EDITOR’S NOTE: In the July/August issue of Nature Conservancy magazine we asked you to nominate your favorite hike. Read Nature Conservancy manager of film and video Ethan Kearn’s account of his A.T. thru-hike and then make the case for your top trek in the comments section below. The most persuasive comment will run in an upcoming issue of the magazine.
June 7 – Day 24: “I guess we should have seen it coming, but we didn’t, and now we were stuck on the top, in the open, in the midst of a thunder storm. We kept looking for a good place to set up our tent, but we didn’t want to stay in the open, and when we dipped briefly back into the trees… there was nothing. When we re-emerged into the open I just started running, with my 40lb pack and everything. I don’t know how, but I was moving. Ethan called out. He had spotted a place in the woods just down the road past a parking lot (all gravel mind you). The rain was pouring down and the thunder was right over us; the lightning wasn’t far off. I was freaking out because of the time on Giant in the Adirondacks (lightning struck the mountain while we were on top and traveled through the ground up through my legs throwing me off my feet). But we managed to put the tent up, strip down and jump in. We were both soaked and sitting naked in the tent, which struck me as pretty humorous at the time.” - Excerpted from my brother Jesse’s Appalachian Trail journal.
I’m not sure I remember the first time I set foot on the longest stretch of wilderness in the Eastern United States. But I am sure of the exact moment I made the commitment to walk its entire length from start to finish: It was my junior year in college and I was sitting in a tattoo parlor while a local artist emblazoned the letters A.T. on my left shoulder blade forming an arrow pointing north, the sigil of the Appalachian Trail. I had gone there to support a friend, but instead, a long-held but privately pondered goal was now shouting from my skin for all to see. Looking over my shoulder as the tattoo artist finished her work, I knew I had to make my dream a reality — or forever keep a shirt on.
It was easy to convince my younger brother join me. He was 19, I was 21, and we were both Division I college athletes who rarely turned down a physical challenge. As I stood among the mountain of food and gear in our parents’ living room and prepared our drop boxes, I thought to myself: We’re ready. What could go wrong?
May 17 – Day 3: “I thought yesterday’s foot trouble was bad… Today was a walk through hell. They say that it takes two weeks for the body to adjust to the miles, and I can’t wait to be at that point. We started out from our campsite, which was three miles past Neels Gap, and we had high spirits to reach the Cheese Factory. However, we soon discovered how devastated our bodies were. We made it 10.5 miles by lunch and my feet hurt more than anything. I honestly believe that it was one of the worst pains that I have ever experienced. We cut back on our plan and decided to stop at Blue Mt. Shelter, six miles short of our hopes, but on target with yesterday’s goal. The last two miles before the shelter were a death march. At the shelter Ethan just passed out for a half hour and I soaked my feet. Unfortunately a group of annoying middle schoolers arrived, and there were mice warnings everywhere. We decided, after a good foot soaking to head on.”
Along the way we experienced blisters, bears, bruises, rattlesnakes, coyotes, rain, stomach bugs and pure exhaustion. In Georgia our packs weighed in at 50 plus pounds; in Maine they weighed less than 30. Our bodies followed suit. Boots became trail shoes. Clean shaven boys became grizzled mountain men.
The effort that has gone into protecting this transformative trail is one of mammoth proportions. The Nature Conservancy, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and numerous other organizations have been pivotal in keeping this footpath wild and vibrant. Places like Moosehead Lake and the Delaware Water Gap belie the small towns and growing suburbs that abut this band of forest that runs nearly unbroken for more than 2,000 miles.
August 20 – Day 98: “It was cold this morning, cold last night too. When we climbed into our sleeping bags Ethan was acting like it was Christmas… This morning we were up at 6:10am and on the trail by 6:50am. I hiked the first four miles in my hat and fleece… Lunch was great at the beach and the next shelter had a sweet spring which was good because we ran out of Agua Mira three days ago. We made great time — only 38.2 miles to go. 33 miles tomorrow and then 5.2 up Khatadin. Hard to believe that we are so close. Time is slipping away from me… I’ve lost the time… I’ve lost the time.”
Most thru-hikers take months to complete the trail, section hikers take years. We hiked the trail in 99 days. I don’t believe you truly know yourself until you spend time in the great outdoors. On the A.T. we rediscovered ourselves and the nature around us. We developed a bond that can never be broken — a bond between brothers; a bond between man and nature. Whether it’s a picnic in a local park or a backpack trip into the wild, nature can energize your body, quiet your mind and renew your spirit. But you have to get far away from the city lights to see the stars.
Have you hiked the Appalachian Trail? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.
[Images courtesy of Ethan Kearns]