Meet Appalachian Trail hikers: 'It's a jolt out of ordinary life'

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Appalachian Trail hikers are a familiar sight in Berkshire County, where the trail cuts through many of the towns, running for 90 miles through the county. Wearing backpacks, carrying walking sticks or trekking poles, sporting long hair and beards — and occasionally with a dog — they're easily identified when walking down the street.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates some 3 million people hike a portion of trail annually and over 3,000 attempt to "thru-hike" it from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Only one in four hikers complete the entire journey, roughly 2,190 miles, which winds through 14 states along the Appalachian mountain range. Most thru-hikers walk north, starting in Georgia in spring and finishing in Maine in fall, taking an average of six months. They adopt trail names while hiking the trail, names that reflect their personality, a trait, a habit or physical description.

How many of us in the towns along the trail in the Berkshires take the time to introduce ourselves and listen to their stories? Who are these anonymous hikers? Where are they from? Why are they taking time off (sometimes six months or more) from their normal, everyday lives to hike the AT and tackle whatever challenges it throws at them?

In the span of three months I stopped as many hikers as I could find along the Berkshire section of the trail to ask them these questions and more.

BUB AND BOO BOO

Section hikers "Bub" (Isabella Constanza) of San Francisco, Calif., and "Boo Boo" (Jeff Michaels of Westchester, N.Y.) came down into North Adams on a warm mid-May day with bright sunshine and a cloudless blue sky. Both 21, they are students at the New England Conservatory of Music; Bub is a classical violinist and Boo Boo is a composer.

They began hiking this section of the AT at Pawling, N.Y., and hoped to reach Mount Katahdin in six weeks, averaging 20 miles a day. Their day begins at 4:30 a.m.; they go to bed at 8 p.m.

Bub acquired her trail name on a previous hike in the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine, when she and Boo Boo were climbing a difficult part of the AT known as Chair Backs — "They're sadistic mountains that try to kill you," Bub declared. Boo Boo was urging her on and out of nowhere said, "Come on Bub, you can do it!" And Boo Boo? "It was revenge," Bub said. "It's a hippopotamus, Boo Boo Butt, in a children's book by B.J. Novak. When Jeff hikes, he reminds me of a hippo."

They have no stove, relying on cold camping; eating almond or peanut butter for protein and fats, honey or maple syrup for the high calories in them, dried meat, canned tuna, salmon and sardines, quinoa mixes, instant oatmeal, Epic bars and candy. "We don't have to stop to eat if we do quick snacks that we can carry in our pockets or on our belts," Boo Boo explained, adding hikers need high calories and fat. (The AMC estimates hikers burn an average of 6,000 calories per day.)

Although only a week into their current trek at the time I met them, they had memories to share.

"We were going over the Taconic Ridge in Connecticut at sunrise. It was snowing. The sun was peeking through the clouds and burning through the fog," Bub said, adding she gets vertigo in high places. "There was a cliff on one side and I thought 'I'm up here and I'm not scared.' It was beautiful."

Boo Boo related how they were on the Taconic range and spotted the sign for Massachusetts. However, they had to cross a "massive" river, swollen by recent rains. "The stones to cross it were flooded and the only way to cross was to go through it," he said as Bub giggled.. "We held hands and ran through it, screaming [because the water was so cold] and laughing."

They had recently come across some trail magic — a box of food "including two cold beers and a pint of ice cream," Bub said with a happy sigh.

MULBERRY

"Mulberry," (Martin Van Der Voorn) 68, of Los Angeles, Calif., already has one long hike under his belt, having hiked the 2,668-mile Pacific Crest Trail a few years ago. His trail name comes from a walking stick carved from a branch of a fruitless mulberry tree at his home.

"I like to hike. I'd already done the PCT and decided to give the Appalachian Trail a try. The PCT is easier; it's not as rocky or steep, and there's no rock climbing," he said. He added he most definitely would not hike the AT again, saying vehemently, "It's too rough and too hard."

A flip-flop hiker, the retired computer programmer began his journey in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and expected to reach Mount Katahdin sometime in July. His brother will pick him up and drive Mulberry back to Harpers Ferry, where he will begin hiking south to Springer Mountain.

Mulberry had been averaging 26 miles per day, hiking about 12 hours a day, until he hurt his leg going up Bear Mountain in New York. "I've been a little slow for a few days. I have to get back up to my old speed."

He said the hardest part of the hike so far had been going up Bellvale Mountain on the New Jersey/New York border and crossing Prospect Rock. "It was raining, and I was wet and miserable, and I slipped four times," he said. At that low point, he said he came across a bit of trail magic. "There was some Jello with bananas someone had left on the side of the trail." The best part of hiking the trail for him is meeting people, like Storyteller, who he meets up with on the trail and hikes with occasionally. (Storyteller, a retired Marine Corps vet declined to be interviewed and continued on his way.)

Mulberry took the ATC to task for promoting "Go hike the trail," saying, "It's much too difficult for most people. You literally need to use your hands and climb a ledge in some places."

What does he miss the most? "My bed; coming home and having two to three glasses of iced tea; having a normal routine."

HARD HAT AND JACKALOPE

Gail and John Barrett of Hagerstown, Md., ("Hard Hat" and "Jackalope" respectively), began their flip-flop hike on April 1 from the Maryland/Pennsylvania line, along with fellow hiker Linda Vance, "Barfly." [Vance injured her knee in Pennsylvania and left the trail.] They chose to do a flip-flop hike to to avoid the crowds and "party atmosphere" of the bubble. They hiked the Maryland section of the AT as a practice hike before meeting up with Barfly.

"I was with the U.S. Coast Guard for 46 years," Jackalope, 64, said. "I wanted to get the Coast Guard out of my head and think about what I wanted to do with my life."

Hard Hat, 62, added, "John wanted to hike bits and pieces of the trail, but I like to do things big. Why walk when you can do a marathon? There are times in your life you have the opportunity to do something really off-the-wall — and they don't come along too often. This was one of those times."

The couple were resuming their hike after being caught in a mid-May snowstorm atop Mount Greylock and finding they weren't prepared for spring in New England. After slipping and sliding down the mountain into North Adams, they went home to regroup for two weeks. Their revised schedule includes more zero days "to rest our knees." They expected to reach Mount Katahdin around July 12 to 15. From there, they'll return home for a week before heading south to Springer Mountain. [They left the trail again in mid-June in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, due to knee issues Hard Hat was experiencing. They are doing small conditioning day hikes and hope eventually to head south for Springer Mountain.]

One of the biggest challenges — and disappointments — for them was the rocky terrain in northern Pennsylvania and New York. "What's the point of the Appalachian Trail? Is its point to get people out to enjoy nature or is it to challenge people so that very few people can do it?" Hard Hat asked. "There were times I was in tears. John had to help me over rocks I couldn't climb. You're left shaking. This isn't fun; this isn't just a challenge — this is dangerous. We knew it would be a challenge, but we didn't expect to need rock-climbing skills to do it."

At night, they sleep in hammocks and have a small stove to heat water for their freeze-dried meals, eating them out of the plastic bags they're packaged in. Once a week, they stop at a post office to pick up a drop box. As a concession to their adult children, Jackalope wears a GPS unit on his jacket; with it he can summon emergency help and send a nightly message to their sons to let them know they are OK.

The couple said they probably wouldn't do another AT thru hike, although they want to revisit some of the areas they've been through. "It's much harder than we thought, but in the end, it's worth it," Hard Hat said. "Each day brings something unexpected. It's a jolt out of ordinary life."

After their journey is done, Hard Hat, an author of romance novels, plans to write a novel based on their experiences. "I couldn't write about it without experiencing it. I'm taking notes along the way."

DEVO, GOAT AND DIVA

Davaun Stedge ("Devo"), 28; Hyiatt Wayne Duffey ("Goat"), 22, and Devo's dog, Zora, 4, were tired and looking for a place to spend the night when they hit North Adams late one night in mid-June. They had spent the previous two days in South County, mostly in a hospital ER, where Goat was being treated for an intestinal bacterial disease similar to Giardiasis, popularly known as beaver fever. After a night spent stealth camping, they were ready to talk about their adventures.

Devo, who calls himself "a nomad," first ventured out on the AT in 2014, going from Boiling Springs, Pa., to Shenandoah, Va., and then back to Duncannon, Pa. He resumed his hike in Windgap, Pa., on May 7 and was planning to hike through to Mount Katahdin — unless blueberry season arrived first.

"Goat was sick and we got to a house [near Becket] that was a blueberry farm, owned by the Cookie Lady and her husband. The grass was high and I mowed the lawn, cleaned up the berry patch and framed the garden," Devo said. "I'm going back to help out. If it's God will, I'll be there for them." [He and Zora stopped their hike in the Whites in New Hampshire July 4th weekend to return to the Berkshires. Goat remains on the trail.]

He talks about being the victim of racial incidents where he was employed in Pennsylvania and then being homeless for five months. He mentions life as a foster child and being a star athlete in track and field, and football (high school and college), but believes the past isn't important — helping youth by bettering communities is his future goal.

"I am the most at peace I've been in 28 years. There is true peace out there [on the trail]," he said. "You make true friends (said with a glance at Goat, who he refers to as his BFF) and the trail teaches you everything — your wants versus necessities — and your priorities in life."

He said the hardest part of hiking the AT is having the willpower to actually do it. "Everything is hard or easy; it's all just a mental game."

Devo and Zora met Goat at a laundromat in Kent, Conn., and have been hiking together since.

Goat, from Evansville, Ill., served two years in the U.S. Marine Corps before being discharged with a disability. After living briefly in Virginia Beach, Va., and working as a carpenter, he returned home to Illinois.

He planned to begin his thru-hike in 2019, but then thought "Why not now?" and took off on the approach trail from Amicalola Falls to Springer Mountain on March 5. He said he started the AT with the bubble, but quickly passed them by. "I didn't come out to get in trouble [the bubble is noted for its fraternity house party atmosphere]. I wanted to find myself and live life."

The best part of the hike for Goat is waking up and being in nature every day. And the hardest part? "Trying to keep food in my bag; I eat it all at once!" he joked, referring to his ever-present hiker's hunger.

He misses his Harley Davidson motorcycle the most. "I've been a bike guy all my life," he said. "It's where I find most of my freedom."

His only nod to cooking on the trail is a large tin cup he carries. With it, he can boil water over a fire and eat out of it. "I was with a group of hikers at the Jennings Creek (Va.) swimming hole and we caught crayfish," he said. "We boiled the crayfish and cooked a snake over the fire," he said with a wide grin.

Although he would hike the AT again, his sights are set on canoeing the Mississippi River from start to finish, "in a couple of years."

A German shepherd mix, Zora (Diva or Double D's), 4, is a rescue dog. A very quiet, obedient dog, her eyes are constantly on Devo, watching his every move. She wears small saddleback packs, carrying her dog brush, food and bones. "She kind of likes the packs," Devo said. "All the other dogs she encounters on the trail have them."

She was recovering from an injury incurred at a shelter in New York. "A hiker carrying boiling water tripped and fell, and the water hit Zora's paw," Devo explained. Although her paw was healing nicely, Devo and Goat had slowed their daily mileage to accommodate her slower pace.

SQUEAKS AND JETPACK

Thru-hiker Jennifer Giddens (Squeaks), 22, originally from Birmingham, Ala., is a hiker with a mission — to raise funds for pediatric cancer research in honor of a friend who was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, four years ago. Squeaks' goal is to raise $15,780 (the number of children diagnosed with cancer annually); to date she has raised $9,000. [For more information, visit www.trekkinforchange.com.]

A December 2016 graduate of Auburn University with a degree in exercise management, Squeaks began her journey north on March 27 from Springer Mountain. And her trail name? "My voice squeaks when I get excited," she said.

Her current hiking buddy, Charles "Mitch" Ryland, 22, of Hattiesburg, Miss., graduated from Mississippi State University with a degree in marketing, also in December 2016. He left Springer Mountain on March 5 and became known as "Jetpack" after a fellow hiker noticed his silver backpack looked like a jetpack.

Squeaks and Jetpack connected via Instagram and arranged to meet — however, they were quick to point out they were not a couple. They each carry packs that weigh 20 pounds when fully stocked with food and water (Jetpack also is carrying a guitar), and currently walk an average of 25 miles per day. They hope to reach Mount Katahdin between Aug. 15 and 20.

"Staying mentally sharp has been hard for me," Jetpack said. "Sometimes, I don't want to hike. I force myself to put one foot in front of the other."

At the halfway point of the trail, Pine Grove Furnace, Pa., it is a 35-year-plus tradition for thru-hikers to eat a half-gallon of ice cream at the general store in the park. Since ice cream now comes in 1.5 quart packages, it means buying and eating another pint to make the half-gallon. Squeaks ate vanilla and then a pint of Moosetracks in an hour. Jetpack opted for Neopolitan, with a peach chaser pint. "The peach was tough getting down; it was so sweet," he said. He choked it all down in 57 minutes.

Squeaks hiked solo for a while, doing 100 miles on her own. "I feel liberated on my own. It's an unique feeling when you're on the trail, she said, adding she doesn't carry any weapons.

After leaving North Adams, they had a mail drop to pick up in Bennington, Vt., the next day and were hoping to catch up to "Daddy Long Legs" in the next few days. "He draws pictures in all the log books at the shelters," Squeaks said. "He's supposed to be 6'5", in his 40s and is a really cool guy." Jetpack, who had crossed paths with Daddy Long Legs before, said, "Cool dude for sure."

They have no definite plans following their descent from Mount Katahdin. Squeaks hopes to find work in an outdoor environment and eyes hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and/or Continental Divide Trail. Jetpack thinks he'll move to a ski resort — there are no more thru hikes for him, although he might do some sections.

BLINK

Three months before Graham Eastham ("Blink"), 43, of Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, boarded a plane at Heathrow Airport in London, bound for Georgia, he had no idea the AT existed or what it was. "I learned about it through a YouTube video. I watched it and wondered, 'What is the Appalachian Trail?'"

He did extensive research on the trail and equipment, quit his job, rented out his home and left his 17-year-old Jack Russell terrier, Molly, with a neighbor. He couldn't really practice hike for the AT due to Great Britain's lack of mountains, but did day hikes with a pack, working up from once a week to daily after he left his job.

"Hiking is not as big culturally [in England] as it is here," he explained. "I had done day hiking for about 20 years, and was a postman for 20 years, so weather doesn't really bother me."

He left Springer Mountain on March 9, carrying a pack that weighed 45 pounds, which over the miles he has whittled down to 35 pounds. "I had a jet boiler that I was using 15 minutes a day, but was carrying it all day," he said explaining it, along with other items, now precede him along the trail in a bounce box.

He got his trail name because he was hiking so fast — in a blink of an eye. Recently, he has only been averaging 15 to 20 miles per day, "due to the heat and the bugs." He was hiking with four other hikers, known as The Grope.

For Blink, the best part of hiking the trail has been "the people I've met from day one. Ninety-nine percent of them go out of the way and are very friendly. When you're having a crappy day, someone will pull up and offer laundry, shower or a place to tent."

The trail is getting tedious for him (North Adams, where he was interviewed, is 1,592 miles up the trail from Springer). "I've used three cans of bug spray. I want to get it done, although I'm not homesick at all." He has no plans to hike the AT again, joking "I've done it already. However, if someone gave me $10,000, I would do the Pacific Crest Trail."

He would like to drive around Maine and see all the places Stephen King, one of his favorite writers, has written about. Also, "I would also like to buy a Crown Vic or van and drive down the West Coast."

When his plane takes off from Bangor to the UK on Sept. 4, he'll be leaving as a changed man. "My time on the trail has reset my whole social and emotional outlook on life. Before, I did my own thing; I had my own routine and never did anything. Now, with my backpack, you can drop me off anywhere and I'm good."

THE GROPE

These two sets of best friends — and now couples —refer to themselves as The Grope, so called after Tin Cup misspelled the word "Group."

MONARCH

Taylor Lavelett ("Monarch"), 25, of Norman, Okla., and her best friend since childhood, Marissa Taussig ("Patch"), 25, of Oklahoma City, Okla., set out from Springer Mountain on March 7. Although they never hit the big bubble of hikers, they started out with a group of 12 people. They eventually split from the group and hiked with a woman from Great Britain until she left the trail at Harpers Ferry to return home.

"Marissa and another friend talked about [hiking the AT] for years and I joked I would do it," said Monarch, a December 2016 graduate of Oklahoma University with a degree in accounting. "We decided to begin in March, before real life began."

She said when they started out on the trail, she struggled to keep up, but then one day it got better. "You've broken out of your cocoon," a fellow hiker told her, "You're like a Monarch!" And with that, she got her trail name.

"It's hard to be on the trail, especially the hiking part," she said. "I get injured every day." And, indeed, she was covered with mosquito bites, scratches and a rash that everyone decided was poison oak, ivy or sumac she had come into contact with on the descent of Mount Greylock. She added, "I've never hated bugs so much in all my life."

She misses her family, which she hasn't seen in four months. "My stepdad sends drop boxes every two weeks. He goes all out," she said.

PATCH

Patch became so known because her eyelashes are three-quarters brown and one-quarter blonde.

A graduate of the University of Central Oklahoma, she was afraid of settling for the life she had and was expected to have. "I had a job, and I was expected to get eventually get married and buy a house. It was an easy choice, but not what I wanted to do. I quit my job, spent all the money I had on hiking equipment. It's the best decision I ever made." She added she didn't know what she was going to do after she completed her trek.

She said her parents traveled a lot and encouraged her to take on her AT adventure while she had no major responsibilities.

"I'm a very lazy person and I often just want to sit on a couch and watch TV," she confided. "Which is not possible on the trail. I crave doing nothing."

She said the AT has taught her grit and determination. "Since the halfway mark, I've been having a hard time and I've wanted to go home. I'm just done with walking," she said emphatically. "Although I love being out here with my best friend since I was 9 (Monarch, who ironically had planned to leave the trail at Harpers Ferry, but kept going) and being with the Grope is a lot of fun."

Patch would absolutely do another long-distance hike, possibly the PCT — but not the AT — in a couple of years, "after time spent sitting on the couch."

Her advice for anyone thinking about hiking the AT, was, "Just do it. There were a lot of reasons not to do it, but a friend said, 'just do it' and I always remember that."

Monarch and Patch took time off the trail in June to relax at a beach in Connecticut, where they met Alfalfa and Tin Cup



ALFALFA


Kyle Shipman (Alfalfa), 25, of Bethany, Okla., couldn't wait to tell the story of how they all met.

"I've been hiking with Tin Cup since Trey Mountain in Georgia," he said. "We hiked together to Harpers Ferry, where he got off the trail to go home for his college graduation. Tin Cup and his family were going to the beach and I thought it was a pretty good gig, so I talked myself into being invited. I took the train from New York City and then to New Haven. Me and a girl from Oklahoma (Patch) hit it off. A week later, I came back 100 miles to hike with her."

Prior to tackling the AT, Alfalfa worked as a truck driver in an oil field for three years and currently works as a field guide for Legacy Outdoor Adventures. He had heard about the AT when he was in Boy Scouts 10 years ago and said he had always wanted to do it.

"I was looking for a purpose in life," he said. "I was lost for a long time, looking for what I wanted to do in the future."

He started out alone from Springer Mountain on March 5 because he didn't want to be part of the bubble, but quickly met up with Tin Cup. He became Alfalfa after slicking his long hair back like the "Little Rascals" character Alfalfa.

"It's perfect being with the Grope," he said. "Two sets of best friends hiking together."

TIN METALLIC CUP

Quinton Zima (Tin Cup), 21, of Coventry, Conn., graduated from Capital Community College with a degree in Fire Science/EMS a month into his hike. When his hike is over, he'll be going back to his job as a machinist before beginning classes in paramedic studies at Capital Community College in January.

"It was a choice of going to work before going back to college or doing the AT and living outdoors," he said. "It's a big adventure and I like adventure. It's a lot of fun."

While getting ready for hiking the trail, Tin Cup said he read "Appalachian Trials: A Psychological and Emotional Guide To Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail" by Zach Davis. "[Davis] said to make two lists — one of why you're hiking the trail and what would happen if you fail. I still haven't made the lists," Tin Cup said.

He is sharing his journey on a YouTube channel, Tin Cup Outdoors. In the opening titles, an enameled blue tin cup is featured — the same cup he carries with him and that provided his trail name. "I'm behind [with the videos] by about 600 miles. I think I'm up to about mid-Virginia," he admitted. In addition to carrying the basics in his pack he carries a 4 pound camera, battery banks and memory cards. When fully loaded, his pack weighs 30 to 33 pounds.

He also carries a Tin Cup Mountain Whiskey shot glass from a bottle he received as a birthday gift from Alfalfa. And, oh yes, hidden in the pair of Crocs he has strapped on the back of his backpack are Poptarts, "so they won't get crushed," he explained.


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