Weekly Trail Updates from Type 1 Hiker Cat Pugh
Follow Cat Pugh as She Takes on the Appalachian Trail
Name: Cat Pugh
From: Wyalusing, PA
Goal: To hike from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail
Diagnosis: Type 1 Diabetes
Cat Pugh, a 23-year-old with type 1 diabetes, recently set out in to hike the Appalachian Trail (or A.T. in hiker speak) with two friends.She's been dreaming about completing the entire behemoth—all 2,190 miles of it—for a few years now; ever since she and a relative hiked an 80 mile stretch of it and she fell in love with the unique hiking culture. Cat, who recently graduated from Kutztown University with a bachelor's degree in biology, decided this was the ideal time in her life to go fo it. (She has plans to attend grad school in the fall.) .
Hiking the A.T. from start to finish is an enormous undertaking that requires as much preparation as it does steely determination. According to the Appalachain Trail Conservancy (ATC) thousands of hikers attempt a thru-hike every year but only one in four completes the task. Those daunting stats don't worry Cat who says, "I'm just too stubborn to fail!"
Fascinating Facts About the Appalachian Trail
- A typical thru-hiker takes 5 to 7 months to hike the entire A.T.
- The A.T. is the longest, hiking-only footpath in the world.
- The trail travels through 14 states.
- To date, 17,500 hikers have officially completed the trail
- Among those several have had added challenges including: blindness, diabetes and even an above-the-knee amputee.
- Half of all thru-hikers are in their 20s, like Cat.
- Black bear sightings are most likely to occur in the state of...New Jersey! (Mostly because the Garden State has long protected black bears from "indiscriminate killing".)
Week 4: Stuck in Gatlinburg, NC
Miles hiked: 235
Miles to go: 1,955.1
After a breathtaking amount of snow (no, really, it’s hard to breathe trekking through all that snow), we somehow reached our destination—Davenport Gap. Well, not somehow, we walked! But let me tell you, walking on snow is hard work and way more difficult than I thought it would be.
Last week’s storm dropped several inches of powdery snow on us. Here’s the thing: powdery snow is slippery! Packed snow crunches underfoot and is easier to grip. Well-prepared hikers strap spikes around their hiking boots (see photo, below). Think old-fashioned chains for tires. Since I don't own
a set of these, I did the best I could in my waterproof hiking boots. But in spite of my high-quality socks, my feet still got wet and that wasn’t fun. The good news is my blisters didn’t act up! The bad news is the snowy conditions kept us off the trail for three full days.
During all those zero days, my socks, shoes and feet got completely dry and my body warmed up, too. My other problem had been cold hands. I accidentally left my gloves in my mom’s car when she dropped us off at Springer Mountain in Georgia (two states ago!) but I did pick up a pair along the way at a general store. So, I’ll be ready if we run into anymore cold weather.
A few days ago I achieved a mileage milestone—completing 17 miles in one day. My longest stretch of trail so far! And, in the notoriously-challenging Smokies, no less. We set out early that day because snow was predicted, plus we were motivated to put this difficult mountain range behind us.
In the Smokies, hikers are required to stay in a shelter rather than pitching a tent wherever we like in the woods. So, although I typically rest after 13 miles, there wasn’t a shelter at that point so we hiked another 4 miles to reach one. Exhausted, we pushed our way through every difficult, demanding step. But when we finally reached the shelter, I felt invincible and thought: If I can do that, nothing will get in my way.
If you’re wondering about my food situation, let’s just say that I’m pretty tired of honey buns. I did some experimenting with staples in my backpack and have a new favorite concoction—Nutella spread on a flour tortilla and a generous sprinkling of pop tart pieces. Voila. It’s not bad but I have to admit I’d trade my warmest, driest pair of socks for some fresh fruits and veggies right now.
Hiker High: The Wintery View in the Smokies
The elevation changes in these mountains are daunting, but hiking through them with friends—old and new—and also meeting some very rowdy spring breakers was nothing short of entertaining. And even though the spring breakers lacked thru-hiker etiquette, they made us laugh. (Short-term hikers, such as spring breakers, are required to make shelter reservations in advance—thru-hikers are not. Unfortunately they arrived first and didn't make room for us so we moved on to the next shelter a few miles away, even though we were wiped out!)
Hiker Low: 3 Zero Days
When I say Zero Days, I mean three whole days without hiking. We passed the time exploring the town’s shops (the few that were open during the storm), trying to stay warm, and catching up with family and friends on the phone. The change of pace was fun—for the first day. But by day three I was frustrated about the weather still standing in our way.
The snow is clearing now, and the forecast no longer looks frozen. On to Asheville! Where I hear they have some pretty good breweries…
Week 3: Freezing on the Tennessee/North Carolina State Line
Miles hiked: 205
Miles to go: 1,985.1
We made it to Newfound Gap, the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. What a difference a week makes! The temperatures have dropped and old man winter has made a comeback. He sent us what I hope is a last-blast storm (spring starts next week, after all!). With temperatures hovering around 18 degrees and more snow expected, we are taking some extra zero days and staying warm in town.
The icicles look so pretty but the snowy conditions drastically reduces visibility on the trail. The shelter (below) is bare bones and lacks heat. Always lots of cobwebs and spiders to deal with.
Hiker High: The Great Smoky Mountains and Meeting My First Southbound Hiker!
The Smokies are breathtakingly beautiful and I never grow tired of the scenery. We recently met a southbound hiker named Rabid (a first!). He was working on his last 200 miles and his advice was not to rush our journey. But I'm already feeling rushed. With the snow delaying us, we're going to be a few days behind but there's not much I can do about it now!
Hiker Low: Sugar Lows
For sugar lows at night in cold weather, I've come up with a new remedy. I tuck a tube of Nutella in my shirt before going to sleep. Being close to my body keeps it warm and gives me easy access.
Not Just for Road Trips Anymore...
This may sound gross but I have a new-found love for what I call gas station honey buns. Yes, I know, from a nutrition point of view they are terrible. Loaded with calories (500) and of course carbs (61 grams!) but I have found that if I eat something in the morning with at least 40 grams of carbs, I don't need insulin. I feel like hiking has been really good for my diabetes but DO NOT try this at home. Unless you are hiking 8 to 10 miles per day outdoors (or getting huge amounts of exercise in other forms) like I am, eating honey buns for breakfast is NOT good for diabetes.
Week 2: Fontana Dam, North Carolina
Miles hiked: 170
Miles to go: 2,020.1
I’m checking in from a Zero Day (day of rest) at the awesome Fontana Dam hiker stop in North Carolina. It’s beautiful here. The site sits on the shores of Lake Fontana and is surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest. (I'm writing this from the Nantahala Outdoor Center, NOC). We’re enjoying nice weather and all of the hiker-friendly services (including a free shuttle into town!) this stop is known for. A few days ago I experienced my first really cold night. When the temperatures dropped into the teens, I went searching for my favorite gloves and realized I’d forgotten them in my mom’s car! I was a little nervous but layered on every piece of clothing I had with me and slept through the night fine.
Fontana Dam has a laundromat, a lodge that serves all-you-can eat pancakes and hot showers. I’m not sure what I was looking forward to the more—the shower (it had been 7 days…gross, I know) or the pancakes. I couldn't wait to make a pig of myself at breakfast. I woke up early in order to be the first one in line. But when I got there I received devastating news—no pancakes! Since we are slightly ahead of the regular start of A.T. hiking season, Fontana Dam isn’t fully stocked with staff or food. In spite of the limited resources though they managed to open up the buidling and brew us some really good coffee!
Hiking High: Getting My First Care Package from Home
Before I left Pennsylvania,I put together 6 boxes for my family to send to me at various points along the trail. I was so excited to pick up the box. Not only did it contain dehydrated bananas and other favorite snacks I hadn’t enjoyed in a while but there were a few surprises, too. My 4-year-old cousin included some cute stickers to make my hiking happier. Believe it or not, my favorite item was the unexpected container of face wipes they included. It may sound weird but these soft, plush, beaded face wipes felt luxurious to me.
Hiking Low: Blisters
Dealing with blisters isn’t fun. Other hikers told me the best way to deal with them is with a sewing needle and thread! You simply work the threaded needle through the blister and remove the needle, leaving the thread in place. This technique allows the moisture to slowly leak out of the blister along the thread which is preferable to having it burst open. Unfortunately, I didn’t have sewing supplies with me so I decided to use a fishing hook. It worked out pretty well. I punctured the blisters on each side of each foot (two big ones) very carefully, used alcohol wipes to clean them and covered with a blister band aid. Both are starting to heal nicely now.
Even though I didn’t get my pancakes I really enjoyed my time in Fontana Dam and have to admit I’m not looking forward to leaving. Tomorrow marks to start of our ascent to the Smokies. We will be hiking up hill for the next 11 miles and crossing Clingmans Dome—the highest point on the trail (elevation: 6642 feet) and 2,000 feet higher than we’ve seen so far.
Smoky Mountains Here We Come!
Week 1: Springer Mountain, Georgia
Miles hiked: 68.9
Miles to go: 2,121.1
"We're a week in and about two days ahead of schedule. I'm keeping up with my hiking buddies, Brooke Leister, 23 and Geore Ehrgott, 25, and we're averaging about 10 miles a day since the weather has been mild and dry for the most part.
My favorite sugar boosters—watermelon sour patch candies with a pop tart chaser—have been working so well that I'm using less insulin then expected and that's a really good thing."
Hiking High: Other Hikers
"I just love, love, love the hiking culture. There's so much comraderie on the trail. Whenever you meet other hikers on the trail they become family. We met four male hikers a few days ago and have been hiking with them ever since. Here's a picture of us together on the trail."
Hiking Low: The Fog
"For me, a breathtaking view from the top of a moutain after a strenuous hike is a gift. When dense fog interfers it's a real bummer!"
On Staying Motivated
"Some hikers measure the success of thru-hiking as the number of miles completed in a day. To me, the experience is about much more than the mileage.
As a total nature geek, I love being in the woods. With a degree in biology and a background in ecology the forest is never quiet to me. I listen for the sound of birds singing and I notice the variety of color around me—even when it's mostly brown there can be lots of layers to it. Instead of thinking, 'I was able to through 15 miles today,' I'm busy identifying the birds, plants, mushrooms and insects along the way. I'll always be fascinated by the natural world and really interested in learning more (maybe in grad school!) about how people in different culture use plants as food and medicine.
On to North Carolina!"
And She's Off
So, with her back pack fully loaded with her sleeping hammock, diabetes supplies, prepackaged food (including dehydrated fruit and homemade trail mix), and the all-important socks, Cat's parents, Jon and Dawn Pugh (pictured with Cat, above) drove their daughter from their rural Pennsylvania home to the terminus of the trail in Georgia.