“The sole criteria is to walk with the senses,
with hands that feel, ears that hear, and eyes that see.”
-Robert Browne. The Appalachian Trail: History, Humanity, and Ecology, 1980.
The Appalachian Trail (or AT as it is commonly referred to) is legendary among hikers. It extends between Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, spanning over 2,184 miles and takes approximately 6 months of hiking up to 20 miles a day. A Thru hiker is the name given to those who are attempting to hike the 2,184 miles in its entirety rather than a section hiker who completes sections at a time.
I’m working in my hiking shop in Brooklyn, New York when I get a call. “Hey, Avi? This is Tommy Freeman; I’m the one hiking the AT that Leigh Anne put you in contact with about Hiking for the Stars. Wanna meet up?”
Not an hour later, three hikers enter the store, and they are unmistakably the travelers I was planning to meet. The guys are bearded with hair grown out. They had on well-used hiking clothes, looking like they had just stumbled from the bush, which in a way they had. They looked almost confused at all the items for sale, picking up a few necessities that they had run low on like bug spray and mole skins, already noticeably out of place among the shiny new items on the walls. The crew that now stood before me were well into their fourth month hiking the trail, with only two more ahead of them. As disorientating as it was to be in New York City after 4 months in the bush, they were grinning from ear to ear and eager to talk about it.
They introduced themselves as “Shine,” “Sacagawea,” and “Chatty Kathy,” their trails names, one of the traditions of the AT. Tommy Freeman (23) had picked up the name Chatty Kathy early on in the trip, due to his unfettered excitement to be on the trail. He hailed from North Carolina and had set out on the trail March 31st with not much more than the intent on finishing it. Through hiking the Appalachian Trail, he was raising awareness and funds for a non-profit organization called Learning Together, which aims to reach the developmental, educational and health needs of children with special needs.
Back home, Tommy works with children who have special needs, helping them establish life skills and determining goals to be set by their families. Tommy works on making children with special needs more independent. “It is essential to intervene early,” Tommy told me later that day. “Early intervention from pre-school can make all the difference.” Tommy’s goal is to raise $35,000 for specials needs support and, so far, he is close to reaching that goal.
Now he stood with two other hikers who he now calls his best friends: Jesse Nebus (aka Shine), a cook from Michigan, and Jaala Spencer (aka Sacagawea), a server from Arkansas. They all started the trail roughly around the same time, and since then have primarily been hiking as a team.
I wondered how one plans for such an epic trip. How much training needs to be done before embarking? How much money needs to be saved? As it turned out…not much. This was Jaala’s first backpacking trip. The only over-nighters previous to this were one-day camping trips. And Shine shrugged and told me he had no money and relied largely on the food that had been left in shelters from previous travelers. All three agreed that you need to start with the bare essentials and figure out the rest along the way. They explained that they crossed a town every 3 days and could pick up whatever essentials they needed then. That being said, it’s true that Tommy carries a guitar with him and together with Shine and another thru hiker, “Birdman,” they have started a on trail band called “Hiker Trash.” So the term “bare minimum” does have its exceptions. It appeared that all three of them had done little training and had merely set out with what they deemed necessary, and so far it had worked.
Even those who have saved a year’s worth of money and have done extensive training and planning will come across unplanned problems and events. Indeed, on any hiking trip there are highs and lows. On a 6 month hiking trip, there are sure to be more than a few, especially when you are getting on the trail at 6am to hike 18-20 miles a day over such diverse terrains spanning a number of seasons. A couple of weeks before I met Tommy, he had been hiking through Pennsylvania in temperatures of 105 degrees, and yet he recalled that in March and April it had snowed in the Old Smokey’s. Shine had been caught in a horrendous storm in Virginia; Jaala recalled how a tree had fallen onto their tarp in New Jersey near Crater Lake, and Tommy showed me his bandaged thigh from an accident where he badly burned himself cooking, causing a huge risk of infection which could potentially end his journey. So far though, they have been methodical and overly cautious about cleaning and changing bandages. But the lows, as always, are eclipsed by the highs. Jaala recalls sun rise in a fire tower in North Carolina among many others. They biggest high, all three agreed, was the friends they had made along the way, as Tommy grinned and agreed. “The friends are what makes it.”
New York seemed to be a “sensory overload” according to Tommy. Jaala supported this explaining that “in the woods you can hear a leaf rustle.” This begged the question, what happens when you go home at the end of this all, when the trail had ended and you emerge from the bush and back into the real world? All three shook their heads and agreed that it was impossible to go back to the way things were before. Life had been packed up prior to departure and now it was free reign as to where they would go and what they would do. And they all had an inkling that whatever it was would involve working outdoors.
“So, any tips for those attempting to do the AT?” I wondered.
Shine, the chef, emphasizes the importance of eating well, not empty calories as well, and forcing oneself to drink water.
Jaala explained that a hiker needs to be open to changing plans. This includes changing gear, losing gear and changing the set pace you had in mind.
And Tommy described the importance of what he called “zero days” and the enjoyment factor. “If you work a job, you don’t work everyday,” he explains. “A lot of people set out to conquer the trail and forget to enjoy it along the way.” And I agree. The key to any adventure – soak it in, live it up, and enjoy the journey!
Want to help support Tommy and Learning Together? More information can be found at www.learningtogether.org.