Sleeping with Ghosts on the Appalachian Trail

Ruminations, Romance, and the Lives of a Family Long Dead

Story and Photographs by William Dudley Bass

Ruins of the old Sarver Homestead along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, May 1991.

Ruins of the old Sarver Homestead along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, May 1991.

In late May 1991, almost three months into our odyssey along the Appalachian Trail, my wife and I planned to sleep among ghosts. Old-timey Virginia ghosts. It seemed like a fitting thing to do while walking across our home state, a journey as rich with rumination as it was with hardship and joy.

Gwen and I had embarked on the first day of spring from the top of Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to backpack the whole Appalachian Trail end to end. The AT, as we hikers called it, or simply “the Trail,” stretches more than 2,000 miles northwards across 14 states to the summit of mile-high Mt. Katahdin in north-central Maine. Almost a quarter of the Trail passes through the Old Dominion, making Virginia home to the longest section of the AT, more than any other state. Gwen and I took six-and-a-half months to backpack the whole Trail, climbing Katahdin in early October on the day after our third wedding anniversary.

Rich in both history and wildlife, the Appalachian Trail is an intersection of people and wilderness. Those who backpack end-to-end in one push are known as “thruhikers,” while those who attempt to complete the whole thing in stages are called “section hikers.” Most take on trail names. Gwen and I were thruhikers, as such a distinct minority among the day hikers, weekenders, and picnickers. We called ourselves the Pregnant Rhinos.

Our trail name arose from a backpacking trip out West the previous year, when we got teased about the huge new internal-frame expedition packs bulging from our backs. “Damn, y’all look like a coupla pregnant rhinoceroses,” exclaimed a teenage boy, his own rickety, external-frame pack jangling with pots and pans and sloppy blankets.

Continue reading “Sleeping with Ghosts on the Appalachian Trail” »