On Oct. 3, I received this simple two-word text from my brother, Ryan. It was accompanied by an image of him standing next to the sign marking the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the final point on the Appalachian Trail.
After six months and 2,185.9 miles, my brother had concluded his epic journey trekking up the A.T.
“Speaking strictly in terms of desire to accomplish, hiking the A.T. is the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” Ryan said of the seemingly enormous undertaking.
He began his journey in March, at the southern entrance of the trail in Georgia, and proceeded to hike northward through 14 states. All the while, he made time to call me so I could chronicle his journey for posterity. His only brief hiatus from the journey was in July in order to resume his annual role as a trip leader for a wilderness camp in Maine.
After concluding his session at camp and a brief visit home, Ryan hopped back on the trail. By this time, the original group he had been hiking with prior has long since finished. Meanwhile, all of the hikers who were now on the trail had been hiking with each other all along, and for the first stretch of being back on the trail, Ryan was without a hiker buddy. Eventually, though, he joined a group with three other hikers: Uno, Tea Time and Lotus (all trail names).
One of the first major landmarks he came to was the White Mountains, including Mt. Washington, notorious for perilous weather conditions.
“There’s a sign as you’re climbing up the Alpines over the mountains that says, ‘Caution: Area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died from exposure, even in the summer,'” said Ryan.
The wind gusts on the mountain, which have the highest speeds on the planet recorded by man, have been known to reach speeds of over 200 miles per hour. They are so dangerous, in fact, that the buildings on top of the White Mountains are chained to the ground to keep them from blowing away.
At the summit of Mt. Washington, the highest point in the northeast, Ryan and his fellow hikers got stuck in a hail storm, complete with 85 mile-per-hour gusts of wind and a wind-chill factor of 10 degrees. A friend from Groton, John, had intended to meet him at the height of the mountain, but conditions were so hazardous, the meeting was short-lived.
“I saw John for the briefest of moments. The weather was getting so bad, I told him, ‘John, you have to leave,’ and sent him down the mountain,” said Ryan.
After the White Mountains, Ryan hit the Mahoosuc mountain range, which is widely considered to be the most difficult portion of the trail for through-hikers, an opinion that Ryan’s experience seemed to validate.
“It rained for three days straight during my time in the Mahoosuc, and I sank up to my crotch in a bog,” he said.
The Mahoosuc’s treacherous bogs are a surprise for many hikers. Bog bridges are laid across them to make it easier passage for the AT hikers. Unfortunately, said Ryan, the bridges aren’t frequently maintained, are overgrown and sunken in spots to the point of invisibility. The bogs are deceptive, looking like nothing more threatening than a dirty patch of ground surrounded by plant life.
“It doesn’t look like something you would sink into,” said Ryan.
“I actually knew from experience from working in summer camp and I made a point of telling everybody to stay on the bog bridges, otherwise you’re going to sink,” he said. “But they’re so poorly maintained that you can’t really see them; they just kind of sit below the surface. If you had a trekking pole you had to jam it down to find a spot to stick your foot, or just shimmy around. Or sometimes you foot would just collapse through anyway.”
This happened twice to Ryan, but he wasn’t the only one.
“Everyone I knew took a bog bath,” he said.
Luckily, he was able to pull himself out both times, but not before sinking all the way up to the waist in the quicksand-like sludge.
“When I fell in, my kilt just splayed out around me like a flower blooming,” he said.
After Mahoosuc, came the 100-mile wilderness — a 100-mile stretch of forest with no towns in between. The forest marked the last leg of the journey.
“From the White Mountains to the start of Maine, I was very ready to be done with the trail. I was cranky all the time, just complaining that I wanted to quit. But once I got to 100-mile wilderness, I didn’t want it to end. It was like getting to the last chapter of good book,” said Ryan.
The wilderness took Ryan seven days, during which he had to carefully monitor his food. Still, the huge landmark was his favorite portion of the entire journey.
“We were hiking through right as the foliage was starting to change. It was really cool,” he said.
After a few days of hiking in the wilderness, Katahdin started to emerge in the distance, first a blurry image of a far off mountain that began to take shape into a formidable peak as the days passed and they finally reached the base.
As soon as they began hiking the mountain, Ryan and his fellows entered into a cloud that enveloped them, greatly affecting their visibility for their entire time on Katahdin. Due to the frigid wind chill, the group only stayed for a few moments, long enough to take photos before beginning their descent.
“I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment,” said Ryan. “There were no words to describe how I felt.”
Despite the excitement at finishing the trail, there was an element of melancholy at the conclusion of the adventure.
“I just wanted to keep hiking,” said Ryan.
Now that the hike is over and Ryan is back home, he’s settling back into a routine that doesn’t involve 27 miles of walking every day. But it’s not without some adjustment.
“I don’t like being off the trail. I miss exercise every day. My body is essentially shutting down; my knees and feet have been killing me since I got home,” he said. “I also don’t like being thrust back into the world of the media. The news is just straight up depressing to watch. Sleeping in a bed, taking a shower, and eating a hot meal don’t feel special anymore, whereas on the trail they were the three things I looked forward to the most.”
Overall, said Ryan, the hike was by far the most rewarding experience of his life.
“I didn’t have any true doubts of my ability to do it nor did I ever truly want to stop,” he said. “It’s the proudest I’ve ever been of myself.”
As for those contemplating taking on the huge trail, Ryan’s advice is simple: Do it.
“Everybody should do it. It’s much more a mental battle than physical. But if you’re going to quit, don’t ever quit on a bad day. If you’ve had a great day of hiking, great days in the woods, and you still want to quit, then you can quit.”
For the immediate time being, he’s not sure what’s to come next. In the long-term though, he hopes to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.
“I went out there trying to take time to figure out what do with my life,” he said. And he did. “I figured out I just want to keep having adventures.”