Safety and The Appalachian Trail

This is a very broad post and probably just more reactionary to get stuff off my chest after learning about the death on the AT a few weeks ago.  As mentioned in my post About the AT- the Real Version, there was recently a tragedy on the AT.  A very popular thru-hiker, Parkside, died a week or so ago while swimming in a pond adjacent a shelter.  His mom actually keeps a trail journal for him in a second person kind of way.  Pretty cool she did that.

I’m pretty much reeling from this news.  I follow a lot of thru-hikers’ trail journals every day and a guy named Achilles has been one of the more regular posters.  Achilles was there the day it happened.  They have been hiking together in a similar bubble much of the trail.  Guys had to be averaging 20+ a day the whole way through.  Just amazing stuff.  Really strong hikers.

We actually were in Maryland doing a training hike and came across a hiker named Hop-a-long.  We stopped for a chat with him as he was the first thru-hiker we’d met that seemed to want to share a yarn with you.  In sharing stories with him we discussed big miles and I commented that the guys at the head of the pack were nearing New York.  He affirmed this and responded that two guys, Achilles and Parkside have been doing 20+ days and really owning the trail.  I told him I knew of them both by the ole internets.  We talked about both the guys journals for a while and parted.  So it’s kind of crazy that even down here in Maryland, two day-hikers are aware of the monumental accomplishment they were achieving.

It really just underlines how you cannot predict who it will happen to.  We all think we are invincible and we all think it won’t happen to us.  I wonder how many people that die by tragic means every day had any thought that they could lose their lives immediately before their fatal action.  I imagine very few.  That’s why they are called accidents.

As a physician our training involves a lot of exposure to death.  I hate to say it but it does desensitize you to it.  We all recognize it and we all thinks its odd.  But I think we also know its necessary.  However when stuff like this happens it puts a face to the name and it means something.  TECHNICALLY, this could not have been prevented.  Sure, sure anyone can play hindsight and say one should have done this or that.  But really it was all chance.

For me it really makes me think about driving to work every day.  I commute along a corridor identified as one of the Top 5 worst commutes in America.  It’s AWESOME.  As a result you get a bit punchy, a bit Days of Thunder.  When you have an opening you take it, and then you drive fast.  This leads to a lot of driving 75 65mph instead of 55 or tailgating someone who I think needs to move over.  Sure me doing that probably won’t lead to anything bad.  But if it does, the result has a high chance of death.  I’ve seen too many kids with hemi-craniotomies and paraplegics to think it can’t happen.  I try to avoid those situations.

Similarly, I will not hike with a gun when we are on the trail.  This comes at much consternation to our fathers, the consummate outdoorsmen.  Reality is that any situation that would warrant using it is probably one I won’t be able to.  As much as I would like to believe that the hours spent watching Chuck Norris movies have prepared me for survival, I’m realistic.

This guy could kill a rabid, man-eating, drug-smuggling, Communist ninja-bear

Sure I could take shooting classes but the reality is that if I used a gun it would probably be in a quick-draw moment.  If that’s happening its all instinct at that point.  At least I assume so.  Be it a blood-thirsty bear coming at me or a deranged hillbilly trying to jump me for my “purty mouth”, either way its probably already too late.  What would be more prudent would be to have avoided those situations to begin with.  That’s what I need to learn how to do.

I actually love having the “you should carry a gun” conversation with people because it is so polarizing an argument.  You would almost think you were having a discussion of religion.  They think the idea is lunacy not to:

“Nah man, you gotta have a gun with you”


“Cuz yeeew never know what’ll happen out thurr”

“Like what”

“Like a bear or a coyote or a mountain lion”

“I couldn’t hit those things with a gun if they were lying on the ground with a bullseye painted on them, much less running at me with the intent of dining on my vitals”

“Yeah but you could skeer ’em”

“Okay, but the only guns that will make that much noise are high caliber stuff, not the .22 I’d actually be able to lug around for 6 months”

“Well if you gotta carry a piece (they always call it a piece), might as well do it raat.  Ifnitwereme (yes its one word) I’d want a .44 Magnum ”

“Okay and then when I shoot it and scare them what happens”

“Well they’ll turn tail and geet outta there”

“You sure of that”

“Well no”

“What do you mean”

“Well it miiiiiight provoke them, or if they have youngins with them the mama may attack you to protect her kin”

“Uh huh, so now they are attacking me BECAUSE I have a gun”

“Well sir, but then you have the gun, they attack, you shoot”

“Oh I see, so when a bear is on top of me clawing away and chewing on the soft bits I should use my remaining hand to put a bullet in his brain”

“Ooooo yeah boy”

“And that will stop him”

“Well no sir, not exactly”


“Yah, see you gotta get em good, bears ‘specially are known for taking a few bullets to the brain”

“Ah, so now my gun has caused him attack me and in reality it never had a chance of stopping him”

“Hmmm, well that fancy city-talk and book-learnin you’re using there is exactly the reason… YOU NEED A GUN” ::shoots two revolvers in the air, laughing maniacally”

“I see, thanks for the help”

The basic idea I have been able to glean from these debates (or feuds as they’re called roun’ some parts) is that proponents of guns think that carrying a gun on the Appalachian Trail would go something like this

Honey, get me 200lbs of meat off these here varmints and leave the rest

Whereas I see it going something like this:

Velociraptors 1, Muldoon 0

When I did my travels in Europe during college I almost had my passport stolen.  I was in Rome.  It was early in the morning and I was rushing to catch a train to Siena.  I was in full tourist attire- luggage on my back and front, money belt around my waste, blonde hair flowing.  As I crossed a street two women walked toward me.  They were young, maybe late twenties.  As a 21yo male this was awesome.  Here were two cute(?) girls just coming up to talk to me.  “I am the man!” I thought.  As I neared I realized they weren’t speaking English.  One came right up to me and showed me a map.  I couldn’t make out what she was trying to point to so I leaned in closer.  As I did she moved the map to my stomach to allow me to get a better look.  This all is happening in the course of 2 seconds.  Literally I’m not even capable of thinking as this is going down.  As I’m looking at this map in confusion I see a hand underneath it going for my money belt.  I slapped her away and walked a few steps back.  I wanted to stop and yell and get police but I had a train to catch… and I didn’t speak Italian… and I ain’t no stoolie.

Now that in no way compares to what happened to Parkside, but it is my reminder of how randomly things can happen that you CAN’T prepare for.  I don’t ride a motorcycle for that exact reason.  I love riding bicycles and imagine the thrill of a motorcycle would easily trump what I get on a bike.  But I have been in WAY too many situations in a CAR where if I had been on a motorcycle I would be dead.  Helmet or not.  My sister used to work at a motorcycle shop and they had at least 2-3 employees die in the time she was there.  Dangerous.

Okay so what’s my point.  Yes the trail is dangerous.  There are drownings, heads hitting rocks, murders, whatever you want it happens.  But it doesn’t happen any more than in life in the rest of the world.  More people die in car accidents every day hour minute.  Even if you adjust it per capita.  If I told you that one person on the AT will die in 2013, you might consider not going.  If I told you one person will die THIS MONTH along the freeway you take to and from work, you’d still drive.  I will still drive a car tomorrow and I will still speed in that car (with a seatbelt on of course).  That would be the AT equivalent of descending Dragon’s Tooth in high heels and no poles.  We take risks every day, we just choose not to focus on them.  Instead of freaking about about the dangers on the AT we plan on taking every reasonable precaution to prevent as many as possible.

In my mind this means getting some education and training.  We will meet with a dietician to fully understand all the potentially life-threatening complications that can happen from such the wacky dietary habits of thru-hikers.  We will take a wilderness medicine course.  We will practice techniques to minimize injuries (which I will outline later).  But more importantly we will not take chances when hiking.

Just to be clear I do not think Parkside took any chance in his passing.  I do not think he made any mistake in fact.  His death was as likely to happen as I am likely to fall down the stairs when I go to bed later.  But it does provide an opportunity to use tragedy for me to learn a lesson and be reminded that accidents happen.  And while the fear of an accident is not something to keep one from undertaking experiences in life, it is something to use as a guide.  Humans were built with a fight or flight response for a reason.

For my part I want to extend my condolences to Parkside’s family.  He used his life to inspire an entire community of people that had a passion for something he was extremely good at.

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