The impetus of my desire to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail was the result of a gift. I’m not sure when I first became aware of the existence of the A.T., but I know for certain what caused me to want to hike it from end-to-end. For the Christmas of 1976, my former mother-in-law gifted me a two-volume set of books called “Hiking The Appalachian Trail,” edited by James R. Hare and published by Rodale Press. This set of books chronicled forty-six accounts of some of the first people to thru-hike the trail, and after devouring all 2,009 pages, I was hooked.
At the time, my first wife and I were poor college students and the finances required for a thru-hike were beyond our means. But during the ensuing months, I convinced her to go out for a “taste” of the A.T. and we spent months planning a three-week hike starting at Wallace Gap in North Carolina and hiking through Great Smoky Mountain National Park to Davenport Gap. I still remember the excitement of getting those boxes from REI that included heavy leather mountaineering boots, external frame backpacks, an Optimus Svea camp stove, and 50 feet of “Goldline” climbing rope!
So shortly after college graduation, without so much as a single mile of previous backpacking experience, we loaded up the car and drove 12 hours from Northwest Florida to Nantahala National Forest to begin our epic journey. After only one mile on the A.T., it began to rain and by mile four my wife told me that she was done and wanted to go home (who, other than me, didn’t see that coming?). The next morning, we hiked four more miles to Wayah Gap, hitched a ride back to our car with some hippies in a van, and drove 12 (quiet) hours back to Florida.
In retrospect, our lack of preparation and experience doomed this journey to fail from the get-go, but during the drive back south I made the case for me to return and continue the hike solo. Permission was granted for me to spend two weeks exploring Great Smoky Mountain National Park, so I dropped my wife off at her mother’s house and drove back to the wilderness. In the big scheme of life, I can’t help but think that this entire episode was a contributing factor in my wife become my ex-wife, but to her credit we are still good friends.
What followed was one of the most memorable outdoor experiences of my life. I parked the car at Newfound Gap and hiked western and eastern loops in the park, returning to the car midway for resupply. GSMNP provided me with the full experience, including walking through gorgeous wildflower covered balds, seeing bears, sleeping in A.T. shelters and meeting fellow backpackers, watching the early morning wildlife at Cades Cove, experiencing a breathtaking sunset from the peak of Mt. Le Conte, and enjoying the grand vista from Charlie’s Bunion. This experience was not only the beginning of my love affair with backpacking, but it also cemented my desire to thru-hike the A.T.
Then life happened. Careers, family, mortgages, and responsibilities moved my dream of an A.T. thru-hike to the back burner where it (along with hiking the “new” Pacific Crest Trail) simmered for decades. While living in Quantico, VA, I section hiked the Shenandoah National Park part of the A.T. with a friend over three weekends. Years later, I enjoyed a 12-day hiking adventure with my son and the Boy Scouts at Philmont Scout Ranch. These were all wonderful experiences, but when driving around the country on business or family vacations, I would always be aware of where the A.T. crossed a highway I was on and I would long to be hiking down that green tunnel.
After we became “empty nesters,” my (current and final) wife and I have been discussing exit strategies and how we want to continue the adventure that is our next phase of life. A lot of the discussion centers around downsizing, selling our house, and traveling the country in a motorhome. Several months ago, the movie “A Walk in the Woods” was released and I invited my wife out on a date night to see it. That evening we had a conversation that went something like this. Me: “Do you know what has been at the top of my bucket list for my entire life?” Her: “Yes, hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Me: “Would you support me while I hike it now?” Her: “Yes!” This is why she is the love of my life.
The original thought was for my wife to follow me up the trail in a motorhome to provide support and to participate in the grand adventure. That may or may not happen now due to a variety of issues, but she will certainly be my Trail Coordinator, providing support in some manner, and I couldn’t do it without her. No matter how the details eventually pan out, I will be beginning my north bound (NOBO) thru-hike near the first week of March with the Class of 2017!