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In 2000 I completed a thru-hike (a complete hike) of the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT runs up the East coast of the United States, starting in Georgia and finishing in Maine. The trail covers 14 states in it’s 2,168 mile path. My hike started on March 14 at Springer Mountain, Georgia and I finished on August 21 at Mount Katahdin, Maine. It was a life defining event.
In the Fall of 1999 I was at a bookstore browsing while waiting for a friend and came across “A Walk In the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” by Bill Bryson. I picked up a copy of the book and was hooked. I had never even heard of the Appalachian Trail before this. That Fall I was wrapping up my undergraduate work at Texas Wesleyan University in 3 and a half years. I had no plans for what to do after college, so the trail captured my imagination.
It took quite a while to work up the nerve to even tell my parents about my far-fetched scheme. It took even longer to convince them I would be OK out on the trail by myself. Being a parent now I have no clue how I ever convinced them to let me go. I would be going on my own into the woods.
The next few months I spent reading everything I possibly could about the trail. The internet was still relatively new in 1999 and there weren’t as many websites and resources as there are now. It is hard to even imagine what that was like. I made plans, purchased additional gear, and prepared food to be shipped to various destinations along the trail. Most of that planning would wind up being in vain since I changed almost everything when the reality of the trail hit me.
March 13 I boarded a plane for Atlanta, met a man I did not know who was a former thru-hiker who gave me a lift out of Atlanta up to Springer Mountain. I enjoyed one last night in civilization and a good meal, having no clue what awaited me. I still remember that on TV that night was “Deliverance.” A horrible viewing choice for anyone already anxiety ridden about what was waiting in the woods.
I won’t go into great detail about the day to day of the hike in this post, I plan on writing a series of posts about my hike starting in March. I learned so many valuable lessons about myself while I was out on my grand adventure. The very first day I met a drunken hiker who had started the trail every year for the previous 13 years. He was nice enough and when he found out I didn’t have a trailname, he came up with one for me – Lonestar. Since that day I have been known as Lonestar to many people.
People ask me about the trail all the time. It captures their imagination just as it did mine. Here are a few of the more popular questions I get asked:
How many miles a day did you hike?
In the first days I was doing great to hike 10-12 miles a day. A week or two before starting the hike I had run my third marathon. So I was in pretty good shape. Nothing will prepare you for the trail. I’ve heard many people say they just put on a few extra pounds for training, knowing that it is challenging to consume as many calories as you burn while hiking the trail. Early on I had a foot injury from carrying too much weight and wearing a boot that couldn’t support the weight. I was able to get fitted with a pair of Salomon hiking boots, drop weight out of my bag and continue on my hike. An average day was 20 miles. My biggest day was a 33 mile day in Virginia.
Where did you sleep?
Most of the time I slept in simple shelters that were built along the trail. Most of the shelters were shed-like structures with 3 walls and a raised wooden floor. Most could sleep 8-10 people in their sleeping bags. When I started I had a one man tent that I called the nylon coffin. To get in I had to slide in feet first and there wasn’t even enough room to get dressed inside. I eventually switched to a tent/tarp that was made for lightweight hiking. It packed down to the size of a soda can, weighed only a few ounces and used one of my hiking poles as the main pole for the tent. The biggest sacrifice with that tent was that it had no floor so you were a bit more exposed to the elements.
How did you get your food?
Most of the time my parents would box up food and ship it from Texas to a post office along the trail somewhere. Mail for hikers could be mailed to general delivery at the post office (PO), where it would be held and I could pick it up by showing my driver’s license. Many times the PO would be miles from the trail so I would often hitchhike at a road crossing into town. Local people were friendly to the hikers and often gave them a lift into town. Those packages from home always meant so much.
Trail Magic and Trail Angels
Perhaps the best part of the trail was the renewal in my faith in humanity. There were nice people doing helpful things all the time. Sometimes random strangers would go out of their way to provide a snack, a cold drink, or a ride. I will always remember the kind man (Jim C.) who came and picked me up very early one Sunday morning at a trail crossing. He took me back to his family’s house, let me shower in the bathroom he and his wife shared, left a pair of his clothes for me to wear while he washed mine. I still remember the look in the eyes of his teenage daughters when I came to sit at the breakfast table, wearing their Dad’s clothes. I worshiped with the church that morning, as I tried to every Sunday morning, and was welcomed so warmly. Thinking back on all the nice things that people did for a ragged looking stranger, I am moved.
It took five months and one week to complete the trail. There were times along the way where I just wanted to give up, but I always pushed along sticking it out, setting a goal on the horizon to get to. I was a different person at the end of those 2,000+ miles. On the outside I was bearded, had a wild head of red hair and my feet had grown 2 shoe sizes. On the inside I had built confidence that I could accomplish tremendous things. My relationship with God was strengthened after spending day and night for so many months surrounded by his creation. There are days where I truly miss the woods.