(Editor’s Note: So now you are retired and can finally dust off that "things to do when I retire list" and start checking them off. Is walking the Appalachian Trail on the list? If not, perhaps an excerpt from Jeff Alt's award-winning Appalachian Trail adventure, A Walk for Sunshine, will inspire you to put your boots and backpack on and hit the trail. Many of the hikers who walked the entire 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail have recently retired. As you know,, walking is one of the healthiest activities you can do.It only makes sense to do it now! The excuse of not having enough vacation time is gone. You will never find a better six month time frame in your life.)
Chapter One: Stepping Out
(Excerpted with permission from A WALK FOR SUNSHINE by Jeff Alt)
Walk 2,160 miles and live in the woods for six months?
I stepped onto the Appalachian Trail for the first time as a 14-year-old teenager while on summer vacation with my family in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had never been to this park before, nor had I ever gone on an overnight hike. My family and I set up camp at one of the national park campgrounds, Elkmont, at the foot of Clingmans Dome. At 6,672 feet, it is the highest mountain in the Smokies.
My two brothers and I decided to hike up the mountain, leaving our parents, a cooler full of food, and a comfort-able camper. We obviously were not thinking clearly. We didn’t have the proper backcountry gear essential to hiking, So we headed up with our sleeping bags in trash liners along with some candy bars, canned food, and two-liter pop bottles filled with water. We intended to stay in the Double Spring Gap shelter along the Appalachian Trail, a makeshift shanty for overnight hikers located only a short distance from the summit.
Halfway up the mountain the three of us laid down along the trail, not wanting to go a step further. A ranger came hiking down the trail from the summit and advised us to get off our duffs and scramble up the mountain if we wanted to make it to the shelter by nightfall. We all stood up and began hiking as fast as we could in fear of being exposed to the bear-infested forest without light or shelter.
Toughest hike ever
That ranger gave us the fire-cracker -- the motivation -- we needed, and we finally arrived at the shelter at dusk. The hike was the toughest thing I had ever done physically, and I still felt it in my muscles a week later. I was never so happy to be back with our parents and a cooler full of food the next day. We learned to appreciate all of the simple luxuries of life after just two days in the woods. Of course, we didn’t appreciate the historical significance of the Appalachian Trail on that first hike. We were just proud of our physical accomplishment and the bravery that carried us through the bear -- and snake -- nfested wilderness. We were thankful to be alive. We didn’t realize that we had spent the night in a shelter along one of the oldest, longest, footpaths in North America.
I did not venture out on backcountry excursions again until I entered the U.S. Army years later, at age 18. If I had any pleasant memories of hiking in the backcountry, the Army was efficient in wiping those thoughts away. Forced marches wearing a poorly de-signed ruck sack, 3 A.M. wake-up calls, digging defensive fighting positions, and verbal abuse pretty much eliminated any thoughts of hiking for pleasure. Years passed before I went on a hike again.
In college, I acquired some basic hiking equipment and returned to the Great Smoky Mountains for a hiking adventure. I was in better shape than my teenage encounter with hiking, and I had appropriate gear this time. I actually began to enjoy the rigorous endurance required for backpacking. Throughout college, I hiked frequently during school vacations and led several college groups on week-long hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park became my mountain playground. If I wasn’t visiting family during college breaks, I was hiking somewhere in the Smokies.
Walking through the Smokies
The Appalachian Trail traverses right through the Smokies, and forms the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee. My parents, who live in Florida, planned to meet me in the Smokies for Labor Day weekend in 1992. I asked my stepfather, Ron, if he would be interested in an overnight hike during the weekend, and he agreed,enthusiastically, to give it a try. After coordinating our supplies and gear, we hoisted backpacks that were outfitted with enough food and clothes to supply an army. We waved good-bye to our family and headed up the mountain to spend the night.
The weather was pleasant and the terrain was not very rugged. We reached our destination -- the Spence Field shelter -- with plenty of daylight left. We had hiked eight miles in four hours. Some other hikers who also camped in the shelter informed my stepfather and I that we had just hiked one of the most rugged sections of the Appalachian Mountains. We sat up around the fire into the dark hours that night sharing stories with other hikers. At some point during that inspirational weekend, my stepfather and I decided that we were going to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.
Everyone who decides to hike the Trail does so for different reasons. I wanted to get back to a simpler life. I grew up in the computer age. These electronic wonders are supposed to simplify our lives, freeing our time and enhancing the quality of our life. Indeed, computers have simplified many tasks, making it easier to bank, shop, and write this book, but computers have not simplified our lifestyles. Americans work longer hours than we did 20 years ago. We spend less time with our families, and many folks are in a constant fast-paced routine. Fast food has become the norm in many households, while home-cooked meals are a thing of the past. Road rage has become a national problem. Is there an end in sight for the over-worked, fast-paced, demoralized, lack-of-family-time madness in which we live? Will the idea of having a weekend off eventually be something kids read about in history books? What would it be like to step back in time to an era without cars? What would it be like to walk every day for five months with my only worries being food, shelter, and sleep, similar to our nomadic ancestors?
Setting the goal
These were all thoughts going through my mind on a daily basis, after that second hike. I hoped to gain a better perspective of life’s issues and enhance my quality of life. Walking the Appalachian Trail had become a necessary goal. Ron and I were definitely not the first to set a goal of walking the whole 2,000-plus-mile Appalachian Trail. Earl Shaffer was the very first person to walk from end to end in 1948, shortly after returning to the states after serving his country in World War II. If walking is the cure for post-traumatic stress disorder and the Appalachian Trail doesn’t cure you, I don’t know what will.
In the 1940s people walked as a mode of transportation, but prior to Earl’s hike, going the full 2,000-mile distance from Georgia to Maine was considered impossible, lacking in purpose, and even crazy. But Earl did it. In 1998, the year I hiked the trail, Earl successfully completed another end-to-end-hike at the age of 79, marking the 50th anniversary of his first thru-hike. Earl’s second hike has inspired me to stay in shape so I can hike the whole trail when I’m 80. Since Earl’s first hike, several thousand hikers have completed end-to-end-hikes and have become what is known as thru-hikers. The adventure of living in the wilderness for six months has become attractive to more and more folks every year. Every year, between 2,000 and 3,000 hikers attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Only an estimated 10% actually complete the journey. Millions of hikers take day hikes and overnight hikes each year. Saying I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail and actually doing it were two different things. At the time of the hike with Ron, I was working as a food sales consultant and preparing to leave my job to go back to school. I decided to make a goal of hiking the whole Appalachian Trail after I graduated from college, but before I jumped back into the work force. At the same time, my stepfather decided that he would begin...
For more of Jeff’s story, visit http://jeffalt.com or Amazon.com to order a copy of his book.
By Jeff Alt
Jeff Alt, award-winning author of A Walk for Sunshine and A Hike for Mike, has been an expert guest on ESPN’s Inside America’s National Parks. Jeff’s adventures have been widely publicized around the globe in numerous magazines, newspaper articles and radio programs including CNN-Radio, The Chicago Tribune, The Good Life Show, and many more. Jeff was recently broadcast worldwide on New Dimensions Media and in the US on 400 NPR stations. For more information see http://jeffalt.com.