- Out of about 4,000 people who attempted an Appalachian Trail thru-hike this year, only about 20% will complete it.
- Of those 20%, the number that will finish with a dog can be counted on one hand.
- Of all of the people who I have seen thru-hiking with dogs, 100% make their dogs carry all of their own food and supplies. I pack almost all of Forest's stuff (i.e., hammock, under quilt, top quilt, straps, five days of food, coat, rain jacket, service dog vest and gear, canine first aid kit, tons of water, ear cleaner, paw care stuff, nail care stuff; I am certain I forgot some). When we walked into and out of towns and Forest was in his formal Canines for Service vest, I also carried his pack on top of my pack. He only carried a two-day supply of food and a first aid kit in case of emergency.
- All but one dog that I know of that have finished the thru-hike were white. Only one was a black dog. Black fur means they overheat more easily, so they require more caution, slower paces and shorter days when it's warm. That's what took us off the Trail in June.
- Almost all of the dogs I have seen were allowed to wander off leash at all times. My dog and I hiked connected by leash the entire time. Where I had to be careful for my own safety, I had to be doubly conscious of Forest's safety. The other dogs ate anything they were given or found on the ground, and if they got hurt or couldn't make it, they were sent home and the hiker continued. That will never be an option for me with Forest.
- I have a plastic disk in my back with two fusions. On a good day, I typically am in pain. On the Trail, if I slept wrong (especially when I wasn't able to sleep in my hammock or a bed), carried too much weight or distributed it or lifted it wrong, or just had an overly difficult day where I was climbing up and down and around boulders or other obstacles, that pain was multiplied.
- I was in need of surgery for a cataract in my right eye before I left for my hike. That meant that I was operating with impaired vision every day.
None of that mattered to me, and I went into this hike fully aware and still doing it all willingly. Forest does so much for me, the least I can do for him is to make sure he is happy and healthy every step of the way, and not overburdened in a way that could damage his joints. I'm not as young and agile as I was when I first did 1,200 miles of the Trail, but I still had the will and desire to hike. All of these things did slow me way way down, though.
To compensate for the extra dog supply weight that I was carrying, I found myself (sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously) packing less and less food for myself. As a result, my personal weight is now down to 152 pounds; a 20-pound weight loss, when my friends and family said I was thin already. Still, "Can do," I said.
However, I have had two major issues on the Trail that were completely beyond my control:
- One: repeated access issues and the general attitudes I have seen toward Forest in most towns. Shuttle drivers from the Trail to my resupply points in town have turned me away because I have a service dog. Hostels have refused me. They don't care that Forest is a legitimate, trained service dog that I rely on for not only my overall peace of mind, but also for physical support. They only see yet another big, hairy dog in a long line of pets, emotional support animals and fake service dogs that have made it harder for them to do business.
- Two: I started my thru-hike March 2nd. At the slow pace we have been going, we would not complete the thru-hike until mid-December. This is just too much time away from my family.
So, after days of thought and indecision, it is time to stop. We gave it one hell of a shot. I now have about 2,500 miles of this Trail under my belt, combined by my previous start and this attempt, and Forest has almost 1,400 miles (including, by far, the toughest miles on the Trail) on his paws. I texted my wife yesterday and, as always, she dropped everything to come get me. About six more hours as of this writing, and I will be in our truck with my wife and son on my way to a hotel in Pittsfield, MA, for the night. Tomorrow, we will drive back home to near Charlotte, NC. Right now, I feel like I have won a million dollars, but I have to wait for the check to clear before I can have it.
Thank you all for your support. I know you have all been invested in my journey, or you wouldn't have been reading this blog for months. I'm sure you share my mixed feelings. Please know that your time was not wasted. I learned a great thing. I thought I hated all people. Now, I know I just hate most people. 🙂 Seriously, though, I cannot thank you all enough. Goodbye...at least for now.