A Coming of Age, I Am a Thru-Hiker!

I think you can guess what this post will include. That’s right, I finished a SOBO thru-hike of the AT in 141 days. Starting at the top of Katahdin in Maine and making a continuous footpath all the way down to Springer Mountain in Georgia. This post will be text-heavy. I feel that I have a lot to say to summarize my hike. After all, this journey spanned nearly the last 5 months of my life. Before I jump into my last days on trail, I want to say a few things that I feel are important. This will get a bit personal and honestly it was written more to express my feelings than to create content for this blog. Either way, I think it helps to close out this chapter of my life.

First, I want to start this post off by recognizing how fortunate I am. I realize that not everyone is in a position that would make a thru-hike (or similar adventure) possible. It takes a lot of financial, life, and personal planning to make something of this magnitude possible. Having a home, family, or other things that depend on you only multiplies that difficulty. I was fortunate to have major flexibility in my life at the moment. With all that being said… there are people out on the trail who have a job, families, homes, pets, etc and they found a way to make it work. It would have been far easier for me to stay working at my job than it was to quit, leave home behind, and hike 2,200 miles. If you have a dream, then find a way to make it happen.

WHY?

I think the question that I have been asked the most about thru-hiking is WHY? Why spend months in the woods? Why leave yourself vulnerable to so many different things? Why leave your loved ones for so long? Why hike 15+ miles a day and eat a diet of sugar and carbs? The answer is different for everyone who thru-hikes. The reason for some isn’t strong enough to keep them on the trail. For others it is so strong that they would die before they quit.

For me, it was a coming of age. A distinct division of time that marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. If you read my first post, then you know that my initial interest of hiking the AT came from meeting a thru-hiker when I was 15. But this encounter didn’t give me enough reason to hike the trail, it only put the idea of hiking the trail into my head. I knew that at some point in my life there would come a time that felt right. That time was sooner than expected.

The day after graduating high school, I jumped in a car with two of my best friends and drove across the country. We traveled to National Parks and cities all over the US, exploring this amazing place for nearly a month. We made memories that I will remember until the day I die. It was a distinctive mark to the end of my “youth”. After that summer, I went off to college. I was majoring in Electrical Engineering at RIT.

I worked my ass off for 5 years, studying, working, and excelling in academics. I became a machine at learning information. I craved the feeling of acing an exam, being top of the class, and figuring out difficult problems. At the time, this seemed like the right thing to do. College is expensive, I wanted to get my money’s worth. It wasn’t until my final year that I realized my education came at a cost. I lost the adventurous side of myself. I would turn down a spontaneous event to study for an exam that I damn well knew I had already studied enough for. School came before nearly every other aspect of my life.

My final year got better. I found a great friend group and started relaxing my intense care for school. This did not eliminate the sharpness that I had developed. Starting conversations with a new person was difficult. What if that person thinks I am dumb? What if I say something incorrect or stupid? These thoughts lingered in my mind as I met new people, a development of the complex competitive nature of engineering. I’m not saying that competition is bad, but my obsession with “being the best” was unhealthy. All of my exams were questions with a correct concrete answer, but that is not true in life.

I had already accepted a job that would start after I finished school. I was genuinely excited to graduate and start applying my hard work to something else. My plan was to take a month off before beginning my career. This time off would include a three week long trip to Lofoten Norway with a few friends. We would hike, backpack, and hitchhike all across the island, which sits just above the Arctic circle. It was going to represent a spectacular finish and reward for my hard work. Unfortunately, this never happened.

The entire world when up in flames when COVID spread. My college abruptly moved to all online classes over spring break. No goodbyes to friends. At the time, I was actually excited to have online school and be home with Kara, my family, and hometown friends. Online school during this time was a joke. My college basically handed out degrees to everyone, even some who probably would have failed otherwise. I spent the next couple months at home, working less than I had in years. My instinct said that this would be over soon, as we all know… it wasn’t. My trip was canceled. My graduation was canceled. Closing out this chapter of my life just didn’t happen.

“Once I start my job then it will feel like a new chapter”, I thought. Unfortunately, my job was not the same. I worked from home and the world turned virtual. Networking felt forced. There was no small talk before meetings, they started promptly on the hour and ended promptly on the hour (well actually they normally went over, but you get what I mean). It wasn’t the experience that I dreamed it would be, but there was nothing I could do to change the state of panic in the world. I did my best to stay motivated and make the best of the virtual situation. Over time it got better and I adapted to the environment, but something just didn’t feel right.

After two years of working, I was in a bad mental state. There was no more pretending that starting a career in the virtual environment didn’t have consequences. This is no fault to my coworkers, we were all learning to adapt. Thankfully, I had enough connection with myself to realize that I had to make a serious change. It was time to push myself to do something out of my comfort zone and to close out a necessary chapter in my life. Luckily, I knew just where to look.

Hiking the AT may seem like a vacation (and it is), but it was far more than that for me. The trail will not cure all of your problems. It likely will not create some divine intervention moment. It won’t make you rich or help you quit any bad habits, but it will surely highlight what you value in your life. For me, that is clear now. I have no idea what my life will include, but I know that I have the courage to make it interesting and I know the people that I want to share my life with.

THANK YOU FOR THE SUPPORT!

If you have been following along from the beginning, then you know that I had a lot of support on this hike. I wrote a whole post about the “hidden support of a solo thru-hike” before I even took my first step. I want to start off this post by thanking everyone who supported me on this adventure. Support is a broad term, but if you are reading this, then you are part of the support. If you gave me trail magic, took me in for a night, offered kind words or advice, joined me for part of the hike, drove me to a store, gave me some money for food, or just even believed that I could do it… then this THANK YOU is for you. There are a few people and their specific impact on my hike that I want to shed light on.  This whole journey has included too much “I” and these people are the reason that I am even able to write this post.

First and foremost is my fiancé, Kara. Not only was she there for the beginning and end of the hike, she was there beside me the entire way. No seriously, I carried a picture of her from Katahdin to Springer. In reality, I could not have done this hike, physically or mentally, without her. I had many people tell me that they couldn’t believe my fiancé would let me do this. I would usually say, well that is the reason I am marrying her. A person who supports your dreams is not one that you want to let get away. Since I know she will read this… I love you! Thank you for fixing my injuries and picking up the phone on hard days.

I also want to thank my parents. It must be odd when your kid tells you that he is going to quit his job to go hike for months. Although surprised, my parents took the news better than I could have hoped. They offered support throughout my journey and I cannot thank them enough for that. Love you both!

Lastly, I want to specifically thank some of my amazing friends who offered more support than I could have ever asked for: Evan, Pat, Elliot, Ryan, Lee, Erik, Jake, Jim, Splash & Aaron. Some of you suffered through grueling miles with me, others offered me a place to stay, or surprised me with food. All of you gave me motivation to keep going. Thank you again, I couldn’t have done it without you.

Day 1.

 

A celebratory cheers at Springer! Day 141.

Day 139 (23.2 miles)

Fresh Grounds cooked us one final breakfast at the Around the Bend hostel. Fried bacon, sausage and potatoes. Plus some eggs and coffee. Gordon shuttled Ducky, Gravy and I back to Neels Gap. We set off to climb up Blood Mountain. I had heard about this mountain from the first time that I started meeting NOBO’s in Maine. It was steep enough to snap your legs in half. So long that no amount of stamina would get you up. Your brain will hemorrhage just trying to comprehend climbing up Blood Mountain. In reality, it wasn’t a very hard climb… but it is one of the first real climbs that NOBO’s hit. Therefore, it gets a stout reputation on the trial.

Just after beginning the climb, Gravy got poked in the nose by a thorn. It drew blood, which we thought was fitting for the mountain. I took off a bit ahead of them. I wanted to set a fast pace this day to beat some rain expected in the evening. I worked up a nice sweat climbing to the top of the mountain. The cloud cover was thick and there were no views. A section of rock slab marked the last steep climb before the top.

A small white blaze can be seen in the distance.

I did what I do best, follow the white blazes and put one foot in front of the other. Soon, I found myself at the hut on top of the mountain. It was a disgustingly dirty stone structure. The windows were open and the floor was covered in trash and debris. I wouldn’t stay there unless it was an absolute emergency.

Blood Mountain Shelter. 

I took off down the other side of the mountain. The weather was gloomy, but it meant I didn’t have to drink a ton of water throughout the day. This was the last full day of hiking for me and I wanted to push myself. I hiked without stopping until a nice young guy gave me a bag of Doritos and a sparkling water. I gulped down the drink and ate a few handfuls of chips. Then back to hiking the rest of the way to the shelter. It drizzled a bit throughout the afternoon, not enough to get my clothing soaked. I made it to the Hawk Mountain Shelter around 4 pm. There were a few friendly section hikers already there. One of them had a badly sprained ankle. I offered up some extra tape to help support it for the following day of hiking.

Later that evening, Ducky and Gravy showed up. The main storm hadn’t come yet and they were in good spirits. We all hung-out and had dinner together. It was a great relaxing night. The section hikers had a ton of questions for us, which we gladly answered. At one point they made a comment to the effect of “you are the experts”. I thought a lot about this that night and the following days. I had backpacked for the last 4.5 months. It is a lot more than some people and a lot less than others. I’m not sure it makes first time thru-hikers “experts”. The reality is that most thru-hikers use a limited set of gear and are hiking on familiar terrain, which generally makes their opinions a bit biased. Surely we had some good advice, but I do not consider myself an expert.

This also touches on a sensitive topic that I noticed a lot on my hike. Many thru-hikers look down on day and section hikers. It is as if they are superior because they had the time to thru-hike while the others didn’t. I have been in conversations where thru-hikers demean section hikers because they aren’t doing 20+ mile days. Then I come to find out that the same thru-hiker making negative comments started out their hike doing 8 mile days. I bring this up because most thru-hikers weren’t superior athletes before starting the trail. Hell, half the people I met barely backpacked or hiked before the trail. My roots are in day hiking and weekend backpacking trips. The notion that thru-hikers are somehow more elite, more special, more deserving, more anything than any other hiker angers me beyond a measurable level. At the core, we are all just hikers.

Hawk Mountain Shelter: T1, S3, P4, W2, B3

Total Score: 72

Day 140 (5.2 miles)

One of the hikers, Clark, scared the crap out of me in the middle of the night. He yelled because a mouse ran over his head and woke him up abruptly. I then woke up confused and thought something might be wrong with him. I didn’t sleep too well after that due to the adrenaline. Luckily, that day I only had to hike 5 super easy miles. The rain was coming down hard throughout the night and morning. We had decided that we were going to wait out the rain and hike later that day. It was a day full of hot coffee and relaxing.

The two other hikers, Savannah and AJ, told us that they saw a whole group of Army Rangers walk through the camp in the middle of the night. They do training in this area and we had heard machine gun fire the previous day. After sitting in the shelter for a few hours, the Rangers appeared again. They didn’t seem to be enjoying the chilly rain and 60+ lb. ruck sacks.

A few Rangers rucking in the rain.

The rain stopped shortly after 3 pm. We packed up and began down the marshy trail. I sped up and walked alone to the next shelter. It was nice to have some time to think. Tears were shed as I thought through the last few months on the trail. The end of the trail was just a few miles away. There was a beautiful waterfall a couple miles into the couple mile day, I stopped and enjoyed the last falls on the trial.

Just look at that falling water.

I got to the Stover Creek Shelter around dinner. The 16 person double decker shelter was empty. I began setting up my sleep system for one final time. Ducky and Gravy weren’t far behind. We had one last trail dinner. For me it was spam, ramen and mash potatoes… a classic cheap and calorically dense meal. We had less than 3 miles to Springer, yet I was nervous. I felt like I was beginning the trail the next day, only I was doing the exact opposite. I imagined a massive sense of relief once I got to the end. In reality, I had already reached the finish. Springer was nothing more than a sign. The challenge was over and the reason I was out there was accomplished. Reaching Springer was the equivalent to a graduation ceremony at that point.

Stover Creek Shelter: T1, S3, P1, W2, B3

Total Score: 18

Day 141 (2.8 miles)

I couldn’t sleep past 4 am. A mouse was crawling all over my gear and woke me up. I shined my light on it and it ran into my down jacket. I had to shake it until it decided to exit and run to the wall. Not an atypical night on the trail! It was just another normal morning, which starts with coffee. I was hiking well before the sun rose, expecting to meet Kara, my parents, and Evan at the Springer Mountain Parking lot around 6:30 am. It was a mere 2 miles from where I slept the night before.

I spent the 2 miles thinking through the entire journey. It was 45 minutes of reliving 4.5 months on trail, starting with my nervous first day and ending in complete confidence. It was an amazing mental and emotional experience. I timed it just perfectly to reach the lot as I was finishing the timeline. Then I could run to the car and give some hugs. Unfortunately, I got to the lot at 6:15 am. No family to be seen… maybe they were running late. I waited for a while and began getting concerned. I finally checked to see if I had cell service since I didn’t have any the previous night, just one bar. Soon after, my dad called asking where I was. “In the lot” I said. Somehow the address I gave them was “slightly” off. They had to then drive another hour on back roads to get to me. Not ideal since they had already driven 12 hours overnight.

They got to the lot at 8 am, then the hugs were shared! We began the last mile of the AT. It was a weird feeling. The adrenaline of the morning had worn thin. I was now just on an easy hike with my family. When we arrived at the top, I touched the sign. I stared at it for a few seconds. It was exactly how I imagined. A sign on a rock in the middle of nowhere. It was over and I was a thru-hiker! Relieved and elated, pictures of every format soon followed. Then some champagne.

Kara, Evan & No Kiddin.

 

Parental Units.

 

Gluttony.

After some celebrating, we headed back to the car and drove another few hours to Asheville, NC. We explored a few local breweries and ate some Southern food. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew to celebrate with!

I need a haircut.

Sooo that is it. That’s how my hike ended. It is hard to explain how I felt, but I think the feeling is best described as being proud of myself. I can’t think of many moments in my life that I was truly proud of my accomplishments. I find it hard to pat myself on the back for things that many others have achieved, but this was different. My hike was not to impress anyone. It wasn’t because someone told me to do it. I hiked for myself and I’m proud of it. All the bad days were worth it. All the good days made it even better. I am now a thru-hiker.

Thank you all for reading this final installment of my hike. I hope you enjoyed the stories and pictures from along the way. I want to thank you again for your support! If you would like to continue to support me then there are a few things you can do:

  1. Follow me on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wanderingdruewest/
  2. Visit my personal website (I’ll be posting here from now on): https://www.wanderingdruewest.com/
  3. Purchase a canvas of a picture from my hike: https://wanderingdruewest.darkroom.tech/

In case you are wondering… I am returning back to my job as an engineer. I got rehired by the same company that I worked for before the trail. I am excited and feel motivated to get back into some more mentally challenging problems! I’m not planning to hike the PCT next year like many people who finish the AT. For now, I plan on spending time with the people who I love. I’m determined to not lose my adventurous side. The AT has given me the courage and confidence to make my life memorable and interesting. Until whatever comes next in life, remember to keep wandering in your own direction!

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Comments 7

  • Steve P : Nov 24th

    Congratulations, Drew!

    Reply
  • Roger Williamson : Nov 24th

    You did it! Congratulations. Burn one down and get ready to face the world. I loved the writing and the ‘Stern Looks’. Thank you and good luck in the Real world.

    Reply
  • Dana : Nov 24th

    Well done!! So proud of you and happy that your dream came true. You are inspiring. Very insightful post. Love you!

    Reply
  • Jim Smith : Nov 24th

    Congratulations! Well done. Enjoyed following your posts. See ya soon.

    Reply
  • David Odell : Nov 24th

    Congratulations on finishing your AT hike. Enjoyed your excellent journal. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

    Reply
  • Bluewhale : Nov 26th

    Congratulations! I enjoyed following you the entire trek. Hold onto the peace as long as you can now that you’re back.

    Reply
  • Pinball : Nov 27th

    Congrats Drew!
    Your posts will be missed. You’ll do great engineering stuffs no doubt. As a section hiker who’s only just gotten started tapping away at the trail- Thanks for the shoutout/nod to section/day/etc hikers.

    Reply

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