This summer, I walked a portion of the 2,100-mile long Appalachian Trail.
I became acquainted with the trail 5 years ago while recovering from knee surgery. With only half the cartilage remaining in my left knee, my doctor encouraged me to quit long distance running and take up a sport with less impact. Looking through backpacking books at the library, I was fascinated with the experiences of “thru-hikers” who had completed the entire trail from Georgia to Maine.
The walk seemed to be the ultimate marathon, both a physical and mental challenge. I was not one to pass up the challenge and welcomed the opportunity to experience in a small way some of the hardships and difficulties that early pioneers faced on their westward trek.
Finally, being close to nature is very spiritual for me. The five months it would take to complete would also serve as a journey of spiritual renewal.
At the time my wife Tomi and I were taking care of my elderly mother, leaving no time for such an endeavor. With my mother’s passing in late 1997, I planned in earnest for a 1999 spring go, never imagining this adventure and the events leading up to it would be one of the greatest challenges in my life.
My hopes were dashed when I developed shoulder problems and had major surgery just before Christmas. My wonderful wife was my nurse, taxi driver, and did the farm chores on our 20 acres, in addition to cooking, laundry and shopping. By the summer of 1999, I thought my ordeal was over and I eagerly planned for a 2000 go.
Again, my plans were put on hold with a pinched nerve in my lower back that affected my right foot and lower leg. I wondered if my life would get back to normal and whether I’d ever be able to thru-hike the trail. I spent the remainder of that year and the spring of 2000 going from wheel chair, to crutches, to a cane and finally back to normal walking. The experience left me with some permanent loss of feeling in my right foot and leg.
Still, I maintained my dream and set the stage for an attempt in 2001, hoping to finish before I turned 60. I began a series of training hikes to see if I could physically undertake such an arduous adventure, gradually working up to 18-mile hikes carrying a 38-pound pack with no negative physical consequences. I was ready!
The Appalachian Trail begins in Amicalola State Park, 80 miles northwest of Atlanta, Ga. After an all-night flight to Atlanta, Steve Moore, one of many trail volunteers, drove me to the park. He shuttles hikers to the park three or four times each year and was my first “trail angel,” people who take time to assist thru-hikers. He wouldn’t take any money for his time or gas, but let me to buy him lunch.
I changed into my hiking clothes and began the adventure of a lifetime. During the first few weeks, I realized this was going to be one tough trip. There were 6,000-foot mountains to hike over and streams to ford. The trail, neither smooth or flat, passed through roller coaster-like terrain, often littered with rocks of all sizes and shapes.
Then there was the weather. Early on, I was caught in a late spring snowstorm and below freezing temperature on a North Carolina mountain. That night I wore long underwear, long pants, two pairs of heavy socks, a short sleeve T-shirt, a long sleeve T-shirt, a long sleeve shirt, a wool sweater, a nylon jacket with hood, a hat, and a third pair of socks on my hands. I was still cold! When I woke up, the water in my canteen was partially frozen in spite of being in my sleeping bag. The ground cloth beneath my sleeping bag was stiff with ice.
As spring turned to summer, I had to overcome the high humidity and temperatures on the East Coast. The combination of the two, along with frequent rain and thunder showers, meant I started out many a morning in wet clothes and soggy boots.
My biggest obstacle was not the terrain or weather, but myself. Hiking 10 hours a day, day-after-day, week-after-week under such conditions is a real energy and morale sapper — the main reason why only some 300 thru-hikers finished out of the 3,700-plus who started this year. With a hot shower, clean clothes, a soft bed, and fine food just a town away (generally within a five-day trek), the urge to quit is at times overwhelming. I was determined not to let some old trail defeat me.
The scenery was spectacular, especially the Shenandoah and Great Smokey Mountains national parks, but what I will remember most are the people I encountered. Two woman hikers particularly impressed me. The first was Timex, a middle-aged woman who took her trail name from the well-known watch commercial (takes a licking and keeps on ticking). She had survived three major life-threatening cancer operations over the last 5 years, and was cancer free at the time.
Instead of staying home worrying or feeling sorry for herself, she was on the trail to celebrate her new life. She was an inspiration to everyone.
Then there was a 68-year-old woman who wanted to do something different and exciting in her life before she became “old.” She was only able to walk 10 miles a day. When I met her, she had already traveled some 500 miles. Her spirit and joy of living moved both young and old alike. Both women were traveling alone.
I was very impressed with the concern and care that fellow hikers showed for one another. People who started as strangers became the closest of friends after a short time on the trail together. Hikers shared almost everything they had, even if it meant some a personal hardship. There was a spirit of bonding that overcame differences in sex, race, age, social and economic backgrounds.
I am eternally grateful to the many unselfish trail angels. Easter Sunday, friends and I arrived at a mountain top shelter after a particularly grueling climb and found a family passing out food. Every Easter after their own dinner, they make the two-hour climb up the mountain to bring dinner to the hikers — southern fried chicken, potato salad, cold drinks and oatmeal cookies.
I was really moved by their generosity and spirit. The four-hour climb and descent to the shelter was difficult for a physically-conditioned hiker, much less a normal family whose youngest child was only 6 years old! Many times coming out of the woods onto a remote roadway, I saw signs saying listing numbers to call for assistance. On particularly warm days, and in locations where water was scarce, people often left coolers with cold drinks and fruit for hikers at points where the trail intersected a road.
Hundreds of volunteers hike into the trail on a regular basis to provide ongoing maintenance — moving rocks and trees that have fallen, repairing shelters and performing other necessary tasks to keep the trail open.
Getting rides into, around, or out of towns never seemed to be a problem. In Waynesboro, Va., the YMCA kept a list of volunteers who provided free shuttle service for hikers. One morning I was driven around by a lovely senior lady to grocery shop, pick up a food drop at the post office and to an outfitter to replace some badly worn out camping gear.
My favorite story involves a woman from Poland. On my way to a hostel and campground, I came out of the woods into a parking lot next to a paved road. I asked a woman for directions. In spite of some language difficulties, she offered to give me a ride. On the way, she picked up two more hikers. However, instead of the hostel, she took us to a state park campground.
After more language problems and more driving around, to our chagrin, we realized that all three of us had left the trail at the wrong road. We somehow managed to communicate this to our gracious host and finally got to our destination. Even though we turned a 20-minute drive into a two-hour excursion, the woman never became impatient or angry, and even gave us sodas when we left.
Another time, an elderly couple hiked 2 miles to a shelter where hikers and I were staying to give us a small supper of sausage, homemade bread and jellies, drinks and brownies. One warm night, a young man packed in a gallon of ice cream for us.
My last experience involves my stay at a church that had been converted into a hostel. I arrived at the town post office in the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm. I picked up my food drop and asked the post master about the hostel. He didn’t think it was open and called the minister’s home for me. The minister’s wife arrived, helped me load all my things in her car and drove me to the former church. Unlocking the door, she showed me the facilities, then left, simply asking me to lock the door in the morning. I was amazed by her trust and kindness to a perfect stranger.
One of our church members at home owned a coffee shop that was an informal hangout for many of my friends. Before leaving on my adventure, we hung a map of the trail in her shop. From time to time, I would call in and they plotted my progress.
My greatest wish was to not encounter any thing big, ugly, mean (a bear or bobcat) or poisonous (snakes). I met only one bear, a young one that took off running then he saw me. I did see several snakes, but none of them poisonous. However, I did have an encounter with a large bull where the trail passed through a farmer’s field. I came upon a herd of cows, some with very young calves, resting on a hillside.
As I started to herd them out of the way, a cow in front of me mooed. She was answered by a deep bellow and a huge white bull emerged from the brush and came loping straight toward me. Carrying a 30-pound pack, I was about as mobile as a turtle. I knew my career as a thru-hiker was over and my very short-term career as a matador was about to begin.
As he neared us, he stopped and started rubbing against her. She was receptive to his advances and they started doing what nature designed cows and bulls to do while I made a hasty getaway. Better her than me.
The only times I felt in danger were when I sprained my knee and during a solo side trip canoeing down the Shenandoah River. I hurt my knee in the middle of nowhere. It took me over two hours just to walk the last mile to an empty shelter. It was a four-day walk (approximately 60 miles) to get help up the trail, and a two-day walk back down the trail for aid. I had only a five-day supply of food.
Less than an hour later, a hiker arrived who happened to be an emergency room nurse. He gave me a big handful of ibuprofen and had me apply my bandana to my knee after wetting it in the ice-cold spring in front of the shelter. Talk about luck! I soaked my knee and two days later, I was able to move on.
During my canoe trip, the river was so low the canoe occasionally hung up and I would have to drag it over the slippery, sharp rocks. The current was strong and I knew if I slipped and the canoe got away, I was dead. Miraculously, that night there were a series of very heavy thunderstorms up river. By the next morning, the river had risen 4 feet, and the problem of hang-ups on half-submerged rocks no longer existed.
Overall, I spent 70 days walking the trail, along with a five-day, 90-mile canoe trip. My journey took me through seven states and covered almost 1,100 miles. Although I did not finish the entire trail, I have no regrets. I learned so many things and I feel I’ve become a much better person as a result of my experience.
The journey revitalized my faith. I saw many groups of vigorous young people on school and church outings enjoying the challenges of hiking the trail. Such encounters always left me with a renewed sense of confidence in the future of our country.
It was the greatest adventure of my life. The wonderful people I met restored my faith in humanity. Everyone displayed a genuine spirit to care for and help one another in times of difficulties. I plan to carry this spirit with me forever. Many hikers remarked that if only the “real world” could be like life on the trail.
It can be! I believe that this is part of all our missions in life, taking on even greater significance after the dreadful events of Sept. 11, 2001. As I concluded my journal, I began pondering the thought of going back next year and finishing.