Origin Story

Shadow of a lone hiker at Snow Mesa on the Colorado Trail

Snow Mesa, on the Colorado Trail

Zach Davis often asks guests on his Backpacker Radio Podcast: “What’s your origin story?” I like that: it puts thru-hikers in league with superheroes like Black Panther, Iron Man, and Captain America. As for me, I’m of Scandinavian heritage like Thor – I even have a cousin by that name.

(My physique is even similar to Thor’s … at the start of “Avengers: Endgame,” that is.)

My story leading to my hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2023 is fairly typical of the older demographic on the trail. As a kid, I camped and hiked with my parents and as a scout. Then came college and a desk job. For many years I did no hiking at all.

But I did have one major happy detour along the way. It changed the rest of my life.

My own walk across America

Rolf Asphaug stands with his backpack looking out at Mono Lake, California

Hiking in 1987, near Mono Lake in California

In 1987, after four years of working in a large city I had no connection to whatsoever, I happened to pick up a book: “A Walk Across America,” by Peter Jenkins. Jenkins was a young man despairing of early 1970s life in his small town. He was planning to leave the U.S. altogether but an old man told him to “give this country a chance.” Then and there, Jenkins resolved to walk across America, to find out what it was really about. Five thousand miles and thirty-five pairs of shoes later, he succeeded: “I started out searching for myself and my country and found both.”

Jenkins’ story resonated with me: like him, I was in my 20s, with no roots (I was single, and the rest of my family had emigrated back to Norway), and living in a place that had no great appeal to me. I wanted to get away and see other places in America. Jenkins’ book lit a fire in me, and I began training, collecting backpacking gear, and plotting my own long-distance adventure.

Having no recent experience in trail hiking, I used a Rand McNally road atlas to plot a meandering route from southern Arizona to the state of Washington, planning to walk mainly on roads. I quit my job and started backpacking with a 6 pound backpack, a 7 pound sleeping bag, an 8 pound tent, books, a chair, several complete sets of clothes, and many, many stuff sacks.

I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing: a cop once pulled over next to me and warned me I’d be killed, and in the Sierras I nearly fractured my skull trying to hang a bear bag. (I’ll save that story for a future blog post.) But about 2500 miles and six months later I somehow made it to Portland, Oregon after a journey that left me mentally refreshed, clearer of purpose, and with a deep love for this diverse, crazy and astonishingly beautiful country of ours.

Thru-hiking leads to Colorado

Rolf Asphaug smiling while hiking the Colorado Trail in 2021

Tired but happy on the Colorado Trail. (Photo: Sean Mallari)

After all that I went back to a desk job, which I worked at for another 30 years, but now for a cause I loved and in a place to which I felt a real connection: Colorado. I met my wife and most of my friends through hiking, and I’ve done countless day and weekend hikes mainly in the Rockies. Yet throughout my working life I remembered how exhilarated I’d felt simply putting one foot in front of the other and sleeping outdoors for weeks on end, slowly experiencing nature, people, strangeness, challenges and beauty on the trail. I held a dream to do more long-distance hiking.

Now, having retired and with our kids in college, I’m now finally in a position to make my dreams come true. In 2021 I thru-hiked the 486-mile Colorado Trail and earlier this summer I hiked the 160-mile Collegiate Loop. I loved both of these treks, and I wanted more.

And now: the Appalachian Trail

Earlier this fall, my wife and I took a long road trip through New England, North Carolina, and Tennessee, and our route crossed the Appalachian Trail several times. I’d always had the AT in the back of my mind, but seeing it up close made me resolve to hike it.

So now I’m getting ready to start hiking north from Springer Mountain next year. I wish I could hike the entire trail in one go, but home life probably won’t make that possible. But I hope to do a LASH (Long Ass Section Hike) and finish a substantial portion of the trail, so that I can complete additional parts over the next couple of years.

I’m training for the AT by hitting the gym, and by hiking local trails through my volunteer work as a park patroller. I’ll do some more pre-hike blogs on training, gear, food and other hike prep, but for now I’ll just leave you with how my dad responded when I told him I was chucking my high-paying but unfulfilling job to walk across America:

Go for it. You only live once.

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Comments 3

  • Randy Clark : Feb 2nd

    Thinking next year (I will be 66) of trying the AT. Could you share what type of pack? My pack is the GG Gorilla. What type of bear bag/can would you suggest? I have always used a Ursak. I have always carried a umbrella, had a smartass kid ask “why are you carrying a umbrella”? I said “It might rain”! I was in 3 storms on the Superior Hiking Trail.
    Enjoying your writing.

    • Rolf Asphaug : Feb 2nd

      Hi Randy! Go for it! I’ll be 66 this summer and plan to hike the John Muir Trail (or, if for some reason that falls through, to hike a couple hundred miles on the non-CT-contiguous CDT within Colorado).

      I just read an article ranking the Gorilla highly, It has been Zach Davis’s go-to pack for years, so I don’t think you can go wrong with that. I can’t get my nylon Granite Gear Crown to die, and I don’t think another nylon pack like the Gorilla or Mariposa is for me. The only downside to nylon that I have experienced is that it retains water When wet, so I personally prefer having an exterior rain cover as well as an interior nylofume bag. I’d like to eventually get a waterproof – or at least seriously water-shedding – Ultra pack. I tried the Durston Kakwa 55, but it just didn’t work for me although it’s an awesomely designed pack. I was given a frameless Volpi UL40 by the company’s owner, Matteo Volpi, who stayed with my family before hiking the Collegiate Loop. I’m going to try it out some more before the JMT but I’m concerned that I won’t be able to dial down my gear enough to fit it – Especially since the GMT requires a bear canister. It’s a fine ultralight pack though.

      On the BMT, my companions and I used bear bags, while I used an Opsack on the Colorado Trail and the Collegiate Loop. We found that the deciduous trees in the southeast US made it relatively easy to hang bear bags, but we did have some amusing mishaps. I think if I had to do it over again – I’d love to hike the Long Trail and section hike the AT – I might use an Opsack simply because it’s so much easier to set up, but I also think it’s imperative to have a totally smellproof inner lining to keep bears from pulverizing your food, even if they can’t rip the Opsack off the tree.

      I hope you have a fantastic adventure! Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of any help!

    • Rolf Asphaug : Feb 2nd

      I totally forgot to comment on the umbrella. I loved my umbrella in the southeastern US, as did my two companions. It rained and misted so often, and I loved being able to hike under an umbrella but in short sleeves so that I didn’t sweat too much. With the Gossamer Gear attachment gizmo clipping it to my pack, I was able to use two trekking poles (ans long ans it wasn’t super-windy) and was also able to take photos and check directions without my smartphone getting wet. It just felt so great not having water streaming down my face. I’m definitely taking along an umbrella on all my future long distance hikes. (And the SHT is on my bucket list as well!) Thanks for commenting, Randy!


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