Why They Walked: Portraits of 2019 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers
It’s been 12 years since I started collecting stories and portraits of northbound thru-hikers as they trek through their final state, Maine. Every year I am astounded by the hikers I come across and their powerful stories. By the time these hikers reach me, they have less than 200 miles to go. They’ve hiked 2,000 miles from Georgia. I hope you can find as much inspiration as I do from each of these incredible humans.
“Six years ago tomorrow my 22-year-old son was murdered. I went through five years of multiple murder trials. When that was over I had held together my family, my friends, my career, but I realized that some of the PTSD that I suffered from was manifesting itself a little bit differently over the last couple years, and I really needed to shake the Etch A Sketch and get away and clear my head a little bit. When I was younger I had done some mountain climbing and rock climbing and I’d heard about the Appalachian Trail, but didn’t really know what it was. But I learned and I thought to myself, holy cow, this is what I want. I kept trying to simplify and simplify my life to manage some of the anxiety and stress and I just thought the trail is the way to really do that. I left a six-figure career that nobody walks away from, and I just walked away. I have a family back home, I have friends that go back 40 years that I had to walk away from to go and do this. I walked away from Springer Mountain with absolute love in my heart and it has only gotten deeper. I have found more love for these folks (he points to the small group of hikers surrounding us as I interview him) I’m hiking with than they’ll ever realize. I wouldn’t still be out here if it wasn’t for them. I’m not a hiker, I don’t identify as a hiker. Someone asks what I do and I say, “I’m a golfer, I lift weights.” But the Appalachian Trail represents the next thing I was going to do. I won’t identify as an AT hiker, I will leverage this into the next thing. The next thing I do I’m going to be 60 years old. I have friends that have quit and given up and hopefully I can inspire them to push their minds and their bodies and believe in themselves and just not give up, because so many people have. I don’t identify as someone solely has lost a son. I identify as someone trying to live God’s promise of the most amazing life imaginable. And to do that you have to be strong enough, you have to be brave enough to stand. You have to be strong enough and brave enough just to take a breath. That’s who I am.”
“When I first heard about the Appalachian Trail I was in Australia in the middle of the Outback working in an aboriginal community. I’d been out there for about a year and I was starting to get itchy feet, I needed a new adventure. I was on Reddit one day and I came across some book a dude had written about hiking the trail. I read it, and I thought that was the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. I decided that I was going to do it one day. So I just bought a plane ticket and booked my visa and thought, shit, I actually have to do it now. Hiking this trail has been the easiest and hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. The people here have been incredible. I’ve encountered the weirdest, and nicest, best people I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve seen the most beautiful things. The sunsets and the mountains and the lakes and the trees and the animals have all been stunning. It has also been so challenging, I’ve been pushed to my limits. I feel like I’ve learned about myself so much. As a New Zealander I try not to have too many preconceptions about coming to America. I think the trail has given me a really beneficial perspective looking at the States as a foreigner. I’ve been to places where no tourist would ever go, walking through these tiny towns and meeting really odd local people who are so different from me… I’ve learned something from all of them. Like here in the middle of Maine… Who the hell comes out here? Where am I? I’ve just been so welcomed and everyone is so interested to hear what we’re doing and so supportive… you’re here giving out drinks and food, the trailhead I was at yesterday there were people set up giving hikers food. They were on their holiday and one of the guys had hiked the trail so they go out every year and do trail magic for people. I encounter that everywhere. It’s so beautiful.”
“I just graduated college and I’ve wanted to do this for a while, mainly because of the challenge. I heard about it in sophomore year high school in West Virginia, I went to college at the University of Tennessee. I wasn’t planning on hiking the trail this year but plans fell through and I thought to myself that I’m gonna go ahead and do it. There can be a lot of negativity around college and I just kinda wanted to get out into nature and around positive people and good experiences. Everyone is so incredibly nice, there are very few people I try to avoid on the trail. Trail magic just blows my mind. I had no idea people come out to the trail and offer free food and a warm place to stay, so that was eye opening, the trail is such a great community. In terms of the challenge, this trail is much harder mentally and physically than I thought it would be.”
“I started thinking about the Appalachian Trail back in high school. I grew up in North Carolina, I had a lot of hiking experience out there. I graduated from college last December with my associates in mechanical engineering. I didn’t have anything else going on at the time so I said to myself that this was the time to do the trail and then I’ll come back and start my career and life. I’ve grown so much over these past few months and these many many miles. I’ve learned that I’ve got what it takes, that if there is something I want to do I gotta go out and do it, and that more often than not I will succeed. It just takes the commitment to take the shot, because you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take. Hopefully I’ll be able to go to Colorado after this and get a degree in environmental engineering to be able to design some backcountry huts and greenhouses.”
“When my husband (“Spruce Lee”) and I got married two years ago, we knew that making our dreams come true was what we wanted to focus on. I was already in the middle of my dream, which was to graduate college with a degree. He had a horrible job that he hated just so I could get through college without having to pay loans. I graduated, walking across that stage with my diploma was so fun. Then it was his turn, and he chose to hike the Appalachian Trail. So yeah, he’s the reason I’m here. He’s the reason I’m STILL here. Without him I would have quit a long time ago. I don’t know how people do this trail solo. People ask us all the time how we hike as a couple, man, we’ve had a blast!”
“I’ve wanted to hike the trail for a few years now, like Shiitake said, we wanted to make each other’s dreams come true and this was mine. I spent a lot of time as a kid just walking around through the woods. I heard about the trail and thought it was almost an impossible feat to walk from Georgia to Maine. The more research I did the more interested I became. So we pulled the trigger. At first it was hard to get Shiitake on board. I was going to do it solo, then I was going to do it in sections because she didn’t want me gone for six months, we were trying to find a compromise, and finally she said, ‘Why don’t I just do it with you?’ There have definitely been struggles. People ask do we leave each other behind? Do we get tired of each other? Do you hike together all the time? For the most part we’ve been within earshot of each other for the last 2,000 miles. It’s been nice spending time together doing something different instead of going to work, doing chores, and sitting on the couch every day. It’s very interesting. It’s a different dynamic. It’s brought another dimension into our relationship in terms of trust and different ways to enjoy each other’s company.”
“I’m from Pearisburg, Virginia, which is a trail town, I’ve been around hikers pretty much my whole life. I never really thought I’d be one. I hated hiking in the Army, I hated running in the Army, I hated exercising in the Army. I got out, had a career, got to retire at 38. In 2017 I met a thru-hiker coming through town and we fell into a relationship. We took off to New Zealand and Australia for six months, where I really got into hiking. Six months of being together nonstop screwed the relationship up. I came home and was extremely depressed, so I decided to take off for Damascus, Virginia, and hike back to Pearisburg to sort of find myself. I did a lot of thinking out there and got to Angel’s Rest and got out on the cliff and stood there and said my piece with God. I said, ‘Something’s gotta give. Either take this depression away or I’m going over the edge.’ Between the trail and God my depression was lifted away and I walked away from the cliff in tears, I felt 100% better. I decided right then and there that I would hike the whole trail from Georgia to Maine.”
“Just out of college, over 25 years ago, I hiked a little section of the Whites near Zealand Hut. I was feeling pretty badass, doing 10 miles that day or something. I came across this guy and asked how far he had come and he said to me he had come from Georgia. I was like, ‘Huh? What?’ At that point I knew nothing about the Appalachian Trail. I sat and talked with him for an hour and I was completely inspired. So I took a picture with him. I was 21 or 22, I’m 49 now. Ever since then I’ve just been obsessed with the trail. I’ve read as much as I could about it, kept up with gear. I never knew who that gentleman was, but I’m carrying the picture with me to Katahdin. Every year I kept saying ‘not this year not this year’ and finally last September I left my job and sold my house, sold everything, and said to myself that I’m doing it before I’m 50 and here I am.”
“I’m originally from St Louis. Prior to the trail I moved to Florida with my wife. I’m a nurse anesthetist who started working park time and filling in holes for people, so it was real easy for me to not take a contract and come out and hike the trail. About a year ago my wife looked at me and asked if I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. That’s kinda why I’m out here. On day two she fell and banged up her knee and by day six she was off the trail. It was my birthday. She wished me a happy birthday and said to me, ‘Go finish the trail.’ So here I am. She decided to take an epic road trip this summer, she hasn’t been home in about two-and-a-half months. She’s had her own adventure. We’re trying to figure out how to get her to Katahdin or Millinocket to meet me at the end. She’ll be my ride home.”
“I’m actually in grad school right now, so my school has a rolling term and I can come back in whenever I want. I’m almost done. I graduate soon, so I wanted to do something fun with my savings before I become an adult again. I attempted the trail last year starting in Maine, but I only made it 20 miles before I got injured. I’m talking to you this 2,000 miles into this journey from Georgia. It’s a pretty amazing feeling. Every 100 miles I tell myself, OK, I’ve made it that much farther. I think because I started out earlier and I had such a determination to finish, it definitely helped me. Early on I really made sure I was listening to my body and stopping when I needed to, made sure I wasn’t being pushed by others. So yeah, being at 2.000 miles hasn’t even hit me yet… It’s crazy.”
“In 2016 I graduated college and I was a very very intense student, an overachiever, very anxious all the time. For some reason sometime during college I got it in my head that I wanted to hike the Long Trail after I graduated. So I did. The first climb felt like the hardest thing I have ever done. I got to the top and I felt more accomplishment and more proud of myself than I ever had in all those years at college of working hard and feeling super anxious and putting all of my self worth into the number I would get as a grade. That first day I just felt so much better than I did at any point in college. I decided I need to come back and hike the whole Appalachian Trail. I had never worked so hard and felt so good before. It didn’t make sense to keep living a life that was making me so anxious and unhappy. So I hiked the Colorado Trail in 2017 and I’ve just been saving and working up to the Appalachian Trail and I’ve never been happier or less stressed. I did have a ‘real’ job after college but after hiking the Colorado Trail I realized how unhappy and stressed an office job made me. So I left that job, broke up with my boyfriend, left my apartment mid-lease, and moved into my Prius. I work at ski areas in the winter and campgrounds and stuff like that in the summer. I hope to keep traveling around. I’d like to go to a new place every season.”
“During college at University of Oklahoma I really started flirting with the idea of hiking certain trails that were long. First I started with trails that were near my home, 200 miles, 300 miles, and I thought to myself, man, that would be really cool I could knock one of these out and it would be a big accomplishment. The more I looked into it and as I progressed through college I had sort of a sub goal which was to graduate debt free. Lots of people don’t have that; they get out off college and get stuck in a job they don’t like because they have to pay off their loans, or they’re working up the corporate ladder, and I just didn’t really want to do that. So I worked my tail off and I realized I had this surplus and by my junior year I had this surplus, and I thought to myself, what am I going to do with this money? I could be responsible and save it, but the more I looked into it the more I wanted to do the Appalachian Trail. Senior year I had all my ducks in a row and I graduated and then I did a year of teaching and then I realized I had enough, I felt comfortable leaving certain things behind and doing something larger than life. It was really about how much of a challenge it would be. The challenge of doing something way bigger than yourself and not knowing how it’s going to turn out. And now I’m in Maine! It’s kind of a pinch me moment. I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe it’s coming to an end.”
“I got my trail name in 2016 when I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with my 9-year-old son. His trail name was ‘Boone.’ I’m out here on the AT because I needed something to do this summer. I needed something for my son to do that wasn’t in our neighborhood. So my husband said, this is a good year to hike the AT, you should do it. I’ll take care of our son until school’s out, and then I’ll bring him to you. So my son hiked 550 miles with me this summer, and I’m finishing up the last little bit.”
“I started hiking the AT because I was between jobs. I knew I was going to do it for a while. Life is short and I figured I’d do it while I was young. I hadn’t really done anything grand in my life. It just seemed like a good thing to do, to get my head straight, to figure out what to do. I think the trail has given me that. The biggest thing that has changed for me out here is I’ve realized how little you really need. I’m going to be living in my vehicle for the next year or two. It just seems like the way to live. Save up the cash and figure it out from there.”
“I’ve been wanting to do the trail for probably 10ish years. I’m not exactly sure how I found out about it. I think I read about it online? It was always in the back of my mind, you know, thinking someday I hope I can do this. I’m from Minnesota and I’ve done most of the Superior Hiking trail in sections. So I had most of the gear. I was working three jobs and saving a bunch of money and not really sure what I was saving it for. My boyfriend and I built out a van and lived in it for five or six months before I started hiking the trail. Van life and trail life kinda go hand in hand. You really have to downsize. I had just turned 30 and I didn’t want to be in a Minnesota winter anymore. So we traveled down to Arizona then headed east. Then my boyfriend dropped me off at the start point of the Appalachian Trail. I don’t really know what comes next. I need money. I’ve been watching my bank account dwindle. We love van life so much, I’ll probably just try to work three jobs again and save up a bunch of money and rinse and repeat. I love the lifestyle, I’ve met so many friends on the trail and there are so many people around the trail that want to help you and see you succeed, and I just think that’s fantastic.”
“I’m from Roanoke, Virginia, so I grew up pretty much on the Appalachian Trail. I was used to it and I knew about it from an early age. In high school I would pick up the thru-hikers hitchhiking to the grocery store in town. I was just kinda mesmerized by these people coming out of the woods covered in dirt. I went on a backpacking trip in the Grayson Highlands when I was a senior in high school and that’s when I really decided that I’m going to hike the whole thing. I went to college, graduated, got a job as an archeologist… I’ve been outside, I’ve never worked indoors. I got a good project where I made quite a bit of money and I was financially able to hike the trail. I told myself that I can do it now or I can wait until I’m 70 and struggle to do it. So I left everything behind and went out on the trail. This has definitely been the most fulfilling and enjoyable time in my entire life.”
“I came to the Appalachian Trail with that unusual name because for the last six years in Scottsdale, Arizona, at Christmastime I dress up as Santa and hike up a popular mountain called Camelback to hand out thousands of candy canes. I’m honestly a local celebrity; it’s my stupid claim to fame in life. I’ve lost 28 pounds while hiking the trail so looking like Santa is going to be more difficult this year. I’ve been hiking now for just shy of five months. I just retired last year after ten years of self-employment. I realized that life is short and wanted to check off one of the items on my bucket list. I told myself when I started that I wasn’t going to quit. I knew there would be some miserable days ahead. Luckily only minor injuries and a little camping in the rain. It’s been the best experience of my life. So many strangers have helped me along the way. I’ve met so many great friends and so many positive people who believe in themselves and are going after a big goal in life. It’s not a surprise to me that only 19% of people that started out last year in Georgia made it to Katahdin. I can see why. My feet hurt. Right now I only have seven toenails. But I am sticking with it.
“The first time I heard about the trail was in high school; two buddies wanted me to come along and hike a short section of the trail. I probably had a 50-pound pack. Even though it was kind of hard, my mind was kind of blown when I learned it was 2,200 miles. After that I continued to hike more and more throughout my life. I kinda realized in college that I really like being outside. Whenever you hike you have time to think. It gets rid of anxious and depressive tendencies. I did mechanical engineering at school and after class if I was stressed out or something I’d go walk in the woods and it would help out. Fast forward a couple of years and I was an engineer at Nissan. It was a really stressful job and it didn’t feel right. So in 2018 I decided I was going to hike in 2019. I did all this planning. I was excited to learn to live on less. As you make more and more money you get more and more stuff. The idea of living out of a backpack and having just the bare necessities and being able to focus on the moment was a big thing for me.”
“I’m actually here because I’m a mental health therapist and I believe in the beauty of suffering and I felt that I wanted to apply all the things that I teach in therapy to myself in the most uncomfortable situation that I could find and it happened to be the Appalachian Trail. I found out about it two years ago. I was talking to a good friend and feeling run-down with seeing so many clients and he told me I needed to go for a long walk. He recommended the AT and I was like, “What’s that?” I looked it up and thought, OK, I think I can go for a long walk and suffer. There has also been joy! But right now I’m suffering because I’m sick and hiking up mountains sucks when you’re sick. I’m anxious and nostalgic because I’m getting so close to the end!”
“When I grew up my mom was a big hiker, and hiking was something that was really cool and important and I loved to be able to go and do it when I had a few opportunities. In college there was a backpacking trip that I chose to go on for spring break. I wasn’t drinking so I thought it would be cool to go hang out in the woods for a week with a bunch of strangers. It was right when the bubble of thru-hikers was going through so I was kinda thrown into this world of crazy, wacky people doing the whole trail. I was so star struck. The last night we were sitting around a campfire and a hiker passed out little Appalachian Trail medallions. It was like an invitation to come back and do the whole thing. I did two more weeklong section hikes and when I graduated I decided this is the time I wanted to do it. I majored in biocognition psychology and neuroscience and I did my thesis about dementia and growing old. Being out here and seeing such a wide range of ages and seeing people still engaged kinda tied back to what I studied and how people age successfully. That gave me a lot of hope that when I’m 60 or 70 that I can still be out here doing the things that I love, and it also gave me perspective to know what I want to see happen to my life after the trail.”
“I know about the trail because it pretty much goes through my backyard in New York. So I’ve seen a bunch of smelly homeless hikers walking around my whole life. I always thought that was kind of interesting. Then I had a college geology professor who had hiked the whole thing, and he always talked about it and it got me juiced up on the whole idea of the trail. Two years later I dropped out of college and I was bumming around with odd jobs, not feeling fulfilled as you can imagine. So I decided to go full send and hike the trail. And here I am 2,000 miles later. Actually making the decision to hike was the hard part; hiking the trail has been easy, easily the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my life up to this point. The trail has definitely given me confidence that I can find work anywhere when I’m done. I ran out of money a couple times and I worked some labor jobs that were pretty easy to find. It makes me realize that I can go anywhere in the world and find something to do.”
“The reason I came out here was a pretty impulsive one. I decided about three months ago that I was going to do this. I was going through a breakup and I thought that I would hike the Appalachian Trail to try to figure out who I am without this person. I also didn’t know what I was doing with my life, which was another big factor. I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do. But a lot of the older people I’ve met on the trail have no idea what they’re doing with their lives so it’s nice to know that no one knows.”
“I wanted to come out here to prove to myself that I could do something physically and mentally like this. I’m from Maine, so I’m familiar with the trail, I’ve always wanted to do it. I love how beautiful I feel out here and how beautiful everyone else is. I love the genuine connection I’ve made with people out here.”
“The Lazy Ranger”
“I started hiking the trail on March 27th. I got burnt out on my career last fall and walked away from an 18-year career in IT. I’m from Seattle. I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I told myself I’d take at least six months off. I worked on some photography, I worked on some writing, I actually wrote a novel during the month of November. I kinda started looking for a job but didn’t see anything that jumped out to me. I have a tradition every spring when I want to go backpacking that I start looking at trip reports and videos online, and that brought me to the AT. I thought to myself that that looks really hard but also really fun, I wish I could do that. My girlfriend at the time said to me, “You can do that!” So I got my gear together and two weeks later I was on a plane. I have to go back now and find a job, but I want to take what I’ve learned about myself out here and apply it to my future. I don’t want to get stuck in a job where I get burned out. I want to get out in nature more. I’ve backpacked before but I haven’t really taken a month off to go explore. I want to go to other countries.”
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