Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Through 14 states and more than 2,000 miles, one couple
lived their dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail
I guess one really never knows just how a book might impact your life. In 1972, I was a 12-year old tomboy growing up in Houston, Texas, and was given a National Geographic hardback book entitled, The Appalachian Trail.
I devoured that book in a single sitting, and the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail, a hiking trail that stretches 2,184 miles, from Georgia to Maine, became a dream for me.
Three years earlier, a 13-year old boy was on a day hike with his dad in Harriman State Park, N.Y. His dad paused as they walked up a trail, and pointed out to him, "You know, this trail runs all of the way from Georgia to Maine - and some people hike it all in one trip."
That teenager was Keith Geraghty, the man I would end up marrying, and he was hooked. He says he remembers thinking, 'That would be cool, to hike the whole trail one day."
In 1981, Keith and I finally crossed paths in Austin, Texas, where we were both living. We began dating and soon discovered that not only did we share a love of camping and hiking, but had the same dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail someday.
Fast forward 30 years. Having raised a family in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Keith was ready to retire from the Federal Aviation Administration. The years had flown by, as they often do in a married life with children, and the Appalachian Trail had never been forgotten.
Now, the timing just seemed perfect for making this dream a reality. We both knew that we weren't getting any younger. So, a plan was made, months of research was done, the latest lightweight gear was collected, and March 14, 2012 found us standing on an unseasonably warm, clear day on the top of Springer Mountain, Georgia, embarking on a six-month adventure that would take us through 14 states before reaching the end of the trail at Mt. Katahdin, Maine.
On average, each year about 2,000 hikers attempt a thru-hike of the entire Appalachian Trail (the "AT"), which was constructed in 1937. Only about 25 percent of those hikers make it the whole way. The average length of a thru-hike is six months so the majority of thru-hikers begin their hike in March, once winter weather in the southern Appalachians has passed. The goal is to reach Mt. Katahdin, Maine, before Oct. 15, when it closes for the winter. Because of this, we had plenty of company hiking through Georgia and our first night on the trail we were surrounded by 35 other tents.
As we hiked north, the miles and days rolled quickly by and the hikers that did not give up and go home soon became our extended family. The AT has a culture all its own and hikers go by trail names. Soon Keith and I were known as F100 and Steady. Others we camped with along the way included Swamprat, Jaybird, Lighthouse, Flash, Nokey, Biscuit, Huff and Puff and Big Foot. Behind each trail name usually was a humorous story of how that name was earned.
We were thrilled to leave the steep mountains and unusually hot spring of Georgia behind as we crossed into North Carolina with its beautiful mountaintop balds and unobscured views. Entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee brought more spectacular vistas, traveling through breathtaking virgin forest and catching glimpses of the earliest spring blooms appearing for the first time.
In the Smokies we met a hiker named Swamprat, who had just retired from the Louisiana State Police and was hiking the trail alone. The AT had been on his bucket list. We quickly became friends and ended hiking the rest of the way with him.
With every passing mile, we found ourselves more deeply embedded in this mobile community of hikers, all steadily migrating north, all looking out for each other, sharing campsites, food and equipment . The trail has its own grapevine of sorts and every hiker we came across was quick to pass on useful information about the trail ahead, the weather, water sources and the best food in the next town, the most popular subject of all!
We soon adopted the easy-going culture of the AT. We were now a part of a community that accepted everyone for who they were, and "hike your own hike" became the catch phrase of the trail. We all shared the same simple lifestyle, and one common goal - reach Mt. Katahdin.
Imagine a world where you witness every sunrise and sunset, you fall asleep to the serenade of owls every night and are wakened by a chorus of woodpeckers each morning. Where often the only sound you hear is the sound of the trees creaking in the wind, the water as it falls on rocks, or the sound of your own heartbeat pounding in your ears as you climb a mountain. No worries, other than how many miles you hike today, where you camp tonight and where's the next water source. It is a lifestyle with its own set of difficulties, but certainly its own unique rewards of peace and solitude.
About every four to seven days we would venture into neighboring trail towns to resupply. Much to our surprise, we found that thru-hikers were embraced by these communities and were often offered rides, food, and free places to spend the night. No one ever asked for anything in return. They knew that when we hit a town, we needed three things – food, rest, and a much needed shower. These generous souls are known among the thru-hikers as "trail angels" and the generosity they offer is known as "trail magic." These good Samaritans helped restore our faith in humanity.
The end of April found us entering Virginia and looking forward to visits from our children and son-in-law. We would have to travel over 500 miles before we would get through this state. We were determined not to fall prey to the "Virginia Blues" here, where many hikers give up and go home, simply because they feel like they are never going to get through the state.
We loved hiking among the miniature wild ponies of Grayson State Park and the wildlife sightings of bear, deer, and rattlesnakes in Shenandoah National Park. We passed through rhododendron thickets blazing purple with blooms and forests of mountain laurel blossoms with their incredible fragrance.
The first week of June, the trail brought us right down the historic streets of Harper's Ferry, W.V., which is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, where we proudly registered as northbound thru-hikers number 387 and 388 for the year. By this time, we had lost considerable weight, were used to carrying 35 pounds on our backs and were able to hike 20-plus miles a day.
We soon entered the extremely rocky state of Pennsylvania, lovingly referred to as Rocksylvania by thru-hikers, and encountered many difficult, hot and rocky days. Pushing through, we reached New Jersey, and the smaller states began to fly by. New Jersey and New York were experiencing dry weather, and we struggled with dry streams and lack of water on the trail. Through here, we relied heavily on the kindness of trail angels, who would leave jugs of water on the trail.
Connecticut was behind us before we knew it and Massachusetts brought a much needed visit from Keith's parents. They would go on to meet us several times on the trail, serving as our support crew. We found ourselves entering Vermont in the end of July with only 600 miles and three states left to go. The Green Mountains were beautiful and we hiked through maple syrup farms for the first time.
With New Hampshire we encountered the White Mountains, known as the most spectacular and yet most difficult part of the trail. However, by this time, we had many miles and higher elevations behind us. We were awestruck by the stunning Franconia Ridge, as the trail stretched from peak to peak for miles above the tree line. A few days later, we climbed Mt. Washington, home to some of the highest winds ever recorded on earth. We lucked out with a gorgeous day to be on top.
The final week of August we crossed our last state border, Maine! The final stretch of trail in Maine is known as the 100-Mile Wilderness. We knew that we had to enter the Wilderness with the necessary provisions to reach the other end. There are no places to get supplies. We ended up getting through in 6 days. We had carried 7 days of food. The trail here wound through a myriad of trout streams and still ponds reflecting blue skies, and quickly became one of our favorite parts of the AT.
On Sept. 14, exactly six months from the day we began this journey, we made our final hike, climbing the 5.2 miles to the summit of Mt. Katahdin. It was as beautiful a day as you could ever hope for and the views were so worth the exhausting climb! It is simply impossible to describe how it felt to reach the end. We were so happy to be heading home, and yet so sad to leave the trail and our hiking community behind.
We left the trail with a renewed appreciation of the generosity of total strangers, of our country and its endearing communities, and most of all, a strengthened marriage, made stronger through the miles of sharing this incredible dream.