Why I’m Walking to Maine: A Personal History

1. The Towpath

When I was a kid, there was an old canal path down the hill from my house. If you took it downriver long enough, you could go all the way to Washington D.C. This fact stuck in my mind. I longed to just get on my bike and keep riding till I saw the Capitol — but I never did. It was just too far.

C&O Canal towpath in Maryland

The C&O Canal towpath (photo by Jerry Edmundson).

A few miles upstream along the same path, the river cut through a mountain and foamed into rapids where it crossed another trail. This one announced an even more improbable adventure: north 1,100 miles to Maine, south 1,000 miles to Georgia. Late every spring, a scraggly crew of tired-looking hikers would pass through. They never seemed too interested in chatting — they’d come a long way and had a long way to go. If they talked about anything, it was Harpers Ferry, how they were glad to almost be there or how they were sorry to leave. And that’s how I learned that the village beneath the cliffs, with its tall brick steeples and civil war lore, was the “psychological midpoint of the AT.”

2. Katahdin

I had to see where this trail ended, even if I couldn’t walk there, and for some reason my parents humored me. So the summer I was eight, we packed up the car and drove to central Maine, where we camped by a stream with the exotic name of Nesowadnehunk. We took a full day to climb Katahdin, starting before dawn and walking up the Knife Edge to the summit. My parents have told me they seriously feared for my safety, but I didn’t know better and was loving every minute of it. When I saw the sign at the top, surrounded by a hill of stones and those same scruffy vagabonds shedding tears of joy, I felt nothing short of awe.

The Freeman family made it to the top! (Thanks to my dad for digging this out of the archives :-))

My life’s gone in many different directions since then, but I’ve kept up my love of hiking. Along with it came my dream of someday, somehow, doing the Appalachian Trail from end to end. The problem is, it always seemed impractical — something the intricate logistics of modern society wouldn’t allow me to do. In grad school, when a colleague announced she was hiking the PCT once her postdoc ended, I was green with envy. How could I make this work?

3. The Plague

For a long time, I thought I could never do it, and then the pandemic hit. My life of virtual freelance work suddenly became normal, while everything else I was used to in city life suddenly vanished away. So I took the opportunity to turn back to the woods.

I really bundled up for the winter AT sections.

Out on a particularly cold and windy section hike.

It was in June 2020 that I did my first solo backpack, going south from Harpers Ferry along the trail. I meant to only go to Snickers Gap, but it felt so good that I kept walking through the roller coaster, stayed an extra night, and ended at Ashby Gap the next day. I followed that up with a 59-mile end-to-end trail in northeast PA that had been on my mind for a while. Then I started doing AT sections in PA, 40-50 miles through the winter whenever I could get a ride. When I couldn’t I’d drive out to a state forest in the Alleghenies and do a loop.

4. Shenandoah

By last summer, I’d hiked almost the whole trail from Delaware Water Gap to Front Royal. I decided to do one last section together with my wife: the northern half of Shenandoah National Park. We ran into a guy from Ohio who was also making a vacation out of walking for a week, and chatted about how I’d like to do the whole AT someday. Suddenly it was obvious: the right time was now. I had all the skills, I was already in hiking shape, and as a contract worker I could negotiate a long absence more easily than once I got a ‘real job.’ I decided to make it work, and the week we came back I announced that I’d be thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2022.

Me contemplating a view near Skyland (photo by Andrea Smith).

That was seven months ago. Now it’s March, and I’m starting in nine days. I have all my gear, I’ve tested most of it, and I’m thinking through all the last-minute things my anxious brain can’t help worrying about. Power bank charge times, snow in the Smokies, the mechanics of rehydrating dehydrated food. But mostly? I’m just excited to be finally starting my journey. It’s been a long time coming.

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Comments 4

  • Andrea : Mar 5th

    I’m so excited for you! And a little jealous ❤️

  • pearwood : Mar 5th

    Go for it. I’m restarting at Springer on Monday after a thoroughtly inauspicious climb up the approach trail beginning of February.
    Blessings on your way,
    Steve / pearwood

  • Janet Freeman : Mar 5th

    Climbing mountains has changed my life. I have my son to thank for that! ?

  • Russ1663 : Mar 6th

    Aryn. Best of trail luck to you. Keep a cheerful thought for those who havent summoned the courage or are not able to take it on. Enjoy the days and nights, keep a log, pictures.


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