Why They Walked: Portraits of Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers
I started photographing Appalachian Trail thru-hikers in my home state of Maine eleven years ago. As a professional photographer with a degree in photojournalism, I was curious to learn the stories of these people I so often saw along the back roads and woods of my home state of Maine. What would make a person want to hike for six months along the spine of the Appalachians? Were they seeking anything from their experience, and if so, what? Over the years I’ve sat along the side of the trail and around campfires talking to and photographing hundreds of hikers. Some stories surprised me with their complexity, others had simple reasons for being in the woods. Some didn’t have any reason at all, or if they did they decided to keep it to themselves. All agreed that they had made friends for life with the people they shared the trail with. What follows are a collection of images and stories from this year’s batch of thru hikers, the class of 2017.
The men and women in these portraits are walking the one of the nation’s longest marked footpaths, running roughly 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail touches 14 states, several national parks, eight national forests, 24 wilderness areas and climbs a total of 515,000 feet from beginning to end. All of these images were taken on the trail in Maine, therefore these hikers have walked roughly 2000 miles to get to the point where they are standing. These are the people who haven’t quit, haven’t run out of money or motivation, haven’t been injured or haven’t been sick. They have eaten and slept on shelter floors together, walked through rain, snow, sun, and wind together. The people in these portraits share a bond, a brotherhood, a sisterhood and a friendship that few others in the world experience.
The hikers in these images have endured the Smokies, the Shenandoah’s, the rocks of Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains. Only the vast wilderness of Maine’s north woods stands between them and their goal—Mount Katahdin, that towering pinnacle that looms like a beacon to every northbound thru-hiker. For some the journey can’t end soon enough, while others enjoy every step along the way.
Maybe when the time is right, you will be motivated to explore the trail yourself, if you haven’t already. Maybe it is after you retire, maybe the time is now. Whatever the time, prepare to be touched by the trail forever.
To view more of this series, visit www.cbennettphoto.com
Natalie “Wild” Belongie
Natalie is a boom operator on an Airforce KC-135 tanker. Yup, she’s the one that controls the refuling arm at 30,000 feet between two multimillion dollar jets. Deployments have taken her to Qatar, Kurdistan, Turkey, Spain, Japan, Guam, England, Germany, Albania and Saint Croix. Natalie was in a weird place with her job a couple of years ago. She didn’t feel like the same happy person she used to be. After talking to a friend who’s girlfriend hiked the trail and hearing how eye opening the experience was for her and how much she learned about herself, Natalie thought it would be an awesome idea to hike the A.T. too. She talked to her boss about getting a little reboot on life by hiking the trail and he agreed to give her the leave of absence. When the trail is done she heads right back out on a two month deployment.
Jeff “Atlas” Ferguson Jr.
Atlas didn’t even know about the Appalachian Trail until a month before he started hiking it. A buddy of his wanted to do it and Atlas agreed to tag along. The two of them started the last day of April in the pouring rain. Jeff’s hiking companion bailed after one night, “this isn’t for me” he said to Jeff. Atlas continued on, even with his 110lbs pack which led to his trail name, a reference to the character in Greek mythology. Atlas said he didn’t mind the weight, he is a former Marine and is used to carrying a pack. It’s worth noting that his pack weight is now down to 60lbs, still twice what most thru-hikers carry. “Appalachian Trail hikers are the tightest community I’ve come across since leaving the Marines” Atlas says. “You can leave your wallet out and no one will touch them. Everyone has your back.”
Gary “Cornchip” Germany
“I heard about the trail when I was a Boy Scout. I always thought about the trail but life happened and I never did it. I got divorced and then decided to retire early just so I could hike the trail. I’ve learned to take life as it comes, that everything doesn’t have to be perfect. I’m a volunteer fire fighter back home and when I get off the trail I plan to go to paramedic school. When I got through the white mountains I was pretty beat up, I thought I had seen everything I wanted to see and I thought I was ready to get off the trail, but Maine really rejuvenated me and all of a sudden I don’t want it to be over!”
Sleeve received support from his wife last year and set out on the trail this spring. He helped maintain parts of the Pacific Crest Trail and became interested in the A.T. ten years ago. Sleeve had sailed to Maine before, up to Acadia and around Stonington, but this is his first time in the mountains of the pine tree state. He loves it so much he may stay a week once he finishes on Katahdin.
“Hot Pants” (left) and “Home Ec”
These two have been together for six years. They quit a job in Taiwan to hike the trail. Their fellow hikers say they’ve never seen people smile as much as Hot Pants and Home-Ec. Both have enjoyed the New England part of the trail so far. They say it has felt the most wild and remote of the whole journey.
Appalachian Trail thru-hiker “Towlie” “I started hiking from Georgia. I had a desire to challenge myself, to grow. I’ve done lots of healing and I’m more at peace with my past. I have more drive, tenacity and I know how to stick with something day after day, something increasingly rare these days
“Foxy Shizam” (right) and “Old Mate”
Appalachian Trail thru hikers “Foxy Shazam” (right) and “Old Mate” This hiker couple met at Burning Man a few years ago. Old Mate had read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” at a hostel in Nepal and they both decided to give the Trail a try. About Maine they say they love the wildness and remoteness. Towns are fewer and farther apart. Mainers are kind and the sense of community here is noticeable.
Bulletproof started at Springer Mountain, Georgia on March 16th. She used to spend summers in Maine at a Canadian camp for kids. One of the last years she was there they made a trip to Katahdin and she fell in love with hiking and the Appalachian Trail. When she got older she always wondered whether hiking the whole 2200 mile trail was something she could do, so she gave it a try after graduating from high school. Now she finds herself in the final state not wanting the hike to end, falling in love all over again.
Richard “Hot Legz” Banks
This is Richard’s second thru hike, he has previously done the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014. Recently he had felt the pull of long distance hiking so he decided to hike the AT and started on May 4th in Georgia… except nothing has gone to plan. While only 100 miles into his hike he got a call that his mom had passed away. When he got home he learned the details. She had been murdered while on her way home from Wal-Mart one night. After being home for several weeks and dealing with the after-death details, he realized that his mom wouldn’t want him to sit around and be sad. On June 4th he decided to get back on the trail and keep hiking. He found to be the trail to be healing, and although he had to keep getting off to deal with issues surrounding his mom’s death, Richard always looked forward to getting back on the trail. “I’ve made a lot of really great friends, thru hiking is a great way to heal. At first it was really hard, I would sit at night and cry. I’d have nightmares and think of all the things I wish I could have said but didn’t. But when all you have to do is hike all day, you get a lot of time to think. You don’t have to work, you don’t have stuff to do, your’re forced to face the problems that come at you. I’ve heard so many stories of addicts and people in bad relationships hiking and using the trail as a way to heal. Its not a cure all but it definitely helps. I’m thankful to be out here.“
Chris “Winger” Siwanowicz
Chris was fired from his machinist job in the spring of 2017. Like most people would, he panicked and stressed about finding another job. After a couple of months and letting the job loss sink in he thought to himself “F–k this, I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail. Work will always be there and I’m going to take this opportunity to enjoy life and connect with nature.” Chris is both an Iraq war and Afghanistan war veteran, serving with the 3rd Ranger Battalion. He had wanted to hike the A.T. since getting out of the military, so he sold his truck, bought some surplus military gear, tried to get in shape the best he could, watched a few Youtube videos and set out from Georgia. “The trail is really helping me get over my anxiety from Iraq and Afghanistan, helping me be at peace and live in the moment. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Amanda “GI Jane” Lourenço
“I met Amanda near Stratton, Maine. She talked at length about the trail in her very unique accent, a mix of French and Brazilian, due being born in Brazil and living in France for seven years. Amanda was given her trail name because she shaved her head before she started hiking. Travel is her passion and she has been on the road for the past few years. She spent a couple years in South Africa and three months living on a sailboat in the Mediterranean off the coast of Greece. Then she thought about travelling to North America, a place she had never been. “I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail because of the challenge,” said Amanda. “Its something really hard to do, I wanted the adventure. Its my first time here in America! I’ll get to know the country by walking!”
Appalachian Trail thru hiker “Wandering Star,” she comes from England and speaks with a raspy voice and a thick British accent. She has hiked the triple crown. That means she has done the Continental Divide Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and this is her third time hiking the Appalachian Trail. That’s 17,000 miles of trail in the U.S. She has also hiked the Camino in Spain and every long trail in the British Isles. “It started in the winter of 1988” says Wandering Star. “A friend told me she had just read about the A.T. In National Geographic, and we were dissatisfied with our place in life, so we decided to do it. By the time we got to Katahdin it was closed for the season. So we hiked the trail again and made it to Katahdin with no issue. The rest is History. Wandering Star works with the Homeless and lobbies for victims of domestic violence back home in Britain. When she’s saved enough money, she picks out a trail somewhere in the world and hikes it.
This is Blake, his trail name is “Mr. Giggles.” As a young man in his 20’s Blake made several trips to Smoky Mountain National Park. He went on a few hikes on the A.T. while he was down in the south and thought to himself “I should hike this one day” not knowing how far it was or what the hike really required. Time went on and Blake joined the Army. He researched the A.T. a little more and when he was deployed to Iraq in 2007 he said to himself, “If I don’t lose a serious amount of weight by the time I’m back in the states, I’m going to hike the whole thing. Blake returned from Iraq and life caught up with him and he forgot about his hiking plans. While on a trip to Colorado for a wedding a few years later he went on a few small hikes in the Rockies and remembered how much he liked “getting his ass kicked by the mountains.” Now he’s hiking south from Katahdin towards Georgia!
“Papa Bean” has a simple story about his time on the trail. He tells me in his his lyrical, soft spoken voice “my daughter called me up one day and asked if I wanted to hike the trail. It took me two seconds to say yes.”
Geoff “G-Wag” Carter
“30 years ago I first stepped on the Appalachian Trail at Clingman’s Dome during a car trip. I said to my self I’m going to do this thing some day. Two years ago I actually set a date. I made it happen. I sold my house, the company I worked for was sold and I lost my job. And now here I am.”
Wendy “Stormy” Ferguson
“I heard about the trail probably 20 years ago and I’ve wanted to hike the trail since I heard about it” says Wendy. “The reason why I wanted to do it is because I knew it would be difficult. It’s always in those difficult things you do that you learn the most about yourself, the most about life lessons. I just wondered what I could learn from this trail. I sat on the side of the trail in Maine, talking to Wendy when she only had 200 more miles to go. She continues “I think somewhere along the way I learned those lessons and I learned to pour myself into it and it became even more important that I finish to show people that they can do things that they didn’t think they could do.” I asked Wendy if she had any doubters. “Absolutely” she said, “especially myself. I didn’t even think I would make it out of Georgia.” Wendy quit her job to free up time to hike the trail. When she finishes she plans to open a food truck!
Chad “Daddy Long Legs” Hornbacher
Chad “Daddy Long Legs” Hornbacher “I had plans to hike the trail with my college roommate and my cousin. My roommate decided to get married and my cousin didn’t want to quit his job, so I’ve ended up hiking alone. Before this I’d been working the night shift as a registered nurse. It’s tough working the night shift. Everything is backwards, seeing family and friends never works out. I want something different, and I thought I would use this time to decide whether I want to go into the military or be a traveling nurse, but the decision I’ve come to is that I want to keep hiking. I’m going to go back to work as a night nurse and try the Pacific Crest Trail next spring, then go back to work for a few months and then try the Continental Divide Trail. I just really enjoy being outside and living outside and walking up and down mountains all day.”
Brian “Satchel” Katchel
“My whole life I’ve spent hiking on the Appalachian Trail” says Brian, who grew up in northern Virginia. “When I was a kid my dad used to take me camping on the AT in Shenandoah National Park. I’ve always wanted to hike the whole thing ever since I learned about it.” Brian is a graduate of George Mason University. When I asked him his plans after he finishes, he replied with a grin “Oh man, I gotta get a job. This trail has been more expensive than I planned.”
Cullin “Cowboy” Snell
Cullin finished his freshman year at Oklahoma State thinking about things his dad and his dad’s friends had said. “When I was young I wish I would have done this or done that” he remembers. Cullin got restless. “I want to go out and actually do something that I remember for the rest of my life” he said. Cullin decided to take a gap year and hike the Appalachian Trail. He talked to his uncle who thru-hiked in 2007 and got some hand-me-down gear to get him started. He went out on a shakedown hike for a week before hitting the trail, just to see if he would actually like it. “Turns out I liked it” Cullin said with a huge grin. When he gets off the trail, Cowboy plans to work at Breckinridge for the winter and then head back to school in Oklahoma.
Tricia Orr, no trail name
Tricia and her dad decided to hike the whole Appalachian trail on a whim. They hiked together for a little over 1000 miles before her dad decided to continue on by himself. He summited Katahdin several weeks before his daughter. Before hitting the trail, Tricia was bartending her way through college. She says “It was a great job, I worked with great people and made great money, but I was feeling unfulfilled. When you bartend, you are really on this shallow conversational level with everyone you interact with. There are the regulars that you know, but everyone else is ‘hey love your hat’ or ‘can I get you a beer?’ So I finished my degree and was bartending and still having these really shallow relationships and wondered what is life really about? I don’t think this is it.” She continues, “I was just wondering if I was going to be stuck in this rut without ever knowing people.” So Tricia decided to head out on the trail to try and get to know people better. After her and her dad decided to stop hiking together, she had a really hard time. She questioned why she was really on the trail, feeling exhausted every day, going days without a shower. “Getting to Maine really helped” She says. “I started slowing down and really meeting people and developing those relationships that I was looking for.”
Richard “King” Dicketts
Richard is from England. We sat chatting on the side of a dirt road that the A.T. crosses near Stratton, Maine. I asked him how he got to this spot and he replied in his crisp English accent, “I am here because I saw a post on the internet about the AT three years ago, just as I was starting university. The more I looked into it the more I liked the idea, hiking 2000 miles and being a part of the community. I was planning on hiking the trail at the end of University, but at the end of last year I got really really sick and ended up taking a year off from school. By February I was getting better and realized I had all this free time. I thought to myself that I could just hike the trail right now! So here I am.” When I asked Richard what he thought of the trail, he responded “Its been absolutely wild. I’ve loved every day. I almost didn’t get to come here. My visa application was denied the first time. I had to pay more money, move all of my flights and go through another interview and wait six weeks. My visa was accepted the second time. I’m super grateful I was able to do this.” After the trail Richard plans to return to school in January and finish his degree in Bio Chemistry. The Pacific Crest trail is on his radar for 2019.
Tylor “Theory” Hess
“I grew up in Pennsylvania, near the Delware Water Gap, so I basically grew up walking my dog on the Appalachian Trail, so it was something I always wanted to do. I was the first kid in my high school class to be accepted into MIT. I graduated and worked at Booz Allen Hamilton, which if you’re not familiar, its where Edward Snowden worked. So I worked there for a year. Then I had an opportunity to help a former professor in Russia in collaboration with MIT, and I turned that research into a masters degree. That wasn’t really working out so I took a year off and had a bit of an existential crisis. I worked on half a dozen startups for the first six months. Then I realized I was seeking something externally that I might be able to find internally, so I started doing yoga and that brought me to eastern philosophy and Buddhism, and I became a yoga instructor. Then I started my PhD but decided to take a break and hike the Appalachian Trail. During my existential crisis I realized that ultimately financial and material wealth, fame, fortune, power, sex, drugs, alchohol… all these hedonistic pleasures ultimately leave me feeling empty inside. So the question is what leaves you feeling full inside? I’ve kinda been in an exploration of that. My current working hypothesis is relationships, specifically loving and supportive relationships. Most importantly with yourself but also with other people. The easiest way to love yourself is to be loved by others. So I am in this debate with myself right now, what do I do after the trail? That’s coming up in 200 miles. I have my friends that say they can get me jobs at Amazon and Google and Facebook… so I feel like I’m at a fork in the road because those are all time demanding jobs. What is my alternative? What can I do that actually leaves me feeling full inside and satisfied?”
Thomas “Top Peak” Maciel
“My Junior year of college I went to a military school. I decided I didn’t want to go right into the military and I had a professor who mentored me and he told me stories about hiking the A.T. when he was 18. It was something I thought would be cool, kind of a break before I go into the military. I graduated from college and two weeks later I was in Georgia hiking. I didn’t do much research, I just wanted a real adventure.”
Maxwell “Fingerbang” Greenspan
“I was a mechanical engineer, and I got in a bad car accident. I was just sitting around for a while and heard about the Appalachian Trail while listening to a podcast. It sounded crazy enough and hard enough… just something I wanted to do. I sold all my stuff. I own everything that’s on my back, and that’s all I own. After the car accident I felt like I was existing, not living. I didn’t like my job, I didn’t like where I was living, I wasn’t feeling challenged. This was such a big challenge. Only 20% of people who start make it all the way, and I had never hiked a day in my life, I wasn’t in any physical condition at all. So I sold everything and quit my job and jumped on the trail.”
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