2,190 Miles on the Appalachian Trail

This spring, more than 3,400 people left Georgia with the goal of hiking the length of the Appalachian Mountains to the trail’s terminus in Maine. We followed seven of these seekers through success and failure as they hiked.

Nov 15, 2017
Trail Path

Why They Hike

Millions of people have hiked the Appalachian Trail since its completion in 1937. This year, approximately 3,400 individuals set out to complete their own thru-hike of the trail, making it the busiest in the AT’s 80-year history. They are retirees and college kids, investment bankers and baristas. Some have lost loved ones; others want to shed destructive habits. For all this diversity, they are united by their desire to find themselves and by their willingness to put one foot in front of the other, no matter the weather or conditions.

Meet the Hikers

Of the thousands who embarked on the AT this year, we selected seven hikers—including two trying to set the record for youngest and oldest to make the journey—and followed them along the trail.

The Trail

The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only trail in the world and the oldest national recreational trail in the United States. It begins at Springer Mountain, in Georgia, and ends at Katahdin, in Maine, and passes through some of the most beautiful, difficult terrain in the country.

Miles between Springer Mountain and Katahdin
2,190
Miles
Change in elevation along the entire route
515K
Elevation
Days hikers can expect to spend on the trail
180
Days
SPRINGER MOUNTAINGEORGIA DAMASCUS, VIRGINIA HARPERS FERRY WEST VIRGINIA DELAWARE WATER GAP WHITE MOUNTAINS NEW HAMPSHIRE KATAHDIN, MAINE APPALACHIAN TRAIL ATLANTIC OCEAN
Illustration: Mike Reagan

The Hike

In April, our hikers set off from Springer Mountain, in Georgia, with the goal of hiking all 2,190 miles of trail. While most people hike it from its southern terminus to its northern, others—including the Quirin family and Greybeard—piece it together in different sections. Whichever direction they headed, there were moments when they wanted to quit and others when they didn’t want to be anywhere else on the planet.

The Quirin Family
Miles Traveled Icon March 28: Trent’s Grocery, Virginia

Baby Steps

We flip-flopped the thru-hike, so we started in Virginia, just south of McAfee Knob, and headed south toward Springer Mountain. Read on

Derrick: We flip-flopped the thru-hike, so we started near our home in Virginia, just south of McAfee Knob, and headed south toward Springer Mountain. The first few weeks went well because we’re familiar with the terrain in Virginia and had family close by if something went wrong. But we were sitting at Trent’s Grocery, near Bland, Virginia, eating curly fries and Zebra Cakes when we realized we had overestimated the number of miles we could do between resupplies. We shipped mail drops, which included Ellie’s diapers, to points along the trail ahead of time. If it took us too long to hike any given stretch, Ellie would run out of diapers, and that wouldn’t be good.

Nick “Rex” Shigo
Miles Traveled Icon April 6: Tray Mountain, Georgia

Snowbound and Down

The first time I ever really considered quitting my thru-hike was on top of Tray Mountain. I was dropped off at Unicoi Gap near the Top of Georgia Hostel. My first few days on the trail had not been the running start I’d hoped they would be. Read on

The first time I ever really considered quitting my thru-hike was on top of Tray Mountain. I pushed too hard on my first day out, covering 14 miles and pulling a muscle in my leg that made it difficult to walk for the next week. I was already feeling down about my mileage and the pain in my leg when it started to snow. I could continue down the steep side of the mountain with a bad leg and a coating of slippery snow or hunker down and lose another day. There was really only one way to make the right decision: I called my mom. She talked some sense into me. There was no real reason to get in more miles that day. So, I set up my tent, rolled out my sleeping bag, and slept, read, and wrote until the next morning.

The sheer amount of people on the trail and in the shelters was a little off-putting.

Chris “Stay Puft” Walker
Chris “Stay Puft” Walker
Miles Traveled Icon April 11: Hiawassee, Georgia

Escaping the Crowds

After the first week, I found myself questioning my desire to be on the trail. Countless hikers—including both Daniel (whose trail name was Elmer Fudd) and me—were taken off trail for a few days in the first week when norovirus spread like wildfire. Read on

After the first week, I found myself questioning my desire to be on the trail. Countless hikers—including both Daniel (whose trail name was Elmer Fudd) and me—were taken off trail for a few days in the first week when norovirus spread like wildfire. The sheer amount of people on the trail and in the shelters was a little off-putting. I stuck it out, though, and on days like this was ever so grateful that I did. There is nothing quite like a tent spot with a view.

Nick “Rex” Shigo
Miles Traveled Icon April 12: Franklin, North Carolina

My New Best Friend

I didn’t start the AT with a group, but I ended up having one companion for more than 2,000 miles. I had been hiking with a loose group of people for a few days when I got to Franklin, North Carolina, on April 12. Read on

I didn’t start the AT with a group, but I ended up having one companion for more than 2,000 miles. While in Franklin, one of the first bigger towns on the trail, I stopped at Walmart and happened upon a small, plastic Tyrannosaurus rex. On a whim, I purchased it for a dollar. That dinosaur—named Trex by a poll on my social media accounts—rode on my backpack for the rest of the hike. He’s the reason my trail name was Rex. I almost lost him a few times. When my parents came to visit me in Hanover, New Hampshire, Trex fell out of my bag when I tossed it into their car. Just outside Rangeley, Maine, I fell on the trail, and he slipped out of the strap. Both times, he came back, whether in a mail drop or by the kindness of another hiker.

Chris “Stay Puft” Walker
Miles Traveled Icon April 28: Hot Springs, North Carolina

Always Be Prepared

The Tramily, which is what I started calling Elmer Fudd, Spitfire, River, and the Wisconsin Boys, had arrived in Hot Springs. It had been nothing but hot for as long as we could remember. Read on

The Tramily, which is what I started calling Elmer Fudd, Spitfire, River, and the Wisconsin Boys, had arrived in Hot Springs. It had been nothing but hot for as long as we could remember. I thought it would be an appropriate time to send home my cold-weather gear. It wasn’t. About two days after we left town, we were met with mixed rain/snow and heavy winds on top of the Bald Mountains. With my shorts, sleeveless shirt, and poncho, I was able to push on and get to camp safely. But as a New Englander, I should’ve known better and kept the cold gear a little bit longer.

While signs all over the Highlands discourage feeding and petting the ponies, that doesn’t stop the animals from coming up to hikers to lick the salt right off them.

Nick “Rex” Shigo
Nick “Rex” Shigo
Miles Traveled Icon May 7: Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia

Dig the Pony

It had been raining for some time before I reached the boundary of Grayson Highlands State Park, but when I crossed over the first hill beyond the fence, the sky cleared and stayed that way for the next few days. Read on

It had been raining for some time before I reached the boundary of Grayson Highlands State Park, but when I crossed over the first hill beyond the fence, the sky cleared and stayed that way for the next few days. The ground coverage is low and scraggly, and many rock formations tower above the landscape. Then there are the dozens of semi-wild ponies, released by the Forest Service to maintain the ground cover in the area. The miniature horses are super calm and have obviously been familiarized to hikers. While signs all over the Highlands discourage feeding and petting the ponies, that doesn’t stop the animals from coming up to hikers to lick the salt right off them. They can be a bit pushy, though: One particularly determined pony followed me for about 20 yards, trying to lick the sweat off my leg.

Wendy “the Yard Sale” Hayne
Miles Traveled Icon May 16: Cherry Gap Shelter, Tennessee

Running Out of Steam

The day before I reached Cherry Gap was hard. I had no motivation, I was on day four of a headache. The previous day was supposed to be a mile crusher. Instead, I hiked six miles. I got stabbed in the leg with a stick and had to bandage that up. Read on

The day before I reached Cherry Gap was hard. I had no motivation, I was on day four of a headache. The previous day was supposed to be a mile crusher. Instead, I hiked six miles. I got stabbed in the leg with a stick and had to bandage that up. I reached the top of Unaka Mountain, and there was a tree decorated in memorial of a guy named Max. While signing the log book, I realized the one-year anniversary of his death was on the 20th; my mom’s one-year is on the 18th. That’s when it clicked: Between Mother’s Day (the day before) and the looming anniversary of my mother’s death, it’s no wonder I wasn’t feeling 100 percent.

Dale “Greybeard” Sanders
Miles Traveled Icon May 22: Grayson Highlands, Virginia

Living Up to the Hype

There are so many beautiful sections of the Appalachian Trail. The Smokies, McAfee Knob, the White Mountains, the 100 Mile Wilderness, and Mount Katahdin. Read on

There are so many beautiful sections of the Appalachian Trail. The Smokies, McAfee Knob, the White Mountains, the 100 Mile Wilderness, and Mount Katahdin. But one section stands out like no other: the mountains just north of Damascus, Virginia. Short of the actual finish at Harpers Ferry, these highlands were a highlight of my journey, and I was also blessed to have Coltin Calloway, of Adventureitus Productions filming my every move. This section truly fulfilled its expectations.

And then I made one wrong move—couldn’t even tell you how it happened. My ankle rolled, and I fell hands first into two small trees.

Wendy “the Yard Sale” Hayne
Wendy “the Yard Sale” Hayne
Miles Traveled Icon June 3: Cherry Gap Shelter, Tennessee

Laid Up

It sucked to be laid up in the shelter. Everything was feeling fine. The hamstring strain had gone away. The ankle was doing fine. Read on

It sucked to be laid up in the shelter. Everything was feeling fine. The hamstring strain had gone away. The ankle was doing fine. And then I made one wrong move—couldn’t even tell you how it happened. My ankle rolled, and I fell hands first into two small trees. The only word I could utter was, “Fuck.” I hiked the remaining six miles to the shelter. When I woke up that morning, it was bad. I couldn’t flex or point my toes. I had to zero [hike zero miles] again. So how do you entertain yourself? Journal. Write a postcard. Read the copy of All Quiet on the Western Front I scored from the hiker box. Watch the stuff I downloaded from Netflix. Listen to a podcast. But I wanted to be hiking. It was June 3, and my October 15 deadline for reaching Katahdin loomed.

The Quirin Family
Miles Traveled Icon June 6: Mount Katahdin, Maine

Slow Going

After four weeks off, we had lost our trail legs. When we started back at Katahdin, we thought we could knock out 15-mile days, but we couldn’t. The mosquitos were awful, and the rain was worse. Read on

Derrick: After four weeks off, we had lost our trail legs. When we started back at Katahdin, we thought we could knock out 15-mile days, but we couldn’t. The mosquitos were awful, and the rain was worse. If we stopped for 30 minutes, we’d put up the tent to get away from the bugs or the rain. By the time we got to Monson, we sat down and talked about skipping the state. It was the only time we considered that, but we decided to tackle Maine one town at a time. We’d tell ourselves we’d hike three days to the next town, and then decide if we wanted to get off the trail. It felt better just to knock out a little at a time instead of looking at the entire state ahead. We felt a huge sense of accomplishment once we got out of Maine.

Chris “Stay Puft” Walker
Miles Traveled Icon June 6: McAfee Knob, Virginia

The Highs and the Lows

This was one of my best days on the trail. I awoke and hiked over McAfee Knob in Virginia. I wondered if it would live up to expectations, and it certainly did. Read on

This was one of my best days on the trail. I awoke and hiked over the McAfee Knob in Virginia. I wondered if it would live up to expectations, and it certainly did. I enjoyed the scenery with multiple other hikers and then proceeded on to the Tinker Cliffs, which were not talked about as much but were arguably just as amazing (if not more so) as the Knob. I sat up there by myself and watched the sunset. It was truly a surreal experience. Not every day on the trail is like this, but the days that are certainly make up for the tough ones.

Wendy “the Yard Sale” Hayne
Miles Traveled Icon June 27: Hot Springs, Virginia

Aha Moments

This was my revelation moment. I wasn’t happy out here. I had none of the things I need. No companionship. The friends I thought I had truly made were all ahead of me. Read on

This was my revelation moment. I wasn’t happy out here. The friends I thought I had truly made were all ahead of me. I had sprained my ankle and rested for four days and no one had waited. That’s when I had my revelation: If I was willing to spend the money I have out here on something that was never really a dream of mine, why should I be concerned about spending the same amount of money on my real dreams? For the amount of money I spent, I could have paid for Second City Conservatory or taken voice classes at the Actors Studio. So I had a new motivation: log as any miles as possible every day so I can get home to New York to visit friends and family, and then get back to Chicago, where I belong.

I was tired and getting kind of bored. Doing the same thing every day, especially something as physically demanding as backpacking, wears on a person.

Nick “Rex” Shigo
Nick “Rex” Shigo
Miles Traveled Icon July 2: Bellvale, New York

Boredom Sets In

About midway through Pennsylvania, I realized I was less than 300 miles from my home in Connecticut, meaning I could take a few days off the trail. I practically ran through two and a half states. Read on

About midway through Pennsylvania, I realized I was less than 300 miles from my home in Connecticut, meaning I could take a few days off the trail. I practically ran through two and a half states. My friend Kyle took time out of his busy schedule to hike with me in New York. That day was a breath of fresh air. I was tired and getting kind of bored. Doing the same thing every day, especially something as physically demanding as backpacking, wears on a person. With Kyle, I got to reminisce about school and home. He went at the trail with an enthusiasm I hadn’t had for hundreds of miles, and it was contagious. He helped me see how great the undertaking of a thru-hike is and just how lucky I was to be able to attempt it.

Wendy “the Yard Sale” Hayne
Miles Traveled Icon July 4: Daleville, Virginia

Calling it Quits

I was planning on going straight into Daleville. For some reason, I thought it would be totally doable. A 17-mile day, my biggest mileage on a newly sprained ankle. Read on

I was planning on going straight into Daleville. For some reason, I thought it would be totally doable. A 17-mile day, my biggest mileage on a newly sprained ankle. I had done about 7.5 miles, which was usually my midday marker. I walked three-tenths of a mile from the shelter and came upon a campsite. Leaving the trail at this point would also get me to the hotel earlier in the day. I was trying to make it into town to celebrate the Fourth of July. But I didn’t feel much like celebrating my country right then—I’m not proud of who we have become. Being alone in the woods that day felt right; I celebrated the fact that I was lucky enough to live in a country with such a beautiful landscape. I was lucky to have the freedom to wander a 2,190-mile path if my heart desires.

But then Ellie started walking on her own, and she didn’t want to be in the backpack anymore. She took her first steps on the trail in Maine but really started to cruise after the Whites.

The Quirin Family
The Quirin Family
Miles Traveled Icon July 20: Mount Moosilauke, New Hampshire

Through the Worst

The White Mountains in New Hampshire were amazing. Moosilauke was our halfway point and the last big summit in the Whites. Read on

Bekah: The White Mountains in New Hampshire were amazing. Moosilauke was our halfway point and the last big summit in the Whites. We were in really high spirits at that point because we had made it through the two hardest states and were halfway done. And we knew the last half was the easy half. But then Ellie started walking on her own, and she didn’t want to be in the backpack anymore. She took her first steps on the trail in Maine but really started to cruise after the Whites. We’d wake up at 5 a.m. and walk as far as we could while she slept. We averaged 18 to 20 miles a day for a couple months to get as many miles behind us as we could before she really started demanding to walk on her own. Ellie’s independence put a timeline on us.

Dale “Greybeard” Sanders
Miles Traveled Icon July 20: White House Hostel, Maine

Injury Strikes

While hiking in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine, I kept getting weaker and weaker. By July 20, my energy level was so low I decided to take a night off the trail. Read on

While hiking in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine, I kept getting weaker and weaker. By July 20, my energy level was so low I decided to take a night off the trail. When I spent a night in the hostel, I noticed blood in the toilet. I almost didn’t make it over the White Cap Mountain range two days later, and could only walk few steps before I had to rest. So I left the trail and went to my local doctor in Memphis to get the problem diagnosed: a ruptured hemorrhoid. By that time, I had lost self-confidence. But just after the doctor cleared me for hiking, my neighbor said he was leaving for an annual hike in the White Mountains. So I joined him. Otherwise, I may never have hiked again on the AT.

Nick “Rex” Shigo
Miles Traveled Icon July 24: Bromley Mountain, Vermont

When It Rains...

There were only a few times I was forced off the trail because of the weather. My mantra was “no pain, no rain, no Maine.” The last time I was forced to seek shelter from a storm, and one of the few times I legitimately feared for my safety, was over Bromley Mountain in Vermont. Read on

There were only a few times I was forced off the trail because of the weather. My mantra was “no pain, no rain, no Maine.” The last time I was forced to seek shelter from a storm, and one of the few times I legitimately feared for my safety, was over Bromley Mountain in Vermont.

The rain started shortly after I began hiking. The weather was iffy for most of that week, but this day it just poured. By the time I got to the top of Bromley, I was soaked through, and the wind over the peak was freezing. The warming hut offered shelter when I stopped at around 1:30 for lunch. When I struggled out of my soaked rain jacket to eat, I started shivering and couldn’t stop. Even though I planned for an additional seven miles that day, it wasn’t worth risking hypothermia.

Dale “Greybeard” Sanders
Miles Traveled Icon August 10: Mount Kinsman, New Hampshire

Barely Making It Out

I must have fallen 100 or so times but this was the only one that really hurt. I was halfway through a 22-mile section when my left foot slid on a cedar log and I fell into the rocks below. Read on

I must have fallen 100 or so times, but this was the only one that really hurt. I was halfway through a 22-mile section when my left foot slid on a cedar log and I fell into the rocks below. I sat there for few minutes to stop the blood coming from my hand and straighten my dislocated middle finger. When I stood, I immediately fell again and felt pain in my hip. Unfortunately, I was hiking without camping or overnight gear that day, and the weather report predicted cold that evening. With no gear or food, I immediately became concerned that I would not be able to hike the ten miles to safety before dark. The pain was merely unbearable. My only survival gear was a headlamp. I must have had angels with me, though—I hobbled out just five minutes before sunset.

Chris “Stay Puft” Walker
Miles Traveled Icon August 22: White Mountains, New Hampshire

Closing In

As a Massachusetts native, I made the drive to the Whites nearly every weekend for the past year. Before I set out, I would frequently talk to thru-hikers I saw in the Whites and pick their brains about the journey. Read on

As a Massachusetts native, I made the drive to the Whites nearly every weekend for the past year. Before I set out, I would frequently talk to thru-hikers I saw in the Whites and pick their brains about the journey. Nearly all of them said something along the lines of “If this is your normal hiking terrain, you will do great on the trail.” One of the hikers I met out here is also essentially the reason I started the trail. I ran into him on top of Wildcat Mountain and explained to him how I wanted to hike the AT. He said, “You have the money and the desire? Go!” I am exceptionally happy that I listened to him. I had also run into River from my original Tramily (though we’d started calling her Big Mama instead). She and I ended up hiking the rest of the trail together.

Nick “Rex” Shigo
Miles Traveled Icon September 7: Katahdin, Maine

Summit Day

My summit day on Katahdin was quite possibly the luckiest in the history of the trail. For the week leading up to it, the peak was wreathed in clouds. Read on

My summit day on Katahdin was quite possibly the luckiest in the history of the trail. For the week leading up to it, the peak was wreathed in clouds. I expected that to be the case for my climb as well, but when I reached the top I could see Baxter Peak above the rock-strewn tablelands, sharp against a clear blue sky. I headed back down to meet my parents, still amazed at my good fortune, when a familiar orange cap poked over the edge: my dad. I thought my parents would just be taking a few short walks around the park, but Dad convinced Mom to try for Katahdin with him. She turned back, but Dad wanted the peak. I ended up walking back two miles so we could stand at the summit together.

Dale “Greybeard” Sanders
Miles Traveled Icon September 11: Killington, Vermont

When Is It Time to Quit?

One depressed morning, I called my wife. “Do you want me to come home,” I asked. This was just three weeks before I’d travel to West Virginia to hike the final mile in Harpers Ferry. Even at that late stage, I was still unsure if I would physically and mentally be able to finish hiking the AT in one season. Read on

One depressed morning, I called my wife. “Do you want me to come home,” I asked. This was just three weeks before I’d travel to West Virginia to hike the final mile in Harpers Ferry. Even at that late stage, I was still unsure if I would physically and mentally be able to finish hiking the AT in one season. I was already making preparations to go home, but she responded, “You have to finish this thing”. I get emotional every time I even think about that. I could not have finished without her call. I was so blessed that she took care of our home for seven full months without me. I was also blessed that she was there hiking the last mile along with the rest of our family, dozens of hikers, followers, and trail angels.

Chris “Stay Puft” Walker
Miles Traveled Icon September 22: Antlers Campsite, Maine

Calm and Quiet

One of the last days on the trail, I awoke to see that the sun had just started to rise. Read on

One of the last days on the trail, I awoke to see that the sun had just started to rise. I grabbed my camera and ran down to the lake as quickly as possible and was able to snag this picture. The sunrise was incredible. It was peacefully quiet, fog was rolling off the water, the lake was still, and the sun was casting incredible colors across the sky. Multiple hikers were watching, but nobody really said anything. We all just took in the beauty that was showcased in front of us.

Chris “Stay Puft” Walker
Miles Traveled Icon September 25: Katahdin, Maine

Katahdin

One thought was with me every single day on the trail: What if I don’t make it? There were things all day, every day, on the trail that could have ended my thru-hike. Read on

One thought was with me every single day on the trail: What if I don’t make it? There were things all day, every day, on the trail that could have ended my thru-hike. One bad step is all it takes. When I reached this sign, I had a mix of feelings: pure joy that I had finally made it, mixed with the fact that this life I had known for the previous six months and the people I had come to know would all soon be a distant memory. Either way, I regret nothing about the journey. I still can’t quite find the words to truly describe what it feels like to finish a thru-hike. It is something that can only be understood by others who have experienced it.

The Quirin Family
Miles Traveled Icon September 30: McAfee Knob, Virginia

Fried Chicken

On the final day, we couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. Our entire family hiked to the top of McAfee Knob and were there waiting for us. Read on

Bekah: On the final day, we couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. Our entire family hiked to the top of McAfee Knob and were there waiting for us. The view was incredible, and Derrick’s brother made a big sign for us. It felt good to be done. Our bodies were done. Ellie was done. We felt like we accomplished something. Then we went straight to the Homeplace, a big all-you-can-eat restaurant, and ate our weight in fried chicken.

How It Changed Their Lives

After they had returned home, we asked our hikers to reflect on what the journey meant to them.

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