Faces of the Appalachian Trail, 2014: Clayton & Lindsay Smith & Hunter (The Dog)

Trail Names: Hunter & The Fat Kids
Occupation: Former U.S. Army captain (Clay), self-employed personal trainer and strength coach (Lindsay)
Hike Timeline: April 24 – September 27, 2014

Why did you decide to hike?

Clay: I grew up in a trail town. Andover is one of the resupply towns in Maine and I saw hikers coming through town my whole life growing up. It was something in the back of my mind, and then I read a few books about it while in Afghanistan and it became a bucket list item. My obligation to the Army ended and it worked out well as far as timing goes that we could take a significant chunk of time without worrying about work or school obligations. I also sustained some combat-related injuries and didn’t want to make this adventure “something we would do when we retired” or even “something we would do when the time was right.” Time is precious and it was time to start crossing shit off the bucket list.

Lindsay: Simply put, I was hiking because my husband was going. Being from Saskatchewan – the flat prairie ground in the middle of Canada – hiking was not much of a recreational activity growing up, and we most certainly had never heard of the AT. When Clay told me he wanted to go on this really, really long hike (we’d taken a few weekend hikes but never anything more than 50 miles), I agreed to join anyway. I then read two books to learn a bit about where we were headed, which just confirmed my excitement for another adventure. I love adventures.

What was the most challenging part of the journey?

C: 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.

L: I’d say that staying mentally strong was probably the hardest part of the trail. Going into the hike, we were fairly strong, athletic people. Very quickly the body adapts to the new lifestyle of hiking all day with very few rest days in between. What got me, however, was that after a bad day of blistered feet or being cold, knowing I’d have to wake up and do the same thing all over again the next day. Especially come Pennsylvania, the newness of the trail had worn off, our bodies were broken down and hiking became monotonous, and the small comforts of sleeping indoors on a rainy night or fresh food inaccessible on the trail became increasingly tempting.

What was the most memorable part of the journey?

C: Hiking with a partner and spouse. It’s a cliche, but you’re stronger for it at the end when you’re standing at the top of Mt. Katahdin. I wouldn’t change the trials, tribulations and hospital visits (dislocated tailbone on Clingman’s Dome) for anything. All of the moments you remember were made better by having someone to share it with … who cares about the time your feet flew out and you landed in the deep Vermont mud in the pouring rain if you didn’t have someone to watch and laugh at you. Our Clingman’s Dome sunrise and Lindsay getting hurt, or our summit of Katahdin and night before might be the most memorable trail moments though.

L: 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.

How did you feel after the hike was over?

C: The short term felt strange not having a guide book to tell you where to go the next day. It felt wrong to not have to plan your next week based on when you had to get more food and pick up mail. Of course there existed a short-term elation that came with accomplishing a massive undertaking and knowing that you didn’t have to punish your body by walking 20 miles when you felt like watching a movie on the couch and eating ice cream. Long term, I’ve missed many aspects of the trail. Of course looking back is often done through the rosy lens of remembrance, which dulls the severity of the bad moments. I’m proud of what we did, I’m proud that our dog did 1,500 miles of the AT, and I’m ready to move onto the next adventure and not let this five-month experience exclusively define me any more than my collection of previous experiences.

L: Ditto to exactly what Clay said.

What did you gain from the experience?

C: I gained an immense amount of respect for Lindsay’s stubbornness and toughness. I led 30 Infantry paratroopers in combat operations in Afghanistan and I can honestly say that between her feet getting torn up and her tailbone-related injuries, she could give any of those boys a run for their money when it comes to grit and getting the job done. I didn’t go through any life-altering epiphanies either so it was more of an experience to accomplish a goal.

L: I learned not to be so afraid of the weather. I’ve never liked being too cold (yes, even coming from one of the coldest parts of Canada). I couldn’t imagine not running inside from the rain, and the idea of walking to stay warm on a rainy day because you’re already wearing all but your dry camp clothes was inconceivable. After living in the woods for a summer, being cool doesn’t bother me and I won’t stop stacking firewood just because it’s lightly raining out.

What are your goals for the future?

C: Write a book on my military experience and using the AT and our six months in New Zealand as my transition period from being an Army Ranger to long-haired, bearded hiker trash. That and start lifting again and put the long-distance hiker life behind me. Prior to starting the trail, I was a competitive powerlifter/strongman/highland games athlete and the 30 pounds I lost on the trail was 80 percent muscle. I fully plan on hiking but more in the weekend or week timeframe and not a five-month thru-hike. Finishing the Long Trail might go on the list of things to do sometime soon though. Vermont was my favorite state and I’d love to go back and do some more hiking there.

L: I guess this winter I’ll get a job to put some funds back into my savings – probably two jobs. Work hard and play harder. Another adventure anyone?

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