ARDMORE, Okla. From behind the bristles of a bushy grey beard, Dennis Ham spins the stories of his hikes along the Appalachian Trail with careful detail to the trail itself.
The 2,170-mile trek commands Ham's stories, driving the characters and setting the scene. He's competed with a black bear for a raspberry patch, patiently chatted with a bull moose, and even met a few people along the trail. One nearly became his wife.
While on the AT, as he calls it, Ham goes by the trail name "Dodger." A former U.S. customs officer, the native Oklahoman was born in Durant and raised in Healdton, where his father still lives.
Long walks with his father in the woods surrounding his house gave him a familiarity with the outdoors from a young age. His father once doubled back behind his lagging son to see if the boy could navigate his way home alone.
"We were about a mile from home and I just kept on going, totally unconcerned," he said. "I always felt like I belonged outside. I'd rather sleep outdoors every night if I could."
In 1992 Ham got serious about hiking. After stashing away the money he needed, he began logging more than 1,000 miles each year on trails across the country. He's logged about 15,000 miles since.
He's hiked the Natchez Trace Parkway running from Nashville to New Orleans. He's crossed Oklahoma and parts of Texas, Ohio and Kentucky during a cross country journey with a friend, Daniel Rogers, who chronicled the trip in his book, "America One Step at a Time."
The paths of the Appalachian Trail continue to entice him and have since he was 11 years old, when an uncle gave him a subscription to National Geographic magazine. One of the first issues to arrive featured a story about the AT.
"After reading the article, I said to myself that I would do that someday. I thought it would be a pretty cool thing," Ham said.
In 1999 Ham decided to through-hike, or travel the entire stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, part of Baxter State Park, in Maine. It took nearly five months. Before and after the marathon hike, Ham traveled smaller portions of the trail, often wandering along intriguing side paths.
About 2,000 people leave Mt. Springer each spring, determined to conquer the trail. Half usually drop out after the first 130 miles. Only about 200, or 10 percent of those who start the journey, will finish, Ham said.
"The reason most people quit is all mental," Ham said. " You have to commit to doing it for 4 12 , 5 12 months and not take too many days off. It's a mental challenge to keep going."
Though he hikes alone, Ham said it's impossible to travel for a day and not run into friendly faces of fellow outdoorsmen.
"You get in with a loose group of people and as time and injury and people quitting whittle that core group down, you'll make friends you'll keep for a lifetime," he said. "It's more intense than being married."
Ham said he plans to through-hike several more trails the Pacific Crest trail in California, the Continental Divide trail along the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada, and a massive cross-country jaunt from the easternmost tip of Maine to the westernmost spot in Southern California.
Surviving the long haul takes practice. Ham always packs light a tent, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes and several days' worth of food and stocks up in towns along the trails as he goes.
To revive his tired spirits on days when the going is tough, Ham relies on one of the more philosophical aspects of hiking called "trail magic."
Experienced hikers know that leaving goodies and an inspirational word or two for others to discover can make a profound difference on a hard day. Other magic takes the form of a hot shower or a soft bed in town, or even a smile and a word of encouragement from the locals. Any act that lifts the spirits will do.
The trick to trail magic is simple, Ham says.
"You've got to give it to get it back."
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