My Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail

Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

My STEP project focused on hiking the entirety of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail (A.T.) solo in the spring of 2018. I traveled northbound from the trail’s southern terminus of Springer Mountain, Georgia to the northern terminus on Mount Katahdin, Maine in one continuous trip which lasted 131 days (Feb. 6th – June 16th). The planning and preparation phases for the trip lasted two months, and the actual hiking portion of my experience contributed an additional four-and-a-half months to my project timeline.

The Appalachian Trail

Hiking the A.T. was a goal of mine after completing Vermont’s 275-mile Long Trail before my freshman year of college, and I thought this trek would be a great way of showing how valuable skills like persistence, resilience, and adaptability can be developed in unconventional settings. I expect these skills to transcend the trail and enhance my personal and professional life.

What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

I failed to come to any profound moment of “reawakening” during my experience. There was no major crossroads, no extreme turning point, no insurmountable obstacle that was finally overcome. This is to be expected. I think it is important to understand that transformational experiences do not occur at the nexus of time and effort as an epic and instantaneous explosion of personal growth and development. Transformation is a slow and seemingly aimless series of experiences that build upon each other and change the way a person views the world and themselves.

Often times the importance and magnitude of an experience is only realized while reflecting on the past. When thinking back to my hike of the A.T., I was able to realize how important it is for me to have a goal. Without a goal, I feel adrift and lack the motivation and drive needed to put forth an exceptional effort. After all, what’s the purpose of a mission that has no objective?

The *almost* starting point of the A.T. Hikers must take an 8.5 mile approach trail to reach the official southern terminus of Springer Mountain. While the start and end points of the trail have remained unchanged for some time, its exact length changes every year as sections are modified or rerouted. The official distance in 2018 was 2,190.9 miles (more than 80 additional miles since this sign was placed!)

I need a goal to work toward so I can fulfill the full potential of who I am as a student, professional, and person. In addition, I also came to realize the importance and value of having a positive mindset. These two pieces of knowledge have had a significant impact on how I navigate obstacles today, and I don’t think I would come to these conclusions with such clarity without the experience of hiking the A.T. and reflecting on that time.

What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to your transformation?

The majority of my transformation occurred in tiny increments each day. Similar to northward progress on the trail, personal progress can often seem slow and fruitless. On the trail, each hiking day began with putting everything I needed into a backpack and carrying that weight over mountains, along ridges, and through rivers. Each night ended by unpacking all these items and preparing for the next arduous day ahead.

The first point from the southern terminus of the A.T. where hikers cross a road and are able to either continue or call it quits. The “Boot Tree” at Neel’s gap is 31.2 miles into the hike.

But these long and difficult days provided me with clear, consistent, measurable progress. I could watch as each exhausted step, drop of sweat, and labored breath brought me closer and closer to Maine. The miles added on each day, and I developed an addiction to seeing my efforts transform into results. The experience of constantly persevering through difficulty made me realize how important it is to have a goal and maintain a positive mindset.

McAfee Knob, central Virginia

One example showing the importance of having a positive mindset was while hiking through the Roan Highlands of North Carolina. The first major snowstorm of my trip finally hit and coated the trail in 14 inches of snow, with drifts on the windward side of the mountains reaching almost three feet. I decided to hike 17 miles to Overmountain Shelter, which was an abandoned barn half a mile off trail, so that I could have some cover. Nighttime temperatures were going to be below zero.

Another snow day on the A.T.

I remained optimistic about my accommodations for the night, and I could almost feel the coziness of a warm barn stocked with hay. These thoughts occupied the greater part of my day as I trudged through deep snow and bone-numbing cold. I finally descended from Round Bald, an open grassland near the center of the Roan massif, and made my way down toward the little red oasis settled in Buckeye Gap, oddly enough.

Looking northward from Hump Mountain in the Roan Highlands at an oncoming snowstorm

My daydreams didn’t quite match the reality of where I would be staying for the night. Although the barn was below the high peaks, it was situated on a ridge facing directly into the wind. The walls of the structure had a stunning collection of holes, and gusts shook the building as more snow continued to fall. “At least the mice aren’t that bad”, I thought as I set up my sleeping bag for the night.

I awoke in the morning to the sensation of someone tapping my head. Tapping, tapping, tapping, and biting! A mouse! After a brief episode of frantic smacks and swatting, I got out of my sleeping bag and began to pack up. When I was almost ready to go, I realized there was a slight problem: my shoes. My shoes were frozen. Not cold, not firm, not stiff; frozen.

Overnight, my shoes had turned into solid, inflexible blocks. Get two bricks and try to put your feet into them. Those were my shoes at the moment. Without shoes to wear, I’m stuck. I contemplated just wearing an extra pair of socks and hoping that my shoes would loosen up as the day went on, but I concluded that the trail was far too rocky and my feet would get chewed up pretty quickly as a result. There was no way around it; they must get on my feet. I thought that maybe a bit of water could help loosen them up, but my bottles? Chunks of ice.

And you thought the toilet seat at home was cold… (outhouse at Overmountain Shelter, NC)

I went and quickly dashed in bare feet to a spring about 50 yards from the barn, but where water once flowed I discovered cold blue icicles instead. I reasoned that I could melt some snow to thaw out the shoes. This seemed like a good idea…until I got my stove out. If you’ve ever wondered what temperature isobutane fuel fails to vaporize at, it’s about 10° F. Finally, with a bit of clever thinking and some embarrassment, I was able to squeeze into my shoes. I quickly tied the laces as best I could with my frozen fingers and sheepishly hurried with an empty bladder down the trail.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is an absolutely brutal physical trial, but it is undoubtedly more of a psychological challenge. Hikers that do finish aren’t necessarily the strong-bodied, but the strong-minded. There is a lot of trail between Georgia and Maine, and also a lot of points where everything will be a disaster. And at any point during the trip, I could have ended my hike. But having a positive outlook and laughing at the often times humorous nature of my predicaments made things easier and was absolutely essential to staying on the trail during difficult times like the one described above.

A windy day in New Hampshire on Mt. Washington

Crossing into southern Virginia

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

Daily challenges are a bit different now that I’m not on the trail. I no longer need to filter my water, dig holes to go to the bathroom, or lay awake at night trying to differentiate the noise between a foraging squirrel and a curious bear. That being said, challenges are challenges, whether on or off the trail, and they are overcome using the same toolset of persistence, resilience, and adaptability. I’m comfortable using these tools to tackle any obstacle that lays ahead of me, whether it’s a difficult assignment, a complicated project at work, or… a pair of frozen shoes.

Mt. Katahdin, Maine.