“Triple crown” is a term that has been used to honor competitors and athletes for decades. There’s a Triple Crown of horseback riding, tennis, cycling, poker — the list goes on and on. And in all cases, three is the magic number. Three baseball statistics. Three skiing events. Three weight classes in boxing.
When it comes to long-distance hiking, it’s three trails: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. That’s a total of approximately 7,930 miles of hiking.
On Sept. 18, after seven years and numerous broken hiking poles, Lincolnville outdoorsman Thomas Jamrog earned this crown — a distinction that few hikers have achieved. At age 63, he completed his third major U.S. footpath.
“It’s never anything I started off wanting to do — this long-distance hiking thing,” Jamrog said.
In 2010, only 16 hikers earned the Triple Crown, awarded by the American Long Distance Hiking Association. The complete list of 2013 Triple Crown hikers isn’t posted yet, but Jamrog knows of two other Mainer hikers who achieved the esteemed title this year: Brendan “Breeze” Drapeau of Readfield and Skylar Purdy of Islesboro.
Jamrog grew up on a farm in Massachusetts and always has enjoyed outdoor activity. As a young man, he considered thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Then came the full-time job, a wife, a house in Maine and two sons. He simply didn’t have the time to walk over mountains for six months. It wasn’t until he retired and his children were grown that such a trek became a possibility.
On March 27, 2007 — Jamrog’s 57th birthday — he began the Appalachian Trail at its southern end in Georgia. To fellow thru-hikers, he soon became known as Uncle Tom, a trail name that has stuck with him.
“I’ve never been a great athlete,” he said. “I played Little League and did sports, and I was average. But I realized as I started this hiking thing, I’m pretty good at hiking. I’m good at suffering is the thing — I tolerate discomfort well. And I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had any of the chronic injuries that have driven others off trail … it’s natural that we want to take advantage of things we’re good at.”
Jamrog began the 2,180-mile AT as a solo hiker, but just a few weeks into the trail, he was hiking with a group of men in their 20s and 30s — two men from Maine, two men from Georgia and three men from Texas. They dubbed themselves “MeGaTex.”
“You have these things like little families that coalesce on the AT, little groups of individuals that for some reason — similar hiking speeds and similar sense of humor, I think — they just like hiking together,” Jamrog said.
MeGaTex didn’t end when the group reached the AT’s northern end atop Mount Katahdin. They stayed in touch, and a few members of the group joined Jamrong in hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2010.
“I’m kind of hooked on the lifestyle,” Jamrog said of his decision to continue long-distance hiking after completing the AT. “I like sitting on the ground at night by the campfire. I like getting up early to hike each day. I’m a routine guy — same house since 1978; same wife for 42 years; I don’t get rid of my cars. If I find something I like, I keep with it.”
Jamrog’s approach to any big project (such as thru-hiking trails) is to plan it out far in advance — usually about three years in advance. That way, he has time to gather the funds, iron out logistics, get used to the idea and perhaps more importantly, allow other people to get used to the idea.
He successfully complete the PCT, and in 2013, he decided to complete the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking by walking the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail, a footpath that spans from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. The CDT follows the Rocky Mountains and traverses five states: New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
“It’s notoriously difficult to hike the CDT,” Jamrog said. “This trail is only 70 percent done, so there is bushwhacking involved.”
In New Mexico, there is a 200-mile section of the CDT without any trail signs. Jamrog’s hiking group ran into conflicts with ranch owners who stated that the trail ran through their private property. Even using a handheld GPS, the MeGaTex group lost its way several times.
“There are some days where you’re crawling over and under barbed wire fences dozens of times,” Jamrog recalled.
The many challenges of the CDT are highlighted in the 2011 documentary “Overexposed: My Strange Life on America’s Toughest Trail” by videographer Lynne Wheldon. “Embrace the Brutality” is a well-known slogan for the trail.
For MeGaTex, the going was rough from the start. Their first day on the trail, they hiked 22 miles to find a water source in a fierce sandstorm. The high winds shut down a nearby interstate for hours.
Throughout the trek, water scarcity continued to be a problem. New Mexico was in its seventh year of drought. Springs ran dry, and many of the water sources listed in the guidebook were in fact water troughs, to be shared with cows and steers.
“I begged water from people. That’s what we had to do,” Jamrog said. “We couldn’t go any farther when an ‘absolutely solid water source’ like a spring had gone dry. We had to stand by the side of the road, hold the water bottle upside down and just point.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said after a long pause, “most days were enjoyable days.”
Along the trail, he came upon antelope and grizzly bears, wild horses and mountain goats, marmots and pikas — animals he’d never seen in the wild before. He traveled across the Great Basin, slept under the stars, followed the footprints of wolves, walked through the Lewis and Clark Pass, unearthed a quartz crystal, visited old gold towns, strolled along the top of the Rockies and watched Old Faithful blow skyward.
A dedicated journaler, Jamrog recorded all three treks on trailjournals.com/tjamrog. Each night on the trail, he retreated to his tent — which his hiking companions called “the office” — to write down the day’s events.
He also took many photos during the 152-day backpacking journey, and he will be presenting a slideshow of these images 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19, at Lincolnville Central School’s Walsh Common. The event is free and open to the public.
Glacier National Park, where the CDT comes to an end in Montana, was one of the most beautiful places Jamrog has ever seen. Yet after all his travels, a trail he most longs to return to is right in his backyard — the AT in Maine.
“I don’t have the desire to be away from home five to six months any more,” he said. “That being said, I think I have something I’m doing in the outdoors every month starting in February that’s a week long.”