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Claire McNeill

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University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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Claire McNeill

His Own Hike

An 18-year-old puts school on hold to find education in a 2,000-mile wilderness.
By Claire McNeill

Austin Whitehead was bone cold.

The scruffy-haired, almost-19-year-old sat alone in a laundromat, shivering and dirt-streaked and exhausted. His clothes – the few he had – sloshed in a washing machine.

The Appalachian Trail crosses through many “nothing towns,” and the laundromat was in one: just a place to stock up on food and check mail. It was all part of the routine: wake up, walk, eat, walk, eat, walk, eat, sleep. Do it again. Every week or so the trail meets a town. So there Whitehead sat.

He’d been alone in the woods for four months. 1,404 miles. 777 to go.

The door opened and a family walked in, a couple of kids in tow. They’d never heard of the Appalachian Trail, so Whitehead told them its story. It’s a sprawling, 2,181-mile footpath that stretches from Maine to Georgia. It winds through 14 states. And he was hiking it all in one shot.

The family listened and left.

But then they came back. And they had a gift.

Greasy, glorious hot dogs, six in all. A liter of steaming, homemade clam chowder. All for him.

So in Glasgow, Va., population 1,136, on a frigid day, all alone and truly in the middle of nowhere, by the grace of strangers, Whitehead had a feast. It was, as they say, trail magic.

Whitehead – now a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill – wanted to break away. He wanted more time, more of a transition before college.

“My granddad always used to talk about, ‘Kids these days – when I was your age we used to go away to the military after high school, and you learn a lot, and you grow up,'” Whitehead said. “I always felt there was something lacking, like my military.”

The trail – often called the A.T. – had been in the back of his mind. It was a vague dream, never a plan. But one day, as a high school senior, the future wide open, he gave it real consideration. He could take a gap year. He could put himself to work. He could actually do it.

There isn’t a surefire way to prepare for the Appalachian Trail, and Whitehead didn’t have much experience. The trail has its dangers: starvation, hypothermia, rattlesnakes, moose, bears, spiders, serious injury, disease and natural disaster, to name a few.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Hell no,'” said Whitehead’s father, Mike. “I just said, ‘Oh, that’s so interesting,’ hoping maybe it would just go away.”

Eventually, Whitehead’s passionate reasoning prevailed. There were deliberations, months of research, a lot of overpacking. He posted this note on his blog before leaving: “I am excited, not just for the endless vistas and the freedom that comes with wandering, but also for the brutal repetitiveness, inconvenient rain storms and quirks that are inevitable on such an adventure. I have learned that, while backpacking, the highs are really high and the lows are really low, but it is the extremity of either that makes its counterpart such a catalyst for genuine change.”

At 7 a.m. on June 16, 2011, under the weight of a 33-pound pack, Whitehead stepped onto a train platform in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C. It was a week after his high school graduation, and he was ready. His father cried as his son walked away. He knew one day he’d be saying goodbye but didn’t think it would be like this.

“It was hard to watch him walk off at 18 on that train,” Mike Whitehead said. “Most parents just watch their kids go to college.”

Whitehead spent the next 38 hours en route to the Maine trailhead at Mount Katahdin. He and his childhood friend Steven Pitts were going to hike southbound – a route only about 10 percent of hikers take.

They made it to Maine. The trail rose in front of them. It was June 19. Time to start walking.

Eons ago, the Appalachian Mountains pierced the sky. They were the Alps of their time, snow-capped and jagged. But the last 10 million years have worn them down to the gentler ridges they are today.

It’s hard to comprehend how old the Appalachians are, having risen from the earth some 480 million years ago. They’re older than today’s continents and oceans. They’re much, much older than most mountain chains in the world. They’re older than almost all other landscape features on earth. The Appalachians were there for some of the earliest life on the planet. They’ve risen and fallen, eroded to a flat plain, only to rise again.

Of the 2 million to 3 million people who hike the Appalachian Trail each year, only about 500 people, called thru-hikers, make it from end to end in one journey. And only about 1,000 people have reported completing a southbound hike since the trail’s completion in 1937.

Northbound hikes have been called “traveling frat parties” – not exactly what Whitehead wanted. A southbound hike offered more solitude and more of a challenge.

The trail has its own culture and dialect. Many of its thru-hikers are in a moment of transition: beginning or ending relationships, leaving an old job, graduating or transferring. In that sense, they’re all on a “quintessential journey, physically and spiritually,” as Whitehead said, searching for some balance or escape or transformation.

There are all sorts of terms: Trail magic, for those serendipitous moments that restore faith in a hiker’s purpose. Trail angels, for those who’ve dedicated their lives to helping hikers along the way.

Thru-hikers adopt trail names, bestowed upon them by fellow hikers. Some are straightforward: a religious hiker, for example, might be called Reverend. Others are more eccentric: Whitehead met Space Cowboy, Quiet Elf and Chainsaw in his first week. Whitehead’s name was Mismatch, owing to an incident in which he lost one trekking pole and had to replace it with a different kind.

Those heading the same way often start hiking and camping together, becoming short-term travel buddies and, sometimes, real friends. Of the southbound hikers Whitehead met, eight of them are still close enough to call each other friends. Hikers often say they wish they had more photos of the amazing people they met on the trail instead of endless mountain vistas.

Along the trail, hikers scrawl messages, stories, updates and warnings in trail registers, all signed with their trail name. It’s a window into fellow hikers’ psyches.

In parts, the trail can be an ‘intro to hiking’ of sorts. In others, hikers face relentless stretches of challenging wilderness. Though the tallest mountain is only about 6,650 feet, there are more than 350 peaks more than 5,000 feet high along the A.T. It takes willpower. But soon enough, hikers get their “trail legs,” averaging 10 to 15 miles per day. Most thru-hikers take six months to walk from end to end.

Whitehead experienced much of the trail alone after he and Pitts split in Vermont, following the trail’s unofficial motto: Hike your own hike. The deep solitude of the woods initially came as a shock, but soon, it was all he knew.

“You just let your mind wander,” he said. It was an escape from the noise of life. For the first time, there was room for thought in the absence of constant stimulation.

That sense of meditation is what got him through the toughest leg of his journey: seven straight days of driving rain in the midst of relentless tropical storms.

“Everything you own is soaked, and your feet are soaked, and you’ve got big blisters everywhere, and you kind of have this sense of, ‘Why am I really doing this?'” he said. He questioned his own will. His motivation seemed to have evaporated.

There was something magnetic about the woods, though. Something about the ancient, venerable forests and their deep, quiet power. Something about the way distance expanded beneath him, showing how colossal the world truly is.

“You know when you’re in a plane, looking down, and you see cars going everywhere, and you have that really cliche moment of, ‘Where is everybody going? There’s so many people here, and I’m just one of them,'” he said. “That same thing happens in the mountains, but even more frequently. You know, this place is so big and so amazing, and so vast, and who am I in comparison to that?”

There are, of course, the striking moments that stand out against a backdrop of repetition: The grand, soaring mountains of Maine. The euphoria of walking along ridgelines, mountains undulating into the distance. Halloween in a pizza joint with a bunch of other southbound hikers. The camaraderie. Achieving a record hiking distance: 33 miles in one day. A surprise party at a shelter, where Whitehead’s family celebrated his 19th birthday with buckets of KFC, mashed potatoes and a gooey cookie cake. And the sense of escape, of being so far away from the world that all there is to do is walk and dream and sleep under the stars.

The Appalachian Trail was the vision of a kindly land-use planner, Benton MacKaye, and its completion in 1937 was due to the efforts of thousands of volunteers and government workers, fulfilling his grand idea for “a linear park” in an increasingly urban America.

MacKaye’s dramatic plan, introduced in 1921, included a network of mountaintop work camps, study centers and cooperative living communities, inspired in parts by Thoreau and socialist philosophy. His trail would link two of the tallest peaks in the east – Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina – with a 1,200-mile path.

But Myron Avery, the pragmatic leader of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, pushed for more. Without Avery’s determined effort, the Appalachian Trail would be much different – if it existed at all. It was Avery who extended the trail to 2,000 miles, rallied volunteers and personally oversaw the transformation of mountain wilderness to a rolling footpath. Under his guidance, it was finished in less than seven years.

Amazingly, the trail’s completion in August 1937 was received with silence: no newspaper announcements or celebrations. Throughout the next decade, the trail became overgrown in parts, and few people even knew it existed.

Eleven years after the trail’s completion, in the summer of 1948, a young veteran set out to hike it end to end. Such a hike was never part of the original vision, but Earl Shaffer nevertheless walked from Georgia to Maine in 123 days – with no tent and just a handful of road maps. His feat was so extraordinary that no one believed him until he passed a thorough cross-examination.

Shaffer’s trek revived some interest in the trail, but it didn’t last. It seemed the trail was doomed to obsolescence or eventual destruction – until Stewart Udall took office. The secretary of the interior fought tirelessly for environmental legislation, and his wide-sweeping National Trails System Act in 1968 made the Appalachian Trail a national park, establishing a protective wilderness buffer.

Now, along with public and private funds, the A.T. is one of the largest volunteer-run operations in the world.

Hikers experience the trail as it is thanks to constant behind-the-scenes work, said John Odell, resource management coordinator at the Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee regional office of the Appalachian Trail Club.

The ATC had almost $6.5 million in expenses in 2012, from conservation to outreach to management. The ATC receives federal money, but the organization relies heavily on membership drives and private donations, Odell said.

“We maintain a pretty small staff and cover the costs of a lot of projects,” he said. “We can’t always rely on using the level of (federal) funding that we’ve had in the past.”

To preserve the trail, the ATC tries to acquire land in partnership with federal agencies and other groups, Odell said. The aim is to protect the wilderness corridor from encroachment in any form: road crossings, wind farms, development, pipelines and more. And the agency is always looking to prevent smaller-scale misuse of land, such as ATV trespassing and vandalism.

“We’re constantly battling,” Odell said.

Losing the wilderness experience would mean losing a crucial part of the trail’s spirit.

“Getting out on the trail really allows us to open our senses to all the things around us,” Odell said. “It allows us to recharge ourselves, to live in the present and be introspective, to get away from all the unnecessary burdens that are cast upon us by work and life. Getting out on the trail just allows us to be a human being as one small part of the big natural world.”

Whitehead used to see his role in the world as a solitary one. He’d say he didn’t want to get married. He just wanted to travel. He was a smart high schooler but as is often the case, he didn’t always apply himself. His father was concerned his son wouldn’t ever settle down.

The trail was meant to sort some of that out. But it also taught Whitehead how to truly be alone – which only made him realize he didn’t want to be alone forever.

“Being so transient is an experience in and of itself, but it made me realize, I want aspects of this in my life, but I want a balance,” Whitehead said. “I want to make my roots.”

Whitehead’s father said most people don’t learn that until they’re 40.

“He’s already grown up to be more of himself than I ever was at age 21,” his father said.

Donald Hornstein was a young hiker, too. It was 1975. In his 60-pound pack was a bottle of Kahlua, wool pants and some hardback books. He was 24, traveling southbound on the Appalachian Trail with his girlfriend, and it was his first real hike.

“I did it for the same reason any 24-year-old does it,” he said, reclining in a red chair in his office. “It was exciting, it was romantic, it was the best option.”

Hornstein, 63, is now a charismatic professor at the UNC-CH School of Law, where he focuses on environmental law. When he talks about the trail, he looks positively jovial.

The trail culture was different then, as was the gear. Only about 200 to 300 people attempted thru-hiking the trail that year, and the number that finished was far smaller. For Hornstein, it was “almost a religious experience.” And it was a career path.

“I did this because I wanted to figure out what to do, and as I got closer to Georgia, I thought, oh my God, it hasn’t been revealed to me,” he said, laughing. Then he came across what was then one of the most polluted areas in North America, a denuded copper basin.

“It bothered me,” he said. “I didn’t even know what I was looking at, and that’s when I had the inkling of an idea that I would go to law school and represent Greenpeace – both of which I then did.”

Upon finishing the Appalachian Trail and getting married, Hornstein and his wife Amy set out for the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking. They conquered the Pacific Crest Trail, which winds 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada along the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges; and the Continental Divide Trail, a nascent 3,100-mile trail from Mexico to Canada that traverses the Rocky Mountains. More people have summited Everest than gotten the Triple Crown, almost 20 times over.

Hornstein and his wife settled down, raising two sons and building careers. But it wasn’t long before they were on the trail again, dropping their eldest off on the A.T. to walk as far as he could until he had to leave for MIT. The family joined for a bit, and for the first time, 12-year-old Eli Hornstein took to the trail.

Soon he and his father returned. Then they came back again, summer after summer, traversing the trail in chunks – known as “section hiking” – until they finished in 2007.

“There were the magic moments,” Hornstein said. “I would be with Eli, who was 17 or 18, and we would read trail log entries his mom wrote when she hiked the trail and was 17 or 18. That was quite something.”

Whitehead looked at the little plaque on the ground: Appalachian National Scenic Trail, Springer Mountain, Southern Terminus. It was the end. He’d walked 5 million steps to make it here in exactly five months. He’d been through 14 states and a million towns and a thousand rainstorms. He’d eaten Ramen noodles and Lipton sides for what felt like every meal. He’d unpacked and packed, unpacked and packed, walked and walked and walked and walked.

Now he felt nothing.

“But I knew that’s what I had signed up for,” he said. “It was almost a good reminder, a personification of the lesson that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.”

His family was there to greet him and drive him down the road to a hotel. But he walked the nine miles there, instead, alone.

“It just felt right to walk it. And it took probably two or three days for me to realize I wasn’t going to get up and start hiking again,” he said.

He wrote on his blog a few days after finishing: “I still don’t have go-to answers for the questions I have already answered time upon time again. How can I possibly describe ‘how the trail was’ to someone who has never hiked it? What am I supposed to say when asked what my favorite part was when every step stands alone and in solidarity with each other one, incapable of being compared or analyzed separately? My personal favorite is ‘What changed?’ or ‘How are you different?’ And the only summation I can come up with is that I am less cynical, but I know and I think the interviewer knows that that answer barely scrapes the surface – some of my most fundamental beliefs and opinions were shaken if not uprooted, lifelong internal narratives were broken down and while I am the same person I was, I have shed layers and opened myself to the world.”

Re-acclimation was tough. He’d gotten used to the deep quiet of the forest, the solitary plod of his sandals on the rocky path. Now, he found himself bussing tables at a raucous upscale restaurant.

“People had kind of warned me about post-trail depression, and I don’t know if I’d call it depression, but … I went from 12 hours of walking by myself in the woods to 12 hours of yelling in the kitchen, and it was kind of depressing,” he said.

The A.T. distills life into its simplest, most basic meaning: you have a goal, and you walk, and you reach it.

“The thing about the A.T. is you’re doing something slightly heroic, and yet, it takes almost no skill,” Hornstein said. “It takes perseverance, it takes a lot of luck not to be injured, and it takes doggedness … You have clarity of purpose. You’re going to get up and follow the white blazes, and you have an identity.”

For the months a hiker is on the trail, the white blazes become the way. The path becomes the purpose.

Which makes leaving it difficult.

“When you finish, that purpose is fulfilled and you’re left with nothing, really,” Whitehead said. “You have to create another purpose.”

Whitehead, 21, is now a sophomore at UNC-CH after transferring from Appalachian State University. He’s studying environmental science, keeping him close to the wilderness he loves. He tells his story as he sits in a rocking chair, clad in an electric blue shirt and cuffed chinos. His hair is cropped close to his head, a soft brown the same shade as his bright, warm eyes. He’s thin and strong, introspective and charismatic, calm and almost impossibly kind.

He says he’s sure he’s romanticizing parts of the trail, but that’s part of its beauty. He’s not the first to evangelize. David Emblidge wrote in the 1996 Appalachian Trail Reader that the trail is “a kind of linear cathedral, a linear museum where the spirit, the emotions and the senses all meet in equal opportunity for enjoyment and the possibility of insight.” Entire books have been filled, ten times over, with similar sentiments.

Whitehead talks about his plans to hike more. He wants that Triple Crown. He’s thankful for the lessons the Appalachian Trail taught him: simplicity, patience, openness. The way it tested his endurance. The way it expanded his soul.

“I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do; this is how I’m going to do it,’ and I did it,” he says. “That’s a really powerful experience for any kid to have. It really redefined how I value my life.

“It was like a coming of age.”