This part of the trail may be dull, but water's fine


Along the Appalachian Trail -- The filthy young man surged out of the woods as though tailed by a grizzly bear, his trekking poles pumping like extensions of his thin arms. Stride, pant, stride, stride. Only when he had reached the cinder block building at the edge of the clearing did he stop, and stare.

"Is this the free shower?" he shouted. "Is it?"

It was indeed - the fabled Dahlgren bathhouse, one of the few free hot showers for 2,175 miles. The hiker's eyes shone. Mud from the morning's rain dappled his calves, although so much moisture glistened on his face and forearms that it looked as if he had just washed. Safe to say, though, he had not. Kenny Martin is a "thru-hiker," determined to conquer the entire Appalachian Trail in a few months. He has enjoyed precious few ablutions since he began walking, in Georgia, on April 8.

Before "Yankee" - that's Martin's trail name, and the one he responds to at this point - entered the bath hut, he gazed at it for a long time, perched on a rock and smoking a contemplative cigarette.

Then, from the depths of his frame pack he produced a baggie containing a toothbrush, a tube of Crest Whitening Expressions and a flask of slimy all-purpose soap. Usually it's for washing his mess kit and scrubbing his spare underpants; today, though, it would triple as shampoo.

Yankee had no towel; many thru-hikers are so conscious of extra weight that they tear out pages of their trail guides as they read them. Linens are an impossibility.

Yet the prospect of drip-drying was not a sufficient deterrent.

"I've been looking forward to this," the 25-year-old New Hampshire native said, before stripping down. So what if it was 2 p.m. on a scorching hot day in the middle of nowhere, and he would be covered with sweat seconds after rinsing off? "This is going to be awesome."

Appalachian Trail hikers remember some states for their regal mountains and lush valleys; Maryland, though, is famous for its showers.

The Dahlgren Backpackers' Campground in South Mountain State Park has one of the few - and by far the best-known - free hot showers on the trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine.

"No, that is not a mirage," the Thru-Hikers' Companion crows, "that really is a bathhouse with hot showers."

It doesn't matter that the state's mere 41 miles of trail include some of the journey's flattest and dullest. To the grubby thru-hikers who pass through the Boonsboro area every June (most having left Georgia in the early spring and traveled north in a cluster), Maryland means clean. And they are grateful.

"Some of them can get very poetic about it," said Al Preston, the assistant manager of the state park, who frequently reads the logbook entries at Dahlgren and nearby campsites.

Last week, one hiker wrote, "Ahhhh."

The Maryland bathhouse is an anomaly, the only state-run hot shower for Appalachian Trail hikers. It was built about 30 years ago for the use of local youth groups that never materialized, Preston said. But, true to its name, the Free State kept it running as a courtesy to hikers. Maintenance costs about $350 a month, April to October.

The four shower stalls - two for men, two for women - are nothing luxurious. The pipes are rusty, the plastic shower curtains ratty; there are holes in the ceiling. Spiders have slung hammocks in the corners, and mosquitoes flail on the window screens. But the water flows hot and plentiful, and to a bedraggled backpacker it's as good as the Hilton.

The 400 or so thru-hikers who camp their way up the trail to Maine each year - and the several thousand who set out with that intention - average about a bath a week. Often, this involves a creek or a lake, or a good Samaritan's swimming pool, or a rainstorm and a bar of soap, or a gushing storm gutter, or fistfuls of Handiwipes, or the purified contents of a water bottle.

Along the trail, there are a few cold showers, the occasional sun-warmed solar shower, and at least two other free public hot showers - one at a dam in North Carolina, and one in southern West Virginia at a campground that, several hikers euphorically reported, also gets pizza deliveries.

But because the campground facility is new, and the dam shower is meant for the general public, many hikers don't know about them, said John Fletcher, an information assistant at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. In guidebooks and lore, Maryland remains the backpacker's bathing mecca.

Most often, hygienic hikers craving a hot shower end up hitchhiking into towns and paying $5 or $10 to leave a brown ring in a tub at a hotel or hostel, or to use showers that are fed by quarters, like arcade games. But such dousings are a rare treat because the thru-hikers are chronically underfunded. Most have taken half a year off work to complete the trek, which requires $4,000 or $5,000 in food and supplies. Nor do they have the time to soak in town: They need to reach Mount Katahdin in Maine by mid-September, when the temperature drops.

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