but you know in the heat of the afternoon you’ll yearn for it, so you try to store up a little chill in your heart for later. For me, every day that starts on trail feels the way a day is meant to feel, as a human being.

Damn I just wrote my way out of panic and back into being excited to go hiking. Mission accomplished! Let’s end it there. I’m still not sure if I will have a proper post for you this Sunday or not, but I’ll at least send out a picture of me and Mica departing Millinocket. After that, its Springer Mountain or bust.

See you on the trail.

Do you live near the Appalachian Trail? Do you want to potentially meet up with me and Mica for a snack, a ride to town, a meal, a place to stay? I made a Google form where you can do just that, and it’s right here. This is a NO OBLIGATION, NO PROMISES deal, if we text and you can’t make it or just don’t want to, that’s absolutely ok! If we don’t happen to stop in your area, you might not hear from us. If it works it works, and that’s great, if not we’ll catch you next time. But I’d love to meet at least some of you, so if you’re local anywhere in A.T. territory, let us know.

One last plug: I joined Deez Links’s Delia Cai on her inaugural Deez Links Book Club podcast, where we talked about the novel “Stoner” which dares to ask: What if you sent a horse to college? We also talked about the trail a bit. It was very fun, do check it out.


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