On March 4, Isabel Low of Weston and her boyfriend walked onto a path known as Springer Mountain Summit to start what would be a 96-day, 2,190-mile hike up the Appalachian Trail. “You can’t anticipate what it’s going to be like to live in a tent for four months until you actually go and do it,” Low said.
After graduating from Bowdoin College in 2013 with a major in neuroscience, Low went straight to work as a research assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital. That’s when she decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. “I had just applied to graduate school and I realized that if I didn’t take a break I would have gone straight through my whole life without any kind of mental rest,” she said.
Low, 25, and her extended family, have always enjoyed walking in nature. “From a young age, my grandmother would pile us out of the house and take us on these marathon walks,” Low said.
She didn’t add camping to the mix until college, where her love of the great outdoors blossomed.
The Appalachian Trail runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Many attempt to be “thru-hikers” and take on the entire length, but only about one-in-four successfully complete the journey.
While the 2,190-mile trek typically takes anywhere from five to seven months to complete, Low’s hike took just four months and five days. There was extensive planning involved. “We were planning all winter the logistics and making food,” Low said.
Along with physical preparation, the Appalachian Trail’s website recommends hikers assure they’re mentally capable as well. Starting March 4, Low and her boyfriend, Toby Zitsman, also 25, began hiking the trail in segments, approximating 20 miles daily.
A typical day would consist of oatmeal or a protein bar for breakfast, followed by six to seven miles of hiking. The first snack would occur around 10:30, with the second at two in the afternoon after another six miles. Dinner would generally consist of pasta or quinoa, things that can be boiled quickly and are able to be packed with as much fat and protein as possible, “often by adding lots of cheese,” Low said. There would also be constant snacking to keep up with the nearly 5,000-calorie-per-day burn rate, eating at least every three miles.
To complete the trail as efficiently as they did, Low and her boyfriend set daily goals. “At the beginning of each day, we’d say ‘Okay here’s where we would like to end up tonight. If we were feeling good when we got to that point we would go a little further or if we were really struggling we would make it shorter,” Ms. Low said.
A highlight of the hike was a wintery day in Virginia. “We got six inches of snow and just walking through the mountain landscape, it just felt so stark and big, so beautiful, and it was just incredible to be not just walking through but living there for the time being.” This natural beauty of America followed all the way up to Maine. “There were all these little ponds and amazing sunsets. There was definitely this feeling of ‘wow this world is a really beautiful and fragile place’ that definitely made me appreciate it and want to do everything I can to protect it.”
While the Appalachian Trail is arguably one of the most scenic paths in the country, it didn’t come without obstacles. “There was a 13-day stretch where it rained every single day. It just felt like everything was going to be wet forever,” Low said.
The physical difficulty of the White Mountains in New Hampshire was also challenging. “The terrain was rocky and unforgiving and there were no switchbacks. We often climbed mountains where we gained over 1,000 feet in one mile, with sections where it was closer to 2,000, including some sheer rock scrambles. By the end of each day, our joints were aching.”
Meanwhile, Low and Zitsman met others along the way. “We actually hiked with one guy for maybe 600 miles because we just happened to be right around the same pace and liked each other’s company,” she said.
The couple also encountered animals. “We saw three rattlesnakes. The first one my boyfriend almost stepped on. We were bushwhacking through a dense bit of trail and he heard this rattle and jumped back about six feet. He was pretty freaked out,” said Low.
They also encountered what is usually considered one of the most feared animals in nature: a family of bears. “That was more incredible than scary. They were looking at us and we were looking at them and we had enough distance that nobody was going to hurt each other so it was pretty cute,” she said.
The trail even had its own subculture. “I suddenly gained access to this whole community of people who I hadn’t realized had existed before. It’s not the ones who are hiking this year but those who have hiked in previous years. There’s this whole system of volunteers and businesses there to like support you. We just got so much kindness from strangers and there were so many times where we were hitchhiking or not even hitchhiking and people would just give us food or give us a ride. They didn’t even know who we were but they just wanted to help and that was really cool.”
Following completion of the hike on July 8, Low said she plans to set out again. Only this time, via car on a road trip cross country to California. Overall, although hiking the Appalachian Trail made Low more grateful for nature and its many wonders, she came away with a deeper appreciation for modern conveniences. “I’m just feeling grateful for society and hot showers and easy access to running water. It’s amazing just how much water you have to pump through a filter just to make dinner,” she said.