SANDY RIVER PLANTATION, Maine — A journey along the Appalachian Trail is punctuated by peaks and valleys, easy walking and difficult climbs.
Many of the people who try to trudge the trail’s entire length — 2,184 miles from Georgia to Maine — are quick to see their travel as a metaphor for life.
Long stretches of solitude without shelter or companionship bracketed by times of great camaraderie and friendship.
“A lot of people go to the trail just to get away from their situations,” hiker John Knoll of West Virginia said.
The AT, as it is known, lures hikers from around the globe. The trail is part of the National Park System and many consider it an American conservation and cultural treasure. Completed by Civil Conservation Corps workers in Maine in 1937, the finished trail reaches its own milestone this year, turning 75 on Aug. 18.
Settling in for an overnight rest at the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s Piazza Rock shelter about 2 miles from Route 4 in the woods near Saddleback Mountain, Knoll — in his 60s and hiking with his friend, Pete Taylor — said the reasons a person decides to hike the whole trail are as varied as the people themselves.
Taylor said he met a man on the trail once who was there simply to escape the grief of losing his wife. “At home, everywhere he looked he would think of her and her being there and he just had to get away from that,” Taylor said.
Also in his 60s and “retired twice,” from the U.S. Army and from instructing high school ROTC, Taylor said he and Knoll call themselves “ORFs.”
“Old retired farts,” Taylor said, laughing.
Sitting nearby on the lean-to shelter’s raised floor is Kristen Wenderholm, a 22-year-old college student from Jonkoping, Sweden.
Starting at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Wenderholm will complete her second half-trail hike later this month. She’s on break from college and training, she said, for a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s been a northern-half-only hiker to avoid the sweltering heat of the trail’s southern portions.
She said the trail is a great equalizer, and while hikers move at different paces when they meet up at camps or shelters — sometimes in an elaborate and monthslong game of leap frog — people make new friends or catch up with old ones.
“It ebbs and flows,” Knoll said. “All the groups disintegrate and then recongregate in new configurations. Everybody is all equal on the trail. There is no real hierarchy.”
Joining Wenderholm, Taylor and Knoll on this night are three other thru-hikers.
John Gurganus is heading north toward the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, the northern terminus of the trail. The other two, Christopher Thomas and Matt Petty, are southbound and just at the start of their trek toward the southern terminus on the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia.
Thomas, from Illinois, and Petty, from Athens, Ga., met up along the trail from Katahdin — traveling at about the same pace, and they became friends.
“Well, I don’t know if I would go that far,” Petty said with a slight grin and a southern drawl.
Gurganus, from North Carolina, is on his second AT hike. The first time he did what he described as a flip-flop. He started at Harpers Ferry and headed to Maine, then caught a ride back to Harpers Ferry to hike the southern portion to Georgia.
He’s back, he said, for a second trip because this time he wanted to end on Katahdin.
Asked why anybody would want to do the whole trail twice, Gurganus laughed and said, “Because it’s more fun than working.”
He described the hikers and friends he’d made as “a kind of traveling band, like gypsies.”
Taylor said, “Fifty years ago, we would have called him a hobo.”
But the trail draws hikers from all walks of life, he said. He and Knoll have the means to sustain themselves and can afford the occasional luxury of a night or two in a hotel room to rest up.
Others are scraping by on pennies a day and depend not only on their own frugality but the goodwill of others and the good fortune that brings moments of “trail magic” or a “trail angel” who helps them in a tough situation.
All of the hikers said they miss key things after being in the woods for several months, the biggest being family and friends.
Then there are the foods not readily available or easy to carry.
“Ice cream,” Taylor said.
“Seriously,” Thomas said. “You have cravings like a pregnant woman. But it also teaches you what you really need to get by in life.”
Taylor said, he’d learned what he didn’t miss. “You realize how much you don’t really miss what you would think you would miss.”
The hikers all said the trail’s astounding scenery helps compel them along and each could tell of a favorite spot or a favorite wildlife sighting. Bobcats in Connecticut and bears in Pennsylvania, eagles in New York and a pine marten in Maine.
But beyond the scenery and the critters, it’s the people who make the trail special, the hikers agreed.
“There’s a community here that you wouldn’t think exists until you immerse yourself in it,” Taylor said. “It’s a traveling show.”
He said that of all the states he has passed through, few have had people as memorable as those in Maine.
“I’ve never met as many friendly people as we have in Maine,” Taylor said.
What’s in a trail name?
Most AT hikers use a trail nickname instead of their real names.
Matt “Sticks” Petty got his on a “zero day” — a day when hikers rest and layover in town. Petty and his hiking pal, Christopher Thomas, were staying in Stratton village in Eustis on zero day. They went to see a band playing at the Stratton Plaza. As it turned out, the band’s drummer was sick. Petty, also a drummer, offered to sit in.
By the end of the night, the other members of the band were calling him “Sticks” and, it stuck.
Trail names for the other hikers we met included Kristen “G-Bird” Wenderholm, John “Peppaboy” Gurganus, Christopher “Butters” Thomas, Pete “Hardcharger” Taylor and John “Johnny B.” Knoll.