Faces of the Appalachian Trail, 2014: Before & After

Why did you decide to hike?

That’s the first question I’ve asked the nearly 50 thru-hikers I’ve had the opportunity to interview over the past several years.

While each person brings to the table the unique story of their own journey, the reasons for why they decided to hike tend to overlap quite frequently. Whether it’s feeling like you’re in a rut, being unhappy with your job, or just needing some fresh air and space to get perspective on life, we’re all fairly similar beings.

Very few of the people I interviewed answered my question of, “Why did you decide to hike?” with a simple statement. If I remember correctly, I received, “I just like to hike” as an answer only once. He was a man of few words.

Although just enjoying the hike is absolutely a good enough reason to embark on the trail, most people have another factor providing motivation.

The thru-hiking community is a wonderful example of taking action to change the areas of life that leave us unsatisfied. This is not to say that one must be dealing with some major frustration with life to hike – it’s simply the push many hikers told me they needed. Many of them were confused about what they wanted to accomplish in life, and the trail provided the perfect opportunity to take a step back and really think about what their goals were. At the same time, they were provided challenges by the trail that can easily be applied to life such as patience and appreciation for the small things.

Throughout all of the interviews, a few things were fairly consistent – the hike changed their lives in a positive way, it gave them more perspective and helped them determine what they wanted to accomplish, and lastly, most people were or still are having a hard time adjusting back into life at home.

Below is a compilation of questions and answers from hikers who completed the Appalachian Trail in 2014. The interviews can function as a way to compare trail experiences, learn how others are dealing with post-trail life, as well as prepare the hikers of the future. Each interview is published in full, along with before and after photos – links can be found below each quote.

Meet the hikers from last year.

Faces of the Appalachian Trail, 2014: Before & After 

Why did you decide to hike?

“For the women, money and glory. But other than that, I’m from the north part of Georgia and everyone knows about the trail. I’ve hiked some sections of it before and just kind of grew up running on it. Hiking the whole way has always been on my mind.” – Christopher Rodriguez. Read the full interview.

“I had already completed the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011 and the Continental Divide Trail in 2013, so the Appalachian Trail would complete my Triple Crown. I felt like that was the next natural step for me to close this chapter in my life before I venture out onto other trails.” – Erin Saver. Read the full interview.

Before: Paul Bunker and his son, Callum

Before: Paul Bunker and his son, Callum

“I wanted a challenge, as my life was just working in a stressful job. I gained 30+ pounds since starting an office job. My health was suffering, as I couldn’t sleep at night without medication – I was pre-diabetic and my blood pressure was hypertensive. Once I decided to hike, I asked my son to join me. He agreed and that became my focus. I had split from his mother 14 years previous and moved to the United States 10 years ago (his son, Callum lives in England still), so I hardly saw him other than vacations a couple of times a year. It was a chance to spend some quality time with him and get to know each other.” – Paul Bunker. Read the full interview.

“I decided to hike because I wanted to live life deliberately and authentically. I wanted to truly immerse myself in nature without the dull and distracting everyday existence, and return to a lifestyle of simple values. I knew that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was the change I needed to stay living.” – Neha Khurana. Read the full interview.

“My two sisters hiked the AT in 2013, which sparked the idea. I climbed Mt. Katahdin with them last August and seeing them and their fellow hiker friends, I was inspired to try the AT myself in the future … eventually. Little did I know, the future didn’t mean years from that day, but the next hiking season. I decided to hike the AT because I was at a point in my life where I knew I wasn’t happy. I was bored with my life (friends, hobbies, job) and I was unsatisfied with how I spent my time. After a lot of pondering (what you do during seasonal depression), I knew I had to do something. The AT seemed like the perfect way to escape. I had recently upgraded to being a pharmacy technician, which actually wasn’t that bad, but wasn’t good enough to stop the urge to get away. I didn’t really want to quit, but I told myself if I waited until it was convenient, I’d never do it. I made the right decision.” Ethan Zukas. Read the full interview.

What was the most challenging part of the journey?

“Hiking with a partner and spouse – this was significantly harder than any chunk of terrain or hiking in the rain. We started as a long-distance relationship, moved to Alaska together, survived an 11-month deployment to Afghanistan and several 3,000-mile road trips; all things that are supposed to test a couple. Sharing a tent, stove and food bags on the AT put that all to shame. You can’t get away when you’re having a bad day. You run out of things to talk about (at least for those who start as a couple, not the case for trail couples) and end up just following each other without conversing for sometimes hours at a time. You have to change your daily plans and weekly goals to accommodate someone else’s needs and when the inevitable injury strikes, your whole hike changes.” Clayton Smith (hiked with wife, Lindsay Smith). Read the full interview.

Before: Kasie Taylor

Before: Kasie Taylor

“Starting out with absolutely no backpacking experience and very little hiking experience, I knew it was going to be different and I knew it was going to be difficult. To add to that, I was totally out of shape; the first week of the trail, I was lucky to get 10 miles in. I think my feet endured the most pain on the trail. I started out with the wrong shoe and after 500 miles finally found a shoe that did not eat at my feet. Besides the starting point, hiking with Lyme disease was the most difficult and challenging part of the journey. In addition to just feeling weak, my body reacted negativity from the antibiotics, and hiking while nauseated was extremely challenging.” Kasie Taylor. Read the full interview.

“Finding the courage to pick up and leave the quiet little life I had made for myself for the unknown, and strangely coming back from such an adventure. I’m not trying to make light of the challenges in the wilderness like finding clean water, rationing supplies, monitoring daily mileage goals based on supplies and distance between towns, keeping my body in good enough condition to keep going, and of course the White Mountain range of New Hampshire. That being said, coming home was by far the hardest thing for me.” Jordan D. Bearss. Read the full interview.

What was the most memorable part of the journey?

“Probably hiking through Vermont. We’d just entered the Green Mountains when a rainy, cold snap hit us for about a week. Vermont is already known to be muddy and the daily rain made certain we’d have plenty of it. After about 30 minutes of trying to keep my feet clean by rock/log hopping, I’d slipped so many times that I gave up on the idea and just started walking straight through the mud. I felt like a little kid. I had so much fun stomping around, feeling my feet suction to the ground, and being absolutely carefree. I can’t remember the last time I just let go like that. It was a bit late in the game, but in that moment I promised myself not to get too worried about anything on the trail. We were choosing to be out there for fun.” – Lindsay Smith (hiked with husband, Clayton Smith). Read the full interview.

“The most memorable part of my hike was the Roan Highlands of Virginia. This was the place and time that I began to break away, finally, from the stresses and anxieties back home with work and apartment and truck and debt and money. It was six to eight weeks into my hike and about 500 to 600 miles in. Landscapes, sunsets, summer and wildlife were replacing all the unnecessary distractions back home.”Michael Adams. Read the full interview.

“Every time there was “trail magic.” A specific instance was at Ethan Pond campsite in New Hampshire. A man’s name that I forget now paid the fee for myself and another thru-hiker.” Jay Terry. Read the full interview.

Before and After: Zachary Zukas

Before and After: Zachary Zukas

“The day after my knee pain went away, we woke up to rain. Many who spent the night at Mollies Ridge Shelter with us the night before waited to leave, hoping the rain would pass. We moved on. By the time we got to Russell Field Shelter just a few miles away, the rain had turned to snow and ice. We trudged on through the storm a total of 12 miles to Derrick Knob Shelter where we met some more hikers and a ridgerunner. He informed us there was a reservation for a party of eight that hadn’t shown up yet. The rule was that the latest thru-hikers arriving, if exceeding the shelter’s capacity, were expected to move on to the next or set up camp in the snow. This was not what we wanted to hear, but we understood that thru-hikers are expected to be prepared for such a scenario. We decided to stick around in case the reservation party didn’t show up, and assumed most of the bubble of hikers we left behind would take a zero. Guess what. They all showed up, and then some. Every time a new person showed up, any positivity in their expression disappeared at the sight of a full house. We kept finding one more nook or cranny to give away, wondering if we’d reached our limit. Luckily, everyone there seemed to be okay with the plan to cram everyone in, and the ridgerunner let it go. In addition to doubling the designated sleeping space limit, hikers slept on the benches and the ground inside the tarped-off shelter. In the end, we had 28 people sleeping in a 12-person shelter.” – Zachary Zukas. Read the full interview.

How did you feel after the hike was over?

“It all ended rather suddenly – and it felt pretty disappointing. The morning after I summitted Katahdin I was on a bus home to Washington, D.C. It was great to see my family and friends and truly awesome to have a shower (I took many), food in the fridge and a bed. What I once took for granted were now luxuries. I was exhausted when I returned home and spent a few days recovering from the journey. However, when I was finally settled in, I found myself feeling an emptiness and longing to be back on the trail. “Normal” life paled in comparison and all I wanted was to be back hiking 20 miles a day with 30 pounds on my back. Adjusting to the trail is easy; adjusting back home is not. But I have realized that all good things must come to an end and this new phase of my life is a chance for growth and new opportunities. I still try to hike a few times a week though to keep myself sane.” – Neha Khurana. Read the full interview.

Before: Katherine Denemark and husband

Before: Katherine Denemark and husband

“On the summit of Katahdin, I didn’t have much time to process. It was really stormy and cold, so we took pictures quickly and started down. Hiking down, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Although I chose to hike, sometimes the challenge I’d accepted felt like a burden. There were a lot of times I wanted to go home, when I asked myself what was the point of continuing to hike. Sometimes I kept hiking purely because I’d said I would. Once it was finished, the stubborn directive I’d had in my brain to keep going and make it there lifted, and I could relax. It was surprising to me, because I hadn’t really realized I was holding that worry and expectation. In the two weeks or so after it was done, I felt a little bit sad. Not because I necessarily wanted to be out there still, but because I realized neither place will ever solve my problems. When I was hiking, I often longed for a shower or good food or just to sit down and spend an afternoon reading instead of walking. Now that I’m home, I miss the fresh air, the daily movement and exercise, the forest, our friends. I also miss the simplicity of life on the trail. Everything was for a specific and concrete purpose and you always knew what you were trying to do. It’s not like that in real life.” Katherine Denemark. Read the full interview.

“When it was over I was on top of the world. I was super human. I could do anything and everything. I felt so calm and at peace with myself for the first time in many years. Long term, I feel lost. I went to the woods to find myself but I returned to society even more confused. It’s weird being back in society. I love seeing all my family and friends but I hate being home. I feel almost trapped and I want to keep moving.” Sarah Beatrice. Read the full interview.

“Short term; exhaustion, exhilaration and incredibly proud. Long-term; a real sense of achievement and a closeness to all the hikers we met along the way.” Marji Robinson. Read the full interview.

What did you gain from the experience?

After: Erin Saver

After: Erin Saver

“In a way, this trail has been the most formative for me out of the three that I’ve hiked. I’ve reached a new level of appreciation for the company of others and bond among hikers. I realized that sometimes sharing the experience with others can make it greater than you ever thought it could be. It will definitely influence my future choices and I hope to be more open to sharing the experience with others in the future. People who know me know that this is a big step in growth for me.” – Erin Saver. Read the full interview.

“Health, understanding that we are granted a short window on this world and we need to experience and enjoy life before that window closes. That humans ruin the world we live in for selfish material gains. But most of all I gained a relationship with my son, and we are now close.” – Paul Bunker. Read the full interview.

“Patience. A higher regard, and less fear, of nature. An appreciation of people different from me. An awareness that we have too much ‘stuff’ that we really don’t need.” Steve Adams. Read the full interview.

“Appreciation of the good in everyday people and appreciation that you don’t need very many possessions to be happy.” Jim Robinson. Read the full interview.

What are your goals for the future?

“Indoor wise, I think I’ll start being a grown up, take a bigger role in the family business, start doing life stuff that I took such a long break from. I worked for others for a long time after college and it was really shitty. They had bad products and worse service, and when I’m the one responsible, I cannot sleep at night. I want to do good work. So now, I sell real estate and do rentals working with the family. And after much thinking (on the trail), I love it. I help people, I do whatever I want. I want to do high-quality work and help people. Doing this helps me sleep at night. I might move the business toward the heart of Atlanta, and I might buy a house and see where life goes. Not really sure right now. After all, I just got back three months ago. But I take lots of trips, so, no worries. I still have and will have lots of adventures.” – Christopher Rodriguez. Read the full interview.

After: Jordan D. Bearss

After: Jordan D. Bearss

“Right now I’m still hooked on the journey of long-distance hiking and I envision doing a long hike or two each year. I am currently working to saving up over the winter and I plan to get back out this spring and summer on the challenging Hayduke and Great Divide trails.” – Erin Saver. Read the full interview.

“I’ve set a short-term goal to work hard, save money and still find time to travel over the weekends or whenever time allows, and a long-term goal to live close to self sufficiently, off the grid, simply, and most importantly, happy. The AT changed my life. I was satisfied with my life before but far from happy. The AT is challenging, physically and mentally, but the rewards are immeasurable.” Jordan D. Bearss. Read the full interview.

Be sure to check out all the interviews here

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Comments 2

  • hikerbiker : Apr 16th

    This was the best article I have read in a long time. The trail is calling my name.

    • dan waits : Aug 9th

      then you must respond to the call, or you’ll never be satisfied


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