RIGGIN' THE AT
I was seven years old when I went on my first overnight backpacking trip with my Dad on the West Rim Trail in north central Pennsylvania. It was great! I jumped in all the puddles, walked too close to the edge for my Dad’s comfort, got my first tick, tracked mud in the tent, and generally had a grand adventure I could tell all the neighborhood kids about. We continued to go on a trip or two a year as I grew up and while they got more difficult, I always had a great sense of satisfaction upon the completion of a journey and joy in facing down the wild and the elements with a backpack and a hiking stick. One of my favorite memories was a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park with my uncle and cousin from Colorado. We had a close bear encounter, were caught in a lightning storm above treeline, I fell into an ice cold lake, and had my first encounter with real altitude. However the best part of that trip was quoting Bear Grylls nonstop with my cousin George.
A special trail to me was the Loyalsock Trail near Williamsport, Pa. I had been on day hikes and an overnighter on this trail before when I was very young and I was in awe that anyone could walk 60 miles in a row. I was so impressed that when I was nine or ten, I made it a goal of mine to hike the trail someday. As I get older, I got more involved with wrestling and work. I didn’t go on as many backpacking trips. I still enjoyed fishing, hiking, and messing around in the woods but I was too busy in the summers with work and too tired from wrestling in the winter to do any longer hikes. I continued wrestling my freshman year at Messiah College, where I was pursuing an engineering degree. This was a really hard year for me, it was a very big jump from high school wrestling to a top ten division college program. The starter at my weight ended up being the National Champion that year, and I was his primary training partner, so it was a very humbling experience. I learned a lot from him and my other teammates about what it takes to be elite and achieve your goals. This experience was invaluable. Unfortunately, my grades suffered that year. I had a 1.9 GPA and was very close to flunking out of the engineering program if I didn’t get my act together.
I made the decision to quit wrestling so I could better focus on my studies and I achieved the grades necessary to get into the civil engineering program after my sophomore year. I missed having a physical challenge in my life and I lived with other wrestlers so when I watched them come home dog tired from practices and tournaments, I felt like I had left something on the table. If I had had their dedication and focus, I knew I could still be wrestling and it ate me up. I knew that I didn’t want to feel like this again. These feelings were part of the reason I decided to hike the Loyalsock trail after my junior year of college. I found the challenge of a hard hike gave my a little bit of what I was missing from wrestling and I thought it would be a great idea to achieve a goal I have had for a while. I hiked the trail in 4.5 days and when I reached the sign at the end of it, I knew longer hikes were in store. Me and my friend from high school made it our goal to hike the entire Appalachian Trail when he graduated from college. The time couldn’t come fast enough. I was very bored at my engineering job and I craved adventure. I would go on as many weekend trips as I could but a combination of being bored, beer, fast food and general inactivity led to me gaining a good deal of weight. It was something that crept up on me and then all of the sudden was out of control. I knew I needed to get hiking to get my life back in line.
While waiting to hike I did A LOT of research on the Appalachian Trail. I perused Reddit, Youtube, TheTrek.co, and other blogs and books. It was the only thing I could do to keep from going crazy. In my research I stumbled across a youtube video of Backcountry Banter sewing a synthetic quilt (basically backpacking sleeping bag.) I had read about this before but the way he presented the process in his video seemed simple enough that I could do it. I asked my mom to teach me how to thread the needle and sew a straight line and I was off on my first project, I made a quilt that was too short and looked VERY home made. But it was warm, cozy, and light. I was hooked. I made underquilts for hammocks, a lot more top quilts for friends and family, rain mitts, backpacks, rain coats, rain pants, a puffy jacket and a snow skirt, gators, fanny packs, wallets, and other projects I can’t remember now. I had a lot of fun making useful items out of raw materials and it was a thrill when they actually worked. My sewing was very sloppy and rushed then but it was just because I was always very excited about my projects. These projects were really good for me because they gave me something to do while I waited to start the trail, my mind was so ready to be out there.
My body wasn’t. I weighed around 210 pounds on our first day of the trail January 1st. I had been steadily gaining weight since I quit wrestling and then in April 2018 I quit chewing tobacco. This was a great decision for me but one of the side effects of nicotine withdrawal is weight gain. I replaced packing a lip with the wendy’s dollar menu and it showed. I felt crappy and tired a lot and I knew I couldn’t live like this. Luckily I had my goal of hiking the trail or I might still be in that rut.
I wanted my hike to be unique and I had read about people tackling the trail in the winter and that sounded like a real challenge. I practiced my cold weather camping alot in the years and months leading up to the trail so I felt confident that I could hack it. I learned lots of lessons through these trial winter trips and without them I would have had a much harder time. So the Start date of January 1st was selected and I got prepared to be cold wet and miserable for a while. It would be worth it to have the trail to ourselves and the views unobstructed by leaves.
There were a lot of well meaning people who told me I was crazy to be hiking so early in the year, that it would be dangerous, miserable, lonely, and that it might cause me to give up. I appreciate their concern and it made me feel cared for. But I am so thankful that I didn’t listen to them. What follows is the trail journal I kept while I was out there on the trail, I will fill in the gaps where my blog is lacking (aka New England), and elaborate on some of the more exceptional days and miles.