As season changes, adventure of lifetime remembered, new dreams call

Posted: Sunday, February 29, 2004

Although the first day of spring is still officially three weeks away, I've already come down with a major case of "Springer Fever": a rare condition where my heart beats fast, my wanderlust begins to build and I've got an insatiable urge to strap a 40-pound backpack on and head for the backcountry.

You see, I'm a past Appalachian Trail "thru-hiker."

For those not familiar with the East Coast, let me explain. The Appalachian Trail is a 2,168-mile footpath from Springer Mountain, Ga., in the south to Mount Katahdin, Maine, in the north. Between those points, it stretches over 14 different states and passes through more than 60 federal, state and local parks and forests.

A "thru-hiker" is someone who hikes the entire distance, continuously within one hiking season, typically with a minimum of gear. Each year starting around this time, several thousand hikers attempt to make this journey, but in the end, fewer than 200 actually succeed.

My wife and I were two of those 200, and so every year at this time we long to be on Springer Mountain, engulfed in the oaks and maples, looking for the next white blaze and starting the adventure of a lifetime.

In Georgia, we faced hardship from the very beginning. After training in the mountains of North Georgia all winter long in temperatures that never dropped below 30 degrees, we were surprised when a cold front moved in on the first day of our official hike, and the mercury plunged down to the single digits.

Our hiking clothes from the previous day had frozen solid into what could only be described as a shorts-and-shirt-cicles. Regardless, they needed to be put back on for day two of our trek, much to our discomfort.

Hikers all around us began dropping like flies, but we stuck with it and made it to the next two states that the trail winds back and forth through Tennessee and North Carolina. There we learned why the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is called the rain forest of the southeast there was never a dry moment.

After a few weeks, the weather improved and we pulled into Virginia. It became magnificent to hike north with spring moving with us. The forest floor transformed from a dull lifeless brown to a vibrant green that was alive with wildflowers and wild creatures. Shenandoah National Park remains one of my favorite parts of the hike to this day.

West Virginia was next on the list and it signified the official halfway point. Several hundred hikers had dropped by this point, and a few more called it quits upon making it there, but we knew there was no turning back after we made it that far.

Maryland followed. The thing I remember most about this state is that it's home to the "original," yet much less known, Washington Monument a rugged, stone tower that bares a striking resemblance to a milk bottle from the 1950s.

Pennsylvania was a wee bit rocky and there were quite a few snakes. I remember one day in particular, while moving through a narrow rock corridor I heard an almost electric buzzing to my left. I turned to find myself literally face to face with a timber rattler sunning itself on top of a boulder. Despite the weight of my pack, I still managed to broad jump further than many Olympic hopefuls.

In New Jersey we saw our first black bear of the hike, which reaffirmed that our months of hanging our food in trees at night weren't in vain.

We blew through New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, having finally hit our stride. Hiking anything less than 25 miles a day just didn't feel good.

Surprisingly, we saw many more people drop in these northern states. However, this far into the hike it was mostly for mental reasons, much more than the physical weakness that wiped out so many people in the first few states.

In New Hampshire, we summited Mount Washington. This mountain not only has killed more climbers than Mount McKinley, but it also has been recognized as having "the worst weather in the world," with recorded wind speeds in excess of 231 mph.

Then, finally, there was Maine.

This state is almost mythical to "thru-hikers" by the time they reach it. In this final state, we knew we had our long trek in the bag, so we kicked back, took it easy and had nothing but fun.

We fly fished for our dinner, spent every night open-air camping on a mountain summit and began seeing our first southbound "thru-hikers," who we tried to encourage never to give up on their dream of making it all the way.

Because when we stood on top of Mount Katahdin after more than four months of continuous hiking, that was what it was really all about a dream come true.

Though there were times when we thought we might need therapy to recover from the weeks of inclement weather, hordes of insects, numerous near vertical rock scrambles and all the other physical and mental challenges we endured, in the end being a "thru-hiker" was the most free, real and happy I've ever been in my life.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.



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