Reflections of Hiking the AT 30 Years Later

hiking the Appalachian Trail with backpack

April 23, 2024

Last fall, I celebrated my 30th anniversary of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, all 2088 miles of it.  I first heard of the trail in 1988 when I was in college at Boston University.  I think I saw a poster of the trail map at a local outdoor shop and was just amazed that there could be a hiking trail that was that long, spanning 14 states.  I bought the poster, hung it in my dorm room, and added it to my fledgling bucket list. 

When I graduated a few years later I got commissioned in the Army and moved to Fort Benning Georgia to complete the Infantry Offices Basic Course.  I was given a choice of dates, I chose the one that ended in early April, when most people start hiking the trail.  As a reserve officer, my active duty ended after IOBC so I was free to hike afterward.  Luckily for me, Fort Benning was only a few hours away from the southern terminus of the AT, Springer Mountain, GA.

The plan was to hike and finish the trail in four months, then start a corporate job in Boston.  To do the whole trail in 120 days I would need to hike about 19 miles a day with 7 days off to rest.  Coming out of IOBC where every other day you are either road-marching with a 100 lbs rucksack or performing field training exercises, 19 miles seemed manageable…or so I told myself.

My IOBC classmate, Shannon Suggs, drove me and classmate Mike DeAntonio the 200 miles from Fort Benning to Amicalola Falls Start Park, Georgia.  At the visitors center we weighed our packs: mine tipped the scales at a ridiculous 86lbs!  As a young, dumb 24-year-old, inexperienced at thru-hiking, I had no idea that what I was carrying was a VERY heavy load. 

Later that day at the summit of Springer Mountain, the official starting point of the AT, a couple hiking with their dogs shared with me that their packs weighed 35 lbs & 30 lbs, and the dogs each 5 lbs.  When I told them my pack weighed more than all 4 of theirs put together they laughed and thought I was crazy. Needless to say, I started to wonder if my extra pair of boots and 20 lbs of canned food were necessary and 3 days later at Neel’s Gap I shipped 10 lbs of gear home and left 15 lbs of food at the hiker's hostel.  With a few dips during unsupported sections of the trail, my pack weighed about 65 lbs from there on out.

On the AT, most hikers take, get, or are given a trail name.  It usually has something to do with why you are hiking, who you are, who you are choosing to be, or what’s important to you.  Mine centered on the latter: Chow Hound was born!

I started the trail thinking that this experience would be a wilderness adventure, just me and Mother Nature.  It ended up being a very socially gratifying experience. I met fellow 20-somethings just out of college, high school dropouts, retired firefighters, divorcees, school teachers with the summer off, business executives, Israelis just out of their military service, and US Vets.  Even as a motley crew, we formed an amorphous sort of family unit, spending hours together talking about life while setting up camp, cooking, and doing chores.  The experience of telling and listening, letting the B.S. that defined our lives pre-trail wash away, letting egos down and learning about each other was pretty magical. 

Two months into the hike my father came down to Virginia and hiked with me for two weeks.  He was given the trail name “Papa Chow” and loved it!  We hiked the Blue Ridge and ran across the spot where Audie Murphy, the most decorated American Soldier, had died in a plane crash.  Eating lunch with my dad, now passed, at the big granite monument in the middle of the woods, soaking up the sun and the views is one of my favorite memories.

It took 188 days, of which I took 42 as “Zero miles”- a day off.  My toes were numb for about 3 months after and they shed skin like a snake!  Coming off the quiet made it hard to be in loud and crowded areas for a while. I realized then and now that my body, mind, and spirit had wanted to be worked and pushed. Even a year later, I longed to be back out there.  It was a powerful chapter in my life. To say the least, I made lifelong friendships and saw some amazing and beautiful places. 

If you get the chance to do a Thru-Hike, do it!  Hopefully, it will great time and leave a lasting impression like it did for me. 

Chow Hound