For months he was alone, walking through shady woods, climbing jagged ridges and sleeping in a one-man tent. He wanted time to himself, to reflect and be away from housing developments and job applications. With hundreds of miles of the Appalachian Trail left ahead of him, he realized that at the end of the trail, he only wanted one thing — Sofie.
The AT seed was planted when Matt Dieschbourg was 13 years old and he visited Mount Katahdin with a Boy Scout group. They nearly reached the summit when high winds drove them back down.
When Sofie Grzenia met Matt in 2001, they spent their first date scaling a rock wall in the suburbs of Chicago, and she realized she had an outdoorsman on her hands. After graduating college, he climbed Springer Mountain in Georgia in 2010 and began the 2,175-mile walk to Millinocket, Maine.
“When I left to go on the trail, it was one of those things. She was hurt that I didn’t think to ask her to come with me. But it was my time to go out and find myself before I start my life,” said Matt, 28. “It was a lot of time for me to spend time with me, but it only took me not having her in my life for two weeks and I was like, ‘Wow. I don’t want to do this.’ At that point, I realized that she is someone I want to be with for the rest of my life …”
No hardships befell Matt though he came across eight black bears, three rattlesnakes and the biggest spider he had ever seen (while hiking the 100-mile Wilderness in Maine). He even avoided snow until reaching Katahdin, sometimes missing a snowstorm by only a few days.
He brought Fun Dip candy onto the trail in Georgia and tried to pawn it off on fellow hikers for weeks. His antics earned him the trail name of Fun Dip. Though he seldom hiked with a companion, he repeatedly crossed paths with many of the same hikers.
Sofie, 27, collects rocks, so Matt found a rock for every 50 miles he hiked and sent it back home with a letter.
“I’d give myself a 2-mile area of trail to let myself look,” Matt said.
He kept in touch with her with his cell phone, which he charged at gas stations, hostels and Laundromats. Sometimes he’d get reception on the top of a ridge and dial her number.
Sofie joined him on the trail in northern Tennessee and hiked with him for a few miles to Laurel Creek. On the dark creek bed, she spotted a small speck of white.
“I picked up this rock and said it was pretty cool looking,” Sofie said.
Matt placed the small quartz rock, in his pack and carried it for 1,200 miles before being struck with an idea — to have it made into an engagement ring.
But he needed to do in on a hiker’s budget. (Hiking the AT typically costs $3,000 plus equipment.)
When his friend from home, Matt Koeune, 29, came to hike with him for five days, Koeune told him he’d go home, do some research and find a way to have the ring made.
Koeune sent the rock to Von Bargen’s in New Hampshire, a jeweler that lay ahead of Matt on the trail. When Matt arrived at the jewelers six days later, he picked out the ring and the setting.
With nothing to do but march on, he called Sofie to make sure she remembered the rock.
“I wanted to make sure she remembered it — it was pretty pertinent to my whole situation,” he said. Thankfully, she did.
The jewelers shipped the smooth oval stone set in a ring of 18-carat yellow gold to Millinocket where Matt picked it up before Sofie was to arrive to join him in hiking Mount Katahdin.
Matt called their parents beforehand. Thru-hikers Burl, Stick Shift, T-Rex, Ripple, Sideways and Joker also knew about his plans to propose. And several people in Millinocket had heard the tale while Matt waited in town for Sofie to arrive.
“Well, everyone on the trail knew. They couldn’t bust the secret. I needed support when I was out there,” Matt said.
“It seemed everyone knew except for me,” Sofie said. “The thought had crossed my mind, but the thought had crossed my mind many times over the past nine years. I told myself maybe a few times before. But I was pretty shocked.”
They woke up early Saturday morning and left their cabin with layers of clothing, including winter jackets, to tackle the mile-high mountain.
“The wind was a little bit scary,” Sofie said. “And I was like, ‘OK, I need to make it up because I really wanted to finish it with him… My knees were hurting pretty bad, but the views were awesome.”
The temperature dropped as they climbed. The top of the mountain was frosted with snow. As they crossed the Tablelands, a flat area above tree line just before the summit, clouds blocked out the sun, but the wind seemed to be broken at the lip of the ridge.
When they reached Baxter Peak, a Korean film crew was crowded around the wooden summit sign, shooting a documentary.
“[Sofie] kind of held back, so I walked up to the crew and said, ‘What’s going on? I’m going to propose to my girlfriend right here and I need the summit,’” Matt said.
The film crew, excited about the idea, told Matt they would film it and send him a copy.
“[One of the film crew] almost blew the surprise, trying to get everyone to step to the side,” Matt said.
About 10 people approached the summit and gathered to watch. Icy wind whipped around the summit.
Matt knelt down in the powdery snow in front of the summit sign and said to Sofie: “I didn’t think it was going to happen like this. I pictured this differently.”
He opened up the box containing the quartz ring and asked her to marry him. When she said, “yes,” everyone on the summit applauded.
“Then I had to take her glove off and put the ring on,” Matt said. “I was scared to put the cold ring on her finger. I didn’t want her hand to freeze. It fit, and I put the glove right back on.”
“You know, the cost and all that doesn’t mean as much as this does to me,” Sofie said holding out her left hand. “I think that it means a lot more than any diamond you buy at a store.”
When they got below tree line, he took out a bottle of Champagne and lunch as they sat looking out over the rainbow foliage of a seemingly endless forest. He explained the ring and why he chose to wait.
“The proposal spot was important,” Matt said. “This is me finishing something and learning about myself, and this is the start of me and Sofie taking on the next journey. On the top of the mountain was where one thing ended and the other thing began.”