Doers and dreamers finish Appalachian Trail

By Nathan Ehrlich
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2009

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MILLINOCKET, Maine - On Dec. 16 of last year, Kevin Downs, 36, a civil engineer, was on a six-hour drive to a job interview after his employer had run out of money and stopped a development project. When he was 20 minutes away, the prospective employer called to cancel the meeting.

On his drive back home to Boone, N.C., Downs decided that what he needed to do next was hike the Appalachian Trail. He left Springer Mountain, Ga., on foot on March 4 and summited Mount Katahdin on Oct. 8, joining a long line of thru-hikers who complete the trail’s 2,176 miles.

In 1948 Earl Shaffer of York County, Pa., whose trail name was “The Original Crazy One,’’ became the trail’s first thru-hiker in one continuous journey. Before they shipped off to the South Pacific to fight in World War II, Shaffer and his friend Walter Winemiller made plans to undertake the hike after the war. Winemiller never made it home. Shaffer hiked the trail in 124 days as a memorial to his friend and, as he wrote in his journal, to “walk the army out of my system.’’ Shaffer, who died in 2002, completed the feat for a third time in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of his original hike. He was 79.

Since 1936, when the first section hikers finished the trail, 11,142 people have reported completing the hike to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to protection and preservation.

This year’s thru-hikers had their own reasons for hitting the trail: Some were celebrating completion of military service, others were fulfilling a long-term plan. Many more, like Downs, had been “downsized and outsourced,’’ said Dave Tarasevich, a Baxter State Park ridge runner who informs hikers of proper trail usage.

According to Brian King, an ATC spokesman, there has been a 12 to 15 percent nationwide spike in nature-oriented vacations because “it’s cheaper than going to Disneyland.’’ According to King, after nearly a decade of dropping numbers, 1,425 northbound thru-hikers (known as nobos) attempted the trail this year, about 200 more than last year.

A year ago, Pat Raphael had 14 people working for him in his appraisal business in Springer, Md. After making only three appraisals in the first quarter of 2009, he has two employees left. Raphael, 30, decided to leave them in charge and hike the trail. He said he hopes to hike with his wife one day, but she told him, “That’s why we have a mortgage, so we don’t have to sleep outside.’’

On the hike, real-world identities are shed, and trail names adopted. On Oct. 11 in Millinocket, 16 miles south of Baxter State Park, among the 20 thru-hikers staying at Paul and Jamie Renaud’s hostel, the Appalachian Trail Lodge, were J-Bird, Bottom Bunk, Dahwahhe, Spice Rack, Spider, Stewball, Krazy Legz, Mr. Fidget, and George and her dog Gracie. The majority of them had spent the day braving ice and the wind that swept across the summit of Katahdin for a dramatic finish to their adventure.

They were an eclectic bunch. James Byrd (J-Bird), 54, from a small town near Atlanta, spent part of the night wandering Millinocket still outfitted in hiking gear, complete with a headlamp that was switched on. With a bald head and a clean-shaven face he appeared too kempt to be a thru-hiker. But looks can be deceiving.

In 2004 Byrd got to the end of the trail in Maine earlier than expected, so he made an about-face and walked back down to Georgia. In 2005, he did the same thing. This year he finished the trail for the eighth time, hiking half of it at night when he was sure to be alone.

“I’m not happy to be done,’’ J-Bird said. “The Appalachian Trail is a slow, rhythmic meditation that puts me in a dreamlike state.’’

A heavily bearded Alex Snyder (Spice Rack), 23; Levi Thomason (Bottom Bunk), 30; Jerrod Bley (Krazy Legz), 26; and Bill Miller (Memo), 55, sat hunkered over a table in the hostel’s small, dimly lighted kitchen. They were celebrating their feat by drinking Natty Light and listening to Madonna and Zeppelin on the station “The Mountain - Radio with an Attitude,’’ because “what else should a thru-hiker listen to?’’ Miller said.

The following morning a handful of thru-hikers piled into Paul Renaud’s van bound for the town of Medway. The 20-minute drive was quiet. The realization that the journey was over had set in. Bley, who recently had finished service in the US Marine Corps, broke the silence, “I can’t believe we’re getting a ride and it’s not to a trail.’’

Mark Andrew Wilson (In Between Cheeseburgers), 36, a commercial photographer from San Francisco, began hiking the trail when work slowed to a standstill. His girlfriend, Vivian Oriana (Chocolate Cake), 24, a professional dancer, decided to join him when the financing for her show was cut. They said there is more to thru-hiking than just hiking. In order to keep the weight of a pack reasonable (30 to 50 pounds on average), thru-hikers carry no more than three or four days’ worth of food. That means they must frequently hike off the trail and hitch to a small town for supplies. When mixing with the “fake world,’’ as some thru-hikers call it, many reported having bizarre run-ins.

Raphael (Mark Trail) recounted the time he slept in an empty gas station booth. Jeff Oliver (Lemonhead), 20, and Chris Mireider (Stromboli), 24, talked about when they were thought to be homeless and given change. Timothy Gardner (Ziggy), 37, remembered when someone handed him keys to a vehicle and told him to return it whenever. Thru-hikers refer to such a generous person as a “trail angel.’’

As Renaud dropped the group at the bus stop, they talked about what types of jobs they would look for: waiting tables, carpentry, being a Santa Claus, among others.

Renaud returned to prepare for the next group. He explained that while Katahdin closes for overnight camping after Oct. 15, the rangers do not hesitate to shut it down early if the weather becomes severe. As he put it, “This mountain waits for nobody.’’

That day Lon Blaubelt (E.O. The Extreme Optimist), 23; Stacy Costner (Wishy Washy), 24; and recently retired US Navy pilot Chris Carmona (Ratler), 42, who after 21 years of service decided to hike the trail in order to live his life on his own schedule, summited the peak, the final three thru-hikers of the season.

The next morning, the clicking sounds emanating from the heaters of the lodge, what was once the workers’ boarding house, were drowned out by rain. The upper half of the 5,267-foot Katahdin got snow.

The hostel filled with a new batch of hikers seeking to escape the weather. Big Camera, Jungli, B-Chucker, Tull, Chef, Butt Chins, and Ten-by-Ten, spent the next few days watching episodes of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’’ and frequenting the local bowling alley, Pins & Cues. They were hoping the weather would warm enough to melt the top layer of snow so they could summit.

By Oct. 16 they realized that their final steps on the trail would have to wait. Disheartened, they start consulting bus schedules and plotting courses home.

The final trail log, where hikers communicate with those coming behind them, was filled with such phrases as “this has been the best experience of my life,’’ but most notable were the words of “Stewball,’’ who titled nearly all of his logs “Hannah Montana’s Hiking Tips’’ and wrote with magenta markers: “U might think that the hard part is behind U, but the most challenging aspect of Ur journey is still ahead.’’

Going home would be difficult for the majority of these hikers. Bley was worried about finding a job when he returned to Hamilton, Ohio. “I wish I was going home to the land flowing with milk and honey,’’ he said. Downs planned to use savings to try to find work as a conservationist in his home state of Mississippi. Raphael and Wilson were optimistic about their job prospects because they had heard that their industries were recovering.

Thomason believed his experience would help him land a job: “The trail taught me that I can overcome anything.’’

Nathan Ehrlich can be reached at

If You Go

When to begin your hike of the Appalachian Trail
Northbound: Optimal timing would be to begin at Springer Mountain in Georgia in early March or April and summit Mount Katahdin in September. Beginning in March means braving winter weather for the first couple of weeks and encountering a heavy volume of other northbounders.
For a more reclusive experience and better foliage viewing, begin after April 15. Beware that the hike takes most people six months to complete and that Baxter State Park in Maine, home of Katahdin, is closed to overnight camping from mid-October to mid-May. Inclement weather will often cause Katahdin to close even earlier. Hiking the trail out of sequence adds flexibility.
Southbound: Plan on beginning in June or July at Katahdin and finishing in Georgia in November or December. Southbound hikers are much fewer. The downside is that a southbounder does what most consider the most gorgeous sections of trail in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont at the outset of the hike.
Resources: Thru-hiking requires planning and research. Read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods’’ to get inspired. Use Dan “Wingfoot’’ Bruce’s “The Thru-Hikers Handbook’’ for trip planning, and bring a copy of the 2010 “Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker’s Companion’’ or Daniel Chazin’s “Appalachian Trail Data Book’’ in your pack.
Don’t miss the forums on white and read other hiker journals on
Baxter State Park: As the last stop for northbounders and with a trail network that winds through 46 peaks and ridges, and the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, the section of trail running between Abol Bridge and Monson that comprises perhaps the wildest section of the entire trail, Baxter is often a highlight for thru-hikers. The park is open for camping, weather depending, from May 15-Oct. 15.