Words and Photography by
Communion on the Appalachian Trail
The Company Is More Sustainable Than the Food
For thru-hikers—while they might jump at the chance to eat a grass-fed beef burger, topped by sautéed foraged mushrooms and a thick slice of a local cheddar—the prospect of eating sustainably holds a more basic meaning than what is typically portrayed in Edible Maine’s pages. For hikers who carry their bed, breakfast, lunch, and dinner on their backs for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles at a stretch, sustainable eating simply means consuming enough calories to get your body to the next campsite. You can burn up to 700 calories an hour and over 5000 calories in a day. So eating sustainably means double-fisting Snickers bars along the way, knowing full well that you’re still going to drop a few pounds.
When I started thru-hiking in March of 2015, I was more artist than hiker. I set out to capture the offbeat Appalachian Trail culture in its raw and gritty glory. Though I was confident in my ability to make a great photo, I was diffident in my skills as a trekker. It was the first time I would push my body this hard. The first night I stopped to rest my weary bones at the Hawk Mountain Shelter in Georgia, a mere 2,185 miles south of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Forest, I set up my tent backwards—proof of my weak camping skills.
Thru-hiking provides a rare opportunity to live life at the pace of your own feet. Being 20 miles from the nearest town and facing eight hours of trekking ahead gives you plenty of time to swap histories. Distractions being few, there is ample opportunity to listen and make connections. As the months went by and I captured on film what I came to know as my trail family, I collected their stories and began to understand the impact their journeys and mine would have on my life. If I walked alone during the day, I looked forward to eventual campfire conversation with my fellow dirtbags. Fellow hikers, who just days before were strangers, turned into kin.
Part of thru-hiking tradition is earning your trail name. Some hikers choose their own, while others are given one. Mine was Click, bestowed upon me by a hiker who noticed the constancy of the film camera around my neck and remarked on the iconic echo of its shutter. I know a British hiker called Pie because his initials are P.I. (Don’t ask me what they stand for—though my friends and I spent countless weeks on the trail, we didn’t always share our legal names.) Honeybuns is named after his favorite trail snack. Beans is a vegetarian who ate mostly legumes on the trail. Cheesebeard got his name from his slovenly eating habits. Around the campfire, he would eat so ravenously that his beard sopped up any Kraft macaroni and cheese that didn’t make it into his mouth.
I can relate. When I make The Ramen Bomb, which also happened to be my campfire meal of choice, only the blue box mac and cheese will do. I add in a full package of ramen noodles, a dash of hot sauce, flavored tuna packets, and if it’s a lucky day, a whole avocado. I top it all off with bacon bits, salt, and pepper.
I ate this 2,000-calorie meal nearly every night. At one of them, my trail family dared me to eat the entire pot in five minutes or less. Buoyed by grotesque table manners, I licked my pot clean with time to spare. My antics provided the campfire entertainment that night, but I also learned a good lesson about eating too fast: For the next half hour, I had to sit and watch my trail family take in and enjoy their comforting meals at a leisurely pace. I gazed with jealousy as my hiker hunger continued to growl like an ornery bear, a bear who would have to walk many more steps to his next big meal. At least I had the communion of my friends to help me push through.
Nicholas Reichard is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in Biddeford.