In April of 2018, a Facebook ad caught my eye. Jeff Alt, who had hiked the entire 2,190-mile length of the Appalachian Trail was giving a presentation and book signing at Barnes & Noble that very evening, less than a half mile from my home. It was right on the way and I’d typically be passing there at the time he was scheduled to speak. I was going. I don’t know why it just sounded interesting. I’m not a hiker, but more on that later. Jeff’s book, “A Walk for Sunshine,” chronicled his “thru-hike” in 1998. Sunshine was the name of an assisted living facility in Ohio where his brother lived, severely handicapped with Cerebral Palsy, and Jeff’s hike was initially a fundraiser for the home. In the 20 years since his hike, he has raised over a half million dollars for Sunshine, improving his brother’s quality of life and changing his own forever.
As I entered the bookstore that night I immediately saw a client of mine. I’d photographed her for a business portrait a few years earlier and we’d both belonged to the same business networking group at least nine or ten years ago. She approached me with a big smile and asked: “What are you doing here?” Well, I’m here to meet an author named Jeff Alt and hear about his trip up the Appalachian Trail!
“That’s great, you’ll love him, he’s my son!”
“Get off the bus, seriously?”
“Yep, and like a good Trail Angel, I brought paper cups filled with homemade trail mix for everyone to snack on, so here’s yours!”
“Trail Angel.” didn’t have a clue what that meant, but I loved trail mix. Jeff’s presentation was funny, entertaining, educational, and inspiring. Yes, of course, I bought the book, had him sign it, sat on the front row and asked all the usual questions one asks of a thru-hiker… “How long did it take?” “How many miles a day did you average?” “What did it cost?” “How much did your pack weigh?” “Where did you buy your gear?” “Did you poop in the woods?”
Two thousand miles of rugged, grueling, weather-beaten miles, up and down mountains, over rivers, across valleys, and away from civilization. Away from work. Away from cars. Away from the hustle and bustle and everyday pressures of work. AWAY FROM EVERYTHING!
I went home that evening with butterflies in my stomach. It was as if I just fallen in love. Not with Jeff, although he was one handsome devil, but with an idea. That idea being, if Jeff could do it, I could do it too… Okay, so Jeff was a dozen years younger than me, in great shape, and did it 20 years ago, what’s your point? I’d never hiked a day in my life. I exercised, not a lot, but more than most my age (nearly 63 at the time). I’d been joking online for years about auditioning for Survivor but had never really done anything about it. Still, the romance and freedom one envisions when fantasizing about a walk that lasts for months on end and covers more than two thousand miles was intoxicating. Two thousand miles of rugged, grueling, weather-beaten miles, up and down mountains, over rivers, across valleys, and away from civilization. Away from work. Away from cars. Away from the hustle and bustle and everyday pressures of work. AWAY FROM EVERYTHING! Can you imagine? Why did this suddenly sound so damn appealing? I’d known about the Appalachian Trail most of my life, even camped near it several times when growing up in Virginia but I’d never considered the possibility of actually hiking the entire length of it. Here’s a guy who did it, wrote a book about his experiences, and is now traveling the country telling everyone about it.
Jeff wasn’t the first person I’d met who’d done it. I have a very good friend I’ve known for more than 20 years who, along with his brother, did it back in 1979. Not only that, but two years after they completed their hike, they flew with their bicycles to Oregon, dipped their bikes in the Pacific Ocean, and peddled to the Atlantic! Robin Phillips was a quiet, humble, unassuming and mild-mannered photographer in Lakeland, FL. He was also an Eagle Scout and continues to hike with his family to this very day (we’re the same age). The following day I called Robin. We’d talked about the AT before and I knew I could tap his experiences enough to find out first-hand what I was getting into. The more we talked, the more intriguing the idea became, and thus, the more real.
I finished Jeff Alt’s book in three days. Now, mind you I’m no more a reader than I am a hiker. I don’t make time to get bogged down in books unless they’re camera manuals, and the only time I read those is when I get a new camera and I’m trapped on a three-hour flight and can’t do anything else. But Jeff’s book… I couldn’t put it down. The more I read, the more I wanted this. I was hooked. This was something I knew I had to do.
The conversation with my wife didn’t go as I hoped it would, but it went exactly as I expected it would. In a nutshell, it sounded something like this.
“I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail.”
“Oh? How long will THAT take?”
“I’m guessing about five months.”
“FIVE MONTHS??? HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PAY FOR IT? HOW WILL WE PAY THE BILLS? MY KNEES CAN’T TAKE THAT KIND OF HIKE! I CAN’T WALK TWO THOUSAND MILES! WHAT IS THIS GOING TO COST? WHAT HAPPENS TO THE STUDIO? WHAT ABOUT OUR CLIENTS? IF YOU LEAVE FOR FIVE MONTHS, WE’RE DOOMED! MAYBE YOU DON’T WANT ME TO GO! OKAY FINE, I’M GOING TO FRANCE! THAT’S IT, YOU GO LIVE LIKE A HOMELESS MAN IN THE WOODS FOR FIVE MONTHS, I’M GOING TO DRINK ALL THE WINE IN PARIS! HOW ARE YOU GOING TO PAY FOR THAT? NOW HOW MUCH MONEY IS IT GOING TO COST?”
It went downhill from there, but more on that later…
Four days later I was back at Barnes & Noble. I needed another book. They had only one, “Thru-Hike” by Paul Stutzman. I bought and finished in five days. I needed more. Robin loaned me “Skywalker” by Bill Walker. Knocked it out in less than a week. I commandeered my wife’s Amazon Prime password and ordered two more books. In the four months that followed I’d read 16 books on the AT (more books than I’d read in my previous 33 years of marriage), listened to over 150 hiking podcasts and watched a few hundred YouTube videos by popular thru-hikers showing snippets of their own hikes, giving gear reviews and Q&A’s about the trail. I joined a few Facebook groups following hikers on the AT as well as those like myself who were prepping for a future hike. Was I obsessed? No, absolutely not. Yes, yes of course I was.
His head whipped around at me, his eyes widened, and with the excitement of a six-year-old on Christmas morning he pronounced “Really?? I’m planning to hike the PCT!! (the 2,700 mile long Pacific Crest Trail). When do you plan on doing this?”
A few weeks into my new obsession, my son came home for a week-long visit. He’s an active duty Captain in the Army, teaching ROTC at the University of Nevada, Reno. Early in his stay, his mother pointed out (with great ridicule) that his father wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. His head whipped around at me, his eyes widened, and with the excitement of a six-year-old on Christmas morning he pronounced “Really?? I’m planning to hike the PCT!! (the 2,700 mile long Pacific Crest Trail). When do you plan on doing this?” Oh boy. This was not the reaction his mother wanted from him. Not at all. The deflating huff coming from the kitchen lasted nearly a full minute. “I’m thinking of a launch date of April 2020. That gives me more than a year and a half to prepare.” Until I had said that out loud, I hadn’t really given a whole lot of thought as to a launch date but hearing myself say it suddenly made it real. The clock just began ticking.
In the weeks that followed, my wife seemed to get on board with the idea. I wasn’t sure if she had actually accepted the fact that I was hell-bent on this hair-brained idea of mine and nothing was going to stop me, or if she thought that by agreeing with me and feeding my hunger for information, I’d overdose on it and wake up to the realization that it was not only impossible for me physically but amounted to financial suicide. The latter was more likely.
I’ve never been overweight. Out of shape? Yes, but never “fat.” Obesity never ran in my family. Bowleggedness did. In fact, if you line me and my four siblings up side by side with our feet together we look like a bike rack. At this point in my life, I’m 5’6” and 150 lbs. Five years earlier I was challenged by a few friends to do P90x. The timing was perfect because I wanted to lose a few pounds and whip myself into shape to attend my 40th HS reunion. After the first 90 days, everyone had dropped out but me. I did a second round, then a third then kept doing P90x for a total of 18 months. When I got to my reunion I was in the best shape of my life, sported the outlines of a six-pack, and weighed only 140 lbs, just five pounds more than I weighed when I graduated.
As life often has it, distractions and projects pulled me out of my workout routine and I was soon back up above 150 and the six-pack faded back behind a layer of delicious carbs. Two years later I attempted to rekindle my P90x routine and promptly tore a rotator cuff. That pretty much ended my upper body workouts so I started powerwalking the neighborhood to work my legs and get some cardio. This led to entering a 5k during a photography convention in Nashville. I took second place in my age group… out of two people in my age group. My running wasn’t really running, more like trotting with an occasional fast-walk to catch my breath. This would be the only kind of workout I could do in preparation for the hike, and because I live in Florida where an overpass qualifies as a mountain range, there wasn’t a whole lot more I could do to prepare for the elevation changes I’d encounter on the AT.
That didn’t stop me from trying though. Early one Sunday morning I asked my wife to drive me down to MacDill AFB and drop me off. I wanted to walk home. The main gate at MacDill is the southernmost point on Dale Mabry Hwy in south Tampa. I live 15 miles north of the gate and two blocks off Dale Mabry. I treated it like the AT, even “Facebook Live’ing” it periodically every hour (like all the popular hikers do on YouTube – I thought that was so cool).
It took me five hours and fifteen minutes to walk home. One street, all sidewalk, 37 stoplights, and two mountain ranges; Mt Hillsborough Ave and Mt Busch Blvd. I earned a few blisters, one black toenail, and learned a lesson about shoe size.
Seems hiker feet swell and grow over time, and to combat blisters and bruised toenails, hiker shoes have been designed with a wide “toe box” (I’d never heard that term until now) and people were encouraged to buy shoes a half to one full size larger than normal. I ordered my first pair of hiker shoes the next day. Other than books, it was my first piece of real hiking gear – Altra Lone Peak 3.5 “trail runners,” the most popular shoe on the AT that year.
I built an Excel spreadsheet and started a gear wish-list based on all the info I was accumulating. Items on that list evolved with every video I’d watch or every blog I’d read. One day a video review would convince me which sleeping bag I needed, then a few days later another video review had me switching to a quilt. Based on my research, I’d decide on which tent to get, only to see that get tossed aside in exchange for something I read in a Facebook thread. It was like Frogger… whatever lily pad was in front of me at the moment, was the obvious leap to make, and yet within minutes, was likely to change again.
I finally settled on which backpack I wanted. I’d done enough research and concluded that Zpacks made some of the lightest hiking gear on the market and their manufacturing facility was in Melbourne, Florida, only a few hours away. I managed to secure an appointment with Matt Favero (the Zpacks resident customer service rep/long distance hiker) to be properly fitted and purchased the 21 oz Arc Blast 55L backpack. My strategy for gearing up was to invest whatever cost was necessary for the lightest equipment possible which often meant the most expensive. I didn’t care what the price was because in my opinion, the cost of quitting the trail or failing in my quest because of equipment failure or bad gear choices, was much higher than the price of the gear itself. A lot was riding on my completing this adventure and at my age, I needed to stack every card in the deck in my favor – nothing was going to be left to chance.
A few weeks later I ordered my tent, the ultra-light, 19 oz Zpacks Duplex. When it arrived, my wife was the only one home, intercepted it, then promptly gift wrapped and told me it was her Christmas gift to me. It was mid-October. Dammit.
Stay tuned for “the rest of the story” as my evolution from photographer to trailblazer continues over the coming months… More gear and a “shakedown hike” just around the corner.