Backpacking Through Europe aka Thru-Hiking: The College Years

Hiking the AT will certainly be my first thru-hike, but it won’t be my first time I’ve carried my life on my back for an extended period of time.

In 2001 I prepared for a study abroad in England by doing the whole Eurail Around Europe thing for 5 weeks.  It was just me, a Columbia convertible rolling backpack and day pack, and a piece of paper that let me sit on any train in Europe.  We can have a discussion another time about how completely amazing Europe is in this regard and how America further fails to take advantage of its awesomeness by refusing to recognize the role of public transportation in modern society.  You know that friend who owns the sweet ’88 Pontiac Fiero and refuses to get rid of it no matter how much it holds him back from getting girls/a job/to any given destination.  You know the guy because you have to pick him up at least twice a year and bring him to Pep Boys.  He’s also the guy that has a milk crate in the trunk with flares, a liter of oil, jumper cables, and tow cables.  Girls you may have even dated this guy, he coasts into picking you up on the corner because stopping may mean he won’t get the car started again.  You swear you see an empty Crystal Pepsi can in the back indicated the time since this dreamboat was last cleaned.  He gets you to pay for gas because his window won’t open so end up handing the attendant your credit card (okay that assumes you live in Jersey which, come on, this guy clearly lives in Jersey).  Well that guy is America and his car is the American public transit system (which means America is Jersey, which I guess works too).  Refusing to accept what the world around him knows- just get a new damn car.

Anyway, as I look back on the trip now I am startled by a few things. For one I had no idea what the hell I was doing and the fact that I survived to the end is amazing (we’ll get to that).  Two- it actually had a lot of the components of a legit thru-hike.  Three- there were people actually holding true to thru-hiker lifestyle and I hated those smelly bastards.  And FOUR- goddamn every person in the world should do something like this once in their lives.

Let’s start at the beginning.  We covered previously that growing up I was lucky enough to have Europe as my family’s vacation destination of choice.  That concept stuck with me through my adolescence as I longed to get back there and re-experience the fun I had.  I still had this idealized image of what life in Europe was like.  I didn’t remember living in some wet, cold, damp corner of a middle-of-nowhere town in England.  I didn’t remember sleeping in the back of a Volvo in Calais because we missed the last hovercraft across the channel.  No I remembered it that we lived in Oxfordshire (the more syllables the fancier apparently) and there was about 10 castles immediately in the vicinity; you dined on unique snacks like Hula Hoops , all chocolate was of the quality of Cadbury, and the cartoons were infinitely cooler than anything anywhere else.

When the opportunity presented itself to do a study abroad I took it. It was perfect timing on a lot of levels.  I had just decided to recommit to pursuing medical school, so I needed to take care of some basic sciences (aka be a Junior in a Freshman class!).  That also made this my last “unimportant” semester.  I had also just turned 21.  More importantly I was in a rut and needed something to shake me loose.  This latter part is probably a pretty ubiquitous component of people choosing to do thru-hikes.  I will do a post on the psychology of the whole thing eventually but for now lets just call it a mid-mid-life crisis.

As Europeans do, the university calendar didn’t start until mid-September (AWESOME!), which meant I had a lot of time to kill.  That meant plans were set- I was going to get to Europe in early August with an unlimited Eurail pass and beat around the continent until I needed to report to England for school.  I spent the next few months hanging out at Borders (remember those) reading travel books (remember those).  I poured over Rick Steve’s assessment of where I should go, what I should see, and where I should stay.  It’s funny to think of that now because I am EXTREMELY skeptical of travel books.  In my mind they are far too bias to be worthwhile.  It’s a whole conspiracy thing, I know, but when you look your own town up in a similar book and they recommend you go to eat at some place you wouldn’t take your worst enemy, something is up.  But Rick, I trusted Rick.

This was my first parallel to my current thru-hiking process.  Currently I spend every free moment I can looking for new blogs or scouring old favorites for new information.  The ironic part is I just want someone to say “go buy this thing, it’s the best”.  But it is impossible to find.  Love or hate the blogging generation, this is the result.  HUNDREDS OF REVIEWS!! Awesome, so much information.  HUNDREDS OF REVIEWS!! Crap, no way to sort them out.  Luckily there are a few I feel I can trust.  Mainly because their writing is clear and honest enough to trust.  Thanks Section Hiker, Brian’s Backpacking Blog, and Stick’s Blog.

One difference in this regard however was my degree of preparation.  I did my research leading up to my trip in Europe… I did not plan.  I had identified which cities sounded cool and had a basic plan in my head.  Initially it was to go from Germany to Greece and then back around to Spain, up through France, and into Holland before heading to England.  In reality it was not very much like that.

When I hit the ground in Frankfurt to start my journey I had ZERO reservations.  By that I do not mean reservations in the misgivings/barriers/anxieties sense of the word.  No I literally had nothing set in place.  The only plan in place was that I would meet my great aunt at her apartment in Mannheim, where my family is from.  Somehow, and this still boggles my mind now, I was okay with shooting across the ocean to a foreign country with naught but an address in my hand to guide me.

Were I to do this now I would have printed out directions, a map with a bread-crumb trail, and probably asked her to meet me at the train station.  Nope.  Got off the plane, followed signs for “bahnhof”, went to the ticket counter, bought a ticket to Mannheim, got off in Mannheim and hailed a cab.  It all worked out, it’s not that hard really, but there was a lot of room for error.  That would probably be the theme of the whole trip.

I basically just did things for 5 weeks.  No plans set in stone.  In retrospect this probably would prove to be one of the most important factors in making my trip so memorable (note to people thinking about mail drop resupplies on the AT).  However it could have left me very vulnerable.  Luckily I was one person and I was traveling in August after the big American travel rush had ended.  Therefore it was pretty easy to find seats on trains, beds in hostels, and space on ferries.  Sure it meant for a few rough patches.  On the boat from Brindisi to Corfu I slept on the floor in the main seat area.  In Cinque Terre I couldn’t find a cheap room and aborted for Nice only to sleep in the train station there on route to Barcelona.  In Venice the only hostel available was a campground (ironically I was NOT staying there for anything) so I found a rectory that rented rooms in the summer.  It very well could have been worse… much worse.  I don’t know why that stuff didn’t worry me at the time.  For some reason I was completely ready to roll the dice and figure it out as I went along.  When I left America I didn’t know how to use public transit, I didn’t like communal showers, and I was crap at sleeping on any type of schedule.  By the end of my 5 weeks I was a professional traveler.  My friends that had planned every aspect of their trip or had gone on one of those horrible Kontiki tours booze-cruise buses trips did not have a similar experience.

The other parallel to my current thru-hike actually is just this… a blog.  When I went abroad I wanted to have a way to keep people updated on my whereabouts.  This was 2001 so blogs weren’t REALLY a thing.  Instead I created a hotmail account (remember those) and used it to send emails to all my contacts.  I imported all the names I had and basically said “tell me now if you don’t want these emails”.  Nobody declined so then they got 6 weeks of updates.  The crazy thing was apparently people liked them… a lot.  I probably emailed every three days or so.  It was never a chore and it was always fun.  So for the AT I want to do something similar.  The more I blog the more I think that if I do it EVERY day I will resent it quickly.  So I’m hoping to keep a personal journal daily and then a published journal every few days or when inspiration strikes.  We’ll see how it goes.  My main thought is that I want to enjoy doing it and I don’t want it to be a daily report of “We hiked this many miles, the weather was like this, the trail was steep/flat/rocky/long”.

But real parallel I’m hoping proves itself is the people.  I had a great trip in Europe.  Best of my life.  It changed my life in so many ways.  I was thrust into self-sufficiency.  I had to problem solve at all points in time or suffer the consequences to nobody’s fault but my own.  I decided what to do every moment of every day.  But those experiences weren’t the real highlights.  It wasn’t the sites, or the food, or any THING.  It was the people.

Traveling by yourself is infinitely anxiety provoking.  You exit a train in a city you’ve never been, you don’t have a bed to sleep in, you don’t speak the language.  But you have to figure that you.  Like I said, there’s a book for that.  There’s a map or a guy on the corner.  Throw around a few “english?” “hostel?” “discotheque?” “museum” and you’ll figure it out.  There isn’t however a single thing that will help you make friends but yourself.  And if you don’t make friends you are going to be very lonely.
I’m not really one for making friends with total strangers.  I never used to pick up girls at bars.  But there was something about the combination of being alone and being surrounded by travelers that really made it easy for me.  Travelers really are the best kind of people.  No drama, no expectations, no problems.  I think they got it right in Fight Club when Tyler Durden refers to “single-serving friends”.  Every city I went into I met new people.  We became great friends.  We’d walk all over this completely foreign city together in a way I had never done with people back home.  In some cases my new friends and I would be inseparable for a day or so.  In other cases we would do one thing and then if we didn’t agree on what was next we split and it was no problem.  Regardless of the situation though, eventually we separated never to see each other again.  We’d exchange emails, look at planned routes of travel to try to predict a rendezvous.  But in the end, it ended, and that was okay.  We all knew it was what it was.

Yet somehow in that exchange these were the best people I’d ever met.  I admired them all and appreciated the little addition they made to my life.  This is probably best exemplified in the story of Simon and Fred.  I met them in Santorini, Greeece.  I had just left Corfu with has a hostel called the Pink Palace.  If you ever saw the movie The Beach, that was the Pink Palace.  The employees were all travelers who got there and decided to stay.  They paid them enough money to stay there and drink but never enough to save up to be able to leave.  It was wild.  But they were celebrities.  Sad, intoxicated, celebrities of this pink frat house for a summer.  I left Corfu with open eyes but a very real understanding of how fake this world was that we were living in.  When I got to Santorini I had decided to take a break from the madness I had just dipped my toes into and relax a bit.

At this point I was already a seasoned pro.  Germany, Zurich, Vienna, Venice, Rome, Corfu, Athens had all prepared me for what life on the road was like.  I had showered in ankle deep water as the result of european chest hair clogging the drain.  I had shared a room with a guy with foot odor so bad it hurt my nose.  So when I got to the hostel and the desk man looked like a Greek John Belushi and a cockroach ran across the floor, I wasn’t phased.  Nothing could get to me anymore.  I had escaped The Beach but now I would resign to the beach as my only plan was sleep on a beach with black sand.

As I secured my bunk I saw two guys doing the same.  They saw the Rip Curl sticker on my journal and asked if I surfed.  I answered that I try but not really.  They then told me that they were from Australia and South Africa but lived in London.  They lived the typical non-American, post-high school lifestyle (except they were in their late 20’s).  Americans be prepared for extreme jealousy– apparently when you are done with high school or college you go on what I believe is called a gap year.  The short version is that you take your ubiquitously accepted passport, move to a foreign country and work there for 2 years.  In that time you basically take whatever job you can get, it’s not about any career advancement.  Instead it’s about making enough money to fund your next vacation.

Simon and Fred worked at the Royal Bank of Scotland.  They worked 40 hours weeks and made great money.  They spent it on nothing more than the cheapest rent they could find and going out.  The rest they saved.  Then they would work 3-4 months and take a month off.  They had surfed in Hossegor, France, San Sebastian, Spain, and South Africa.  It was the perfect lifestyle.  There are very few people in life I have been more jealous of.

We exchanged stories and backgrounds a bit.  Just that simple conversation, maybe 5 minutes, had already allowed both of us to decide we were cool to hang out together.  As chance would have it we both had the same plans– hit the beach.  For the next two days we were inseparable.  Everywhere we went we laughed until our stomachs hurt.  We coined new catch phrases.  We gave nicknames to girls we did or did not want to associate with.  Not having ever had a brother this was what I always imagined it must be like.  There was no concept of me being the fifth wheel (third?) at any point.  This is just how it was supposed to be.  It was perfect.

The best moment of the whole experience came when we went to the volcano off Santorini.  The brief history lesson- Santorini, volcano, volcano blows, makes island, fills in with water, people build city on safety of cliffs, grow extensive chest hair.  In the interest of getting the blood pumping we agreed to go hike the volcanic crater.  After doing so we hung behind on one of the cliff faces and caught lunch.  Here we are, three friends, having lunch on some random patio on top of a volcanic cliff that overlooks the whole Aegean Sea.  Nobody around anywhere.   Just us, a breeze, some rum, and a few sandwiches.  “Wicked pozzy” as Simon would call it.

Then a homeless cat wanders by (if you’ve been you know its not a unique occurrence).  On seeing this gaunt, emaciated cat Fred launches into a whole conversation with it.  In the course of 5 or so minutes he has covered that this cat is super pissed about the state of affairs.  It used to live on the main island of Santorini but somehow it stowed away on a fishing boat and ended up here.  But the real issue for this cat was not its being marooned away from the island, it rather liked the view of course. No instead it took issue with the fact that it could not make the acquaintance of any good female cats on this rock.  All the good female cats were over there, across the water.  And of course, he’s a cat, he can’t swim.  What the hell is he going to do.  Over here all the female cats are thin and preoccupied with the sunning themselves and napping.  He wants a real cat.  A mainland cat.

I’m sure the hilarity of this story is not coming across.  Suffice it to say we were all rolling on the floor.  Tears coming out of our eyes.  Stomachs in complete pain from constant laughter.  So now here I am with two guys that are like brothers to me, in a place no one would ever have expected or dreamed of, having one of the best lunches of our lives.  It was a perfect moment; one of those moments that if you just stopped time and stayed right here for the rest of your life you’d be perfectly happy with it.

What’s interesting is that at that moment I was the least alone I had ever been or would ever be on that trip.  A week later 9/11 happened.  I was in Mykonos.  Immediately I was absolutely and completely alone.  I had to hide my American-ness for fear of further threats.  I was cut off from home and everything that happened.  It didnt really affect my trip– I just saw more machine guns than I had the weeks before and I had to listen to more Italians tell me why my country was stupid.  I would have given anything to be back on that cliff.

As learn more about the AT I gather that the reason why people are able to hike for 6 months is that the AT is full of those Santorini cliffs.  Sure there are awesome summits and picturesque areas.  But the real money is in the people.  I know there will be many points next year where we will have that feeling of wanting to stop time.  Maybe it will be a shelter after a long day and someone happened to have some whiskey left over.  Maybe it will be a meal we share at a hostel on a perfect zero.  I have no idea what it may be.  The only thing I know is it will happen.  That is easily the part of the trail I am most excited for.

I have dozens of stories like that from my trip to Europe.  What struck me as I finished my time there was that those stories weren’t in the guidebooks.  Nobody could tell me how to make it happen.  It couldn’t be planned.  It probably wouldn’t ever happen like that again.  Be it a home-cooked meal with homemade sangria on a veranda in Rome, a spaghetti, wine, and Sinatra dinner on a balcony in Siena, skinny-dipping off a paddleboat in Lake Zurich on a sweltering day, watching opera in Vienna on a 30ft screen during a food festival, or drinking wine and looking at fresco’s with a handheld mirror in Venice… life just always found a way to make itself awesome.

As I start planning our thru-hike and I think about gear, pack weight, resupplies, safety, footwear, underwear, bugs, water treatment, and bowel movements I have to stop myself.  The only important thing is to make sure we are out there.  The more time we are out there the more chances life will have opportunity to show us something amazing.  It’s not about miles or speed.  It’s only about actually being on the trail and being on the trail with the people that will make it memorable.  Anything we can do to maximize those factors should be our most important directive.

Is it July yet?

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2 Responses to Backpacking Through Europe aka Thru-Hiking: The College Years

  1. mackenzie says:

    Ah! Hello! I just saw your comment and I would love to talk to you about your prep for next summer. We’ll be home at the end of the week and I’d love to email with you. 🙂

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