At 20 years old, Jenn Brooks of Orono was in a time of transition, unsure whether to continue college or dive into the working world. So when her friend and co-worker Dave at Cadillac Mountain Sports asked her to hike the Appalachian Trail with him, she said, “Sure, sounds like fun.”
The National Scenic Appalachian Trail is a hiking path that is about 2,200 miles long, spanning from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Each spring, hundreds of backpackers head out on the trail and, on average, only about one in four intending to complete the trail actually make it to the end. On average, the entire trek takes about half a year.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Jenn said.
Jenn and Dave took a bus to the trail’s southern end in Georgia and began hiking on March 4, 2001. Two days into the trail, Jenn’s feet were covered with torn blisters. She was tired, aching and afraid she couldn’t keep pace with Dave.
That’s when they ran into John Sonnenberg, a 24-year-old backpacker hailing from a small town in western New York.
“John and I did not like each other when we first met,” Jenn said. “We were not friends.”
“No,” John agreed. “I called her ‘the angry girl.’”
“I was really hurting,” Jenn said. “So I wasn’t pleasant or friendly to new people.”
John, who was hiking the trail solo, became friends with Dave right away.
“Which just made me more angry,” Jenn said.
Jenn and Dave kept running into John as they hiked north on the Appalachian Trail. One night, all three were sleeping in a shelter when Jenn allegedly started snoring. John elbowed her to make her stop.
“I didn’t even know his name, and that’s how I woke up. He punched me in the arm,” Jenn said, still incredulous at the memory. That night only solidified Jenn’s dislike of John.
In Hot Springs, a town located in the mountains of North Carolina, Jenn and Dave decided to split up and hike separately.
“It just wasn’t working. He was too fast,” Jenn said, adding that it was amicable. “We’re still friends.”
At the time, John happened to be taking a break at Hot Springs. He headed back on the trail about the same time as Jenn, and as they made their way north, they’d often run into each other. Over time, they grew on each other and started hiking together during the day, talking about their lives.
“We had the same philosophy for traveling,” Jenn said. “Which I think is important. You both have to be on the same page. Obviously, I’m not just talking about hiking.”
In Damascus, Virginia, they decided to take the plunge and officially start hiking together. This enabled them to ditch some gear, including one of their tents. So in a sense, they were moving in together.
“It’s funny to think about that that’s where we started dating,” Jenn said. “Because if anyone were to newly date somebody the way that we did it, it would be the longest dating ever because you’re 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whether you like them or not, you’re sharing a tent. You know, it’s raining, you’re wet, you’re gross. You stink.
“So it’s just — I think it’s either going to work or it’s not,” Jenn said. “But still, it’s like courting.”
They knew next to nothing about each other, but that soon changed. Walking mile upon mile every day in the quiet of the forest, they had plenty of time to talk. Sometimes John would hike ahead because he had a faster pace, but even so, he’d do small things for Jenn that clearly showed he was thinking of her. He picked her wildflowers and built her bridges where the trail crossed streams.
“I used to save you M&Ms,” John reminded Jenn.
“That’s when I knew you loved me,” Jenn teased.
“Food is a big thing on the trail,” she said. “If you find food on the ground even, you’re going to pick it up and eat it. It doesn’t matter what it is or how long it has been there, as long as there aren’t ants on it — and even then, maybe.”
Before hiking through Shenandoah National Park in Washington, they decided to adopt a dog from an animal shelter close to the trail. They named the black Lab mix Marley, and from that point on, the dog hiked with them during the day and slept with them in their tent at night.
In New Hampshire, John fell ill with Giardia, a common intestinal infection caused by parasites found in water worldwide. Feeling absolutely crumby, he told Jenn he loved her for the first time. They then decided to call Jenn’s parents for help.
“My parents picked us up in New Hampshire, which was the craziest phone call ever to make,” Jenn said. “Because it was like, ‘I need you to pick me up, and this person that I met, and a dog that we picked up?’”
So John took a bottle of Pepto Bismol and met Jenn’s parents. They liked him.
“It worked out,” said Jenn.
John recovered, and they hopped back on the trail for the final leg of their journey — the rocky mountains of New Hampshire and Maine and the most remote section of the entire trail, Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness.
“There was a lot of time near the end of the trail that we weren’t hiking with each other at the end of the day, on purpose,” Jenn said.
“In the 100-Mile Wilderness, we were kind of at each other’s throats,” John said.
They made it to the top of Katahdin, the north end of the trail, on Oct. 4. The trek took them seven months, and during that time, they’d formed a bond they weren’t willing to let go of.
So John went home to New York, worked a couple months to save money and was back in Maine by Christmas. He and Jenn rented an apartment and moved in together for the second time. They soon learned that their love was just as strong off the trail. John proposed the following Christmas.
The Sonnenbergs now live in Orono with their two daughters, Ayda, 7, and Violet, 3, and this year they’ll celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. They still spend time outdoors together, but nowadays, it’s in the form of day hikes and family camping trips. They’ve yet to return to the Appalachian Trail, but some day, when their children are older, they envision throwing on backpacks once more for a long walk in the woods.