The tallest dam in the United States east of the Rockies is Fontana Dam, which is also on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.
As I walked through the dam, taking random photos of the lake and mountains, I thought of my trip to the Mactaquac Dam (New Brunswick, Canada) with my sophomore college class.
Having recently learned the basics of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics – including turbines and flow, I remember looking around in awe at the structure. I looked at Fontana Dam with similar wonder on my hike. It can’t just be me with my background in chemical engineering. How many hikers think of hydro while walking along this trail destination?
Turns out a lot of them, actually.
Engineers hit the books, then the track
While going SOBO on the Appalachian Trail, I met many people from different walks of life. However, if I had to narrow it down, the most common backgrounds for a SOBO hiker include:
- Retired, especially military
- Recent graduates, especially college/university
In my climbing gym at university, there were also a lot of engineers. I thought it had to do with the inherent problem-solving nature of the sport of rock climbing. But through hiking? Why do so many engineers go through this?
1) Time to reflect
Many engineers I’ve met are at least somewhat introverted. They like time for themselves, time to reflect. A SOBO hike is advertised as a solitary alternative to a NOBO hike, which is more known for its social community. That means many miles of tranquil nature with time to reflect and let the mind wander freely.
2) Challenge yourself
Engineering is a mentally intense university program. And it’s a mentally stimulating job. It’s about solving complex problems, difficult math, mixing humans and science to create solutions. It’s a challenge. And the same goes for a hike. Although it may seem that a hike is just a physical challenge, it is also a huge mental challenge. Many engineers find fulfillment in practicing mental courage, and the physical challenge of the trail is a great way to get an engineer off the computer and into the wild.
3) Ask about the equipment
Is it dyneema or DCF? How many ounces is your sleeping pad? If I break the handle of my toothbrush, does this difference compensate for the weight of my French press? Many engineers love math and love to learn about the technical details of gears, basic weight, optimized gear features, etc. It’s fun and sometimes turns into an Excel spreadsheet.
4) Exhausted, need a break
Despite loving challenges, the engineering system, including academia and the workplace, often leads to burnout. And what better way to deal with burnout than 5-7 months of responsibility-free, stress-free, and gloriously indulgent me time? It’s a hike through!
5) Financial privilege
A hike is a privilege in itself. A trekker must have enough savings for expensive gear and 5-7 months of life without income. It is a certain privilege for which myself and others on the track must recognize and be grateful. The engineering profession often lends itself to high salaries, allowing a person to save for an endeavor such as a hike. Above all, a hike is a selfish pursuit, and an expensive one at that.
Fontana at Neel’s Gap
After a shower at the dam (with exquisite pressure from the nozzle, I might add), I continued south towards the NOC and then the town of Franklin. A lovely couple out for a day hike with their dog took me into town, where I restocked, picked up my free Buff at Outdoor 76, and hit the trail again.
I drove through the state of Georgia surrounded by friends and dogs – No Kiddin’, Stretch, Lotus, Mountain Goat and the puppies, FrankE and Bjorn. It was surreal being on the border of my 14th and final state on the Appalachian Trail.
Abnormally sunny and warm days greeted me as I climbed Kelly Knob, Tray Mountain, Rocky Mountain and Blue Mountain. I enjoyed a refreshing last stay at the Around the Bend hostel, enjoying cuddles with their kitty, Walker. I let my mind explore the post-trail shots without limitation, but I often find myself thinking back to memories of the trail as well.
I am a bundle of mixed emotions. Most prevalent, however, is still a simple joy to hike, a bliss to be out all day, gratitude for the people I’ve met, appreciation for the privilege of being here and maybe just a little pain in the feet.
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