Backpacking the Appalachian Trail in the fall means beautiful views and bright colored leaves. No one warns you it also means NUTS: walnuts, hickory nuts, chestnuts, and acorns. The leaves are certainly lovely…but the nuts are maddening!
At first the nuts are fascinating. “Oh look, there’s a walnut!” “Awww, that acorn is so tiny it’s cute!” “Oh look, I’ve never seen an acorn that huuuuuge!” Then irritation mounts, as individual nuts cause problems. “Yuck!”—walnut husks leave big black stains on whatever they touch. Stepping on a nut startles the hiker with a loud “crack!” or could leave a bruise, even through heavy boots. Eventually, those innocent looking nuts become dangerous. When the trail is filled with fallen acorns, walking over them becomes an exercise in keeping ones balance on a slippery, rolling, sliding surface. This is similar to trying to keep a 2 liter bottle of soda upright on the metal rollers at a grocery store checkout lane—easier said than done.
Staying in shelters in wooded areas along the trail has its own challenges in the fall. When a nut falls off an overhanging tree onto the metal roof, it lands with a crack like a rifle shot. At first, the hiker sits up in terror each time, heart pounding with a rush of adrenaline. A windy night sends many nuts onto the roof at the same time, sounding more like machine-gun fire. Yikes! The good news is that after a few nights of interrupted sleep, the exhausted hiker eventually learns to ignore the explosions.
In one area of the trail in Virginia, daughter and I kept seeing spiny green balls. We couldn’t figure out what they were. (We knew our initial impression of lime green baby hedgehogs was unlikely to be correct. HA!) Eventually, we found out these were chestnuts. Yes, nuts from genuine American Chestnut trees which were wiped out by blight more than 100 years ago. Apparently some sturdy roots continue to put out new shoots that grow to as much as 20 feet tall and drop nuts before eventually succumbing once again to the blight.
The combination of critters and nuts is another challenge in the fall. One night daughter and I were woken up by weird noises. It was not the usual able-to-be-ignored “BAM!” followed by “shhhhhhhhh…plop!” as the fallen nut hit the roof then slid down and fell to the ground. This time we heard a “clicking, clacking, skritch, scratch” sound. Suddenly there was an unexpected explosion immediately above our heads! Daughter jumped up and turned on her headlamp. There was an acorn on the top wooden bunk platform. A mouse popped through a hole in the roof, scurried down from the ceiling, grabbed the nut, and climbed back up. It then tried to shove the nut back out through a hole. That didn’t work well as the acorn fell out of its mouth, “BAM!” back onto the platform. Daughter grabbed the nut and threw it outdoors. Whew! We were able to sleep in peace for the rest of the night.
The next morning, we hustled through our usual morning routine, in a hurry to get back on the trail. Everything was finally packed. I slid off my camp shoes and tied them to my pack. I put on my first boot and tied it tightly. I shoved my foot into the second boot…oops! Someone left me a gift during the night! (Or else that critter somehow thought my smelly boots made a good pantry for his winter food supply…) That hickory nut soon followed the night-time acorn into the woods.
It’s a nutty world in the fall on the Appalachian Trail. However, as my parents discovered when they left a car parked for a number of weeks in their suburban driveway, it can be just as nutty in the city…
(Note: we finished this year’s hike on October 21. We continue to post photos and stories from our adventure…)