A year ago Chas decided to do what the British call a gap year -- a year off between high school and college. He wanted to study music, guitar in particular, achieve his Levels 1 and 2 snowboard instructor certifications in Canada -- and hike the Appalachian Trail.
So Chas requested a deferral from the University of Puget Sound in Washington state, where he had been accepted:
"Through this year off," he wrote to the admissions office, "I hope to gain a better understanding of what I may want to study. I am planning to hike the Appalachian Trail where I hope to gain a greater sense of independence, search for my passion and enjoy the time I have out in the wilderness. I think I'll learn a lot about myself through this journey that will help me through college and the rest of my life."
Three weeks ago, he hit the trail at its southernmost point in Georgia. If all goes well, he'll reach the other end, in Maine, by mid-August, in time for the start of classes.
The Appalachian Trail, a continuously marked footpath 2,179 miles in length, was completed in 1937. There are other epic trails Chas could have chosen -- the Pacific Crest Trail (Mexico to Canada) or the Continental Divide Trail ("spanning the backbone of America") -- but the A.T., as it's known, is the most user-friendly and a good one to start on.
Sometime during one's first hike, you receive a trail name. "B-man" is Brian's. B-man is now a camping specialist with REI in the SouthSide Works. As his job permits, he returns to reunions with hikers he has met over the years. Because of the close associations hikers develop, he refers to the A.T. as "the social trail."
Brian, along with REI assistant store manager Amy Legeza, accompanied Chas for his first week of the hike (they jump at any chance). Chas is now officially on his own, but reports having made many new friends already.
Off the trail, within 10 miles or so, there are towns to satisfy one's craving for civilization. Shuttle drivers and kind souls mysteriously appear when you need them to take you there. It was from one such town with an Internet cafe that Chas sent us his "impressions so far" in an e-mail home:
"I guess it's more of a social thing than I thought it would be. I thought the social aspect was going to be secondary to the hiking. You walk this 2,200 mile trail, but the trail is not about the hiking. ... It's about being in camp and meeting all these different people and hearing their adventures and telling your own stories.
"The hiking seems irrelevant now. It's just an excuse to be out here. This experience revolves around more than just getting to Maine. It revolves around your own self-discovery and the sense of adventure and camaraderie that the expedition leaves us with."
'Don't do anything stupid'
Chas' journey began on March 13, when he and I arrived in Amicalola Falls, Ga., the beginning of the 8-mile approach trail to the official start. He signed the thru-hiker's register as the 13th person to leave that day (out of 23) and the 245th thru-hiker to register there so far this year.
As I witnessed other hikers being dropped off at the sign-in area by their parents, grandparents or friends, I was somehow reminded of kids arriving for their first day of college. Chas and I were meeting the people who would be part of the mosaic of his total experience:
• Christian, 26, from Quebec, resigned from his advertising job to pursue his life's dream of hiking the A.T.
• Jason, in his 20s, from Kentucky, likes to study Christian wars, and is getting back in shape after being hit by a drunken driver.
• Doug, 62, from New Mexico, is a general practitioner and a carpenter.
• Robert is taking the semester off from Virginia Tech.
• Then there was Alex, who was just coming off the trail. Alex had started the week before, but got sick when it rained 3 inches. "Don't do anything stupid," he warned Chas as he climbed into his mother's car to return home. That was my son's first reality check.
And to each of them and their family members I handed out what hikers call "trail magic" -- unexpected acts of assistance or gifts, usually of food -- in the form of my homemade chocolate chip cookies I had brought from Pittsburgh.
Before thru-hikers set off, it is customary to weigh in. A simple nod and a question, "How much?" refers to the weight of your backpack. Chas' weighed 36 pounds, including gear, two full water bottles and three days of food.
Curious for a taste of hiking, and to delay having to say goodbye, I walked with Chas for the first three miles. Let's just say it was cold, muddy, alternating hail and snow, windy and rainy -- the type of subtle, persistent rain where you don't realize just how wet you are.
After we hugged and said our parting words, I wended my way back to my cozy lodge at Amicalola Falls, imagining Chas walking northward and setting up his tent that evening with what must have been very frozen fingers.
'A bear cub scampered across the trail ...'
"It's definitely about the people," B-man told me when he got back to Pittsburgh. "But for Chas it will soon be about the trail when he starts doing 20 miles a day. He's just getting his legs now.
"People will begin dropping off for any number of reasons. One day they will be sitting by a road and they tell you to go on ahead and that they are just going to have a sandwich -- and then you never see them again. They don't want to tell you they are dropping off. By the time he gets to Virginia, 60 percent of the people who started from Springer Mountain will have dropped out."
Last year 1,425 attempted to thru-hike. Of those, 367 made it -- or 26 percent. To date, fewer than 10,000 have thru-hiked the trail, including those who have completed it going southbound, starting in Maine and ending in Georgia.
Clearly, thru-hiking is not for everyone.
First, there are your run-of-the-mill hazards -- ticks, mosquitoes, pesky black flies, poison ivy and even skunks that have been known to crawl into a hiker's sleeping bag.
But that's not what keeps my wife, Franny, up at night. It's the thought of the authentic perils: injuries, getting lost, lightning and storms, snow, hypothermia, crossing surging streams on slippery logs, poisonous snakes. (Keeps me up at night, too, but I hate to admit it.)
We're worried for good reason. "I don't remember the trail being pounded as much by Mother Nature as it has been this year," says Laurie Potteiger from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. "More thru-hikers have been thwarted by snow and ice than in any year for decades."
And did I mention black bears -- Ursus americanus?
We've made Chas promise to phone us once a week from wherever he is, which is just often enough for us to maintain our sanity and him his independence. In his most recent call, he reported seeing two ears peering from the other side of a fallen tree.
"At first I thought it was a dog," he said, "because it was the size of Morgan" -- our Welsh corgi. "Then a bear cub scampered across the trail in front of me. I made some loud noises in case the mother was nearby, which fortunately she wasn't, and kept on going."
Recognizing all the potential for danger, we are reassured knowing that hikers on the A.T. naturally form a protective and caring community who look out for each other. Chas recently took a 70-hour Wilderness First Responder course offered by Outward Bound to learn how to manage medical problems in remote environments. He is just as likely to provide aid and comfort to another hiker as he is to receive it.
Supporting Chas has been a family effort. Franny factored in Chas' BMI (body mass index) and then calculated that he would burn 4,000 calories daily at a starting pace of 10 miles per day for the first month. That means three meals a day plus four calorie-laden snacks (see sidebar).
Taking into consideration that Chas can't eat gluten or dairy, our daughter Natalie assisted Chas in developing the daily menus and creating the spreadsheet I refer to when packing meals and snacks for four or five days at a time. In my role as "ground control," I then mail these to post offices in towns fairly close to the trail along his way.
Chas was more casual about getting in shape than he was about his nutritional needs. There was not a lot of conditioning involved -- no running up and down Negley Hill or Cathedral of Learning stairs. Then again, it helps to have 19-year-old legs. He has comfortable boots broken in from a month-long hike in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School two summers ago, though he's likely to need another pair.
In any case, Chas was advised to treat the first month like spring training, which seems appropriate, since a NoBo (North Bounder) like Chas gets to follow spring's awakening from south to north.
'It's complete freedom'
It's been three weeks since I flew down to Georgia with Chas and returned to Pittsburgh. Knowing what the conditions can be like out there, we check his forecasted weather several times a day. (Which reminds me to check it again. Gatlinburg, Tenn.: Mostly sunny. Highs in the mid-60s. Waxing moon.)
Most hikers keep journals and some like to post their journal entries and photos on various websites. Since Chas is going non-digital, we imagine his experiences by reading the journals of thru-hikers from past years. One night at Tessaro's restaurant in Bloomfield, we met Moira Harrington, the manager, who had kept a journal from her thru-hike in 2008. Her April 13 entry paints a picture of what Chas might observe in North Carolina:
"Coming down the back side of Bluff Mountain was magical. Out of the cold, snow-laden tundra of Max Patch ... into a spring summit garden ... dotted with blossoms of Hairy Vetch, Fire Pink, Trailing Arbutus, Bloodroot, and yellow, red and white Trillium. A green carpet of ground cover was dotted with Dutchman's Breeches and Spring Beauty. The day was the kind you can normally only dream about hiking through."
"The trail provides a setting in which nothing else matters," Chas wrote us in that first e-mail. "It's complete freedom.
"For many, this is their reason for being out here. The trail lends something different to everyone that walks it. Personally, I'm still trying to find out what it's going to be. But one thing is for sure -- to get the most out of the experience one must follow the two mottos of the trail: 'It's the journey, not the destination' and 'hike your own hike.' Live by these and the rest will come sooner or later."
The celebration of Easter today can remind us that we are all on our own spiritual path -- both literally and figuratively. May we all have the wisdom to divine the answers to our own roles in the world.
Chas is blessed with a quiet determination. With every step he takes, he comes closer to learning what answers the trail will yield.
Whether he walks all 5 million steps of the Appalachian Trail remains to be seen.
So far, Chas has hiked approximately 468,104 of them.
But he's not counting.47464-109.stm#ixzz1Cowr2azX