So now that I have decided to entertain the thought of a thru hike, the first step for me is to gather as much information as possible about what this endeavor would entail. I found myself watching Youtube videos everyday about the Appalachian Trail, and realized that the biggest concern and road block for me was fiances. How do I step away from my career and full time job to live off of a savings? How do I even save enough money, when I am living pay check to paycheck? How much does a thru-hike even cost? I watched more videos then I could possibly count, and still none of the information was very clear. Everyone had a different opinion about gear and fiances. Just saving money and cutting back in my life seemed like too easy of an answer for me. I started to look at the thru hike as something that I may not be able to “afford”. However, even with this doubt, the more I looked into it the more I wanted to experience the things I saw online, and the unadulterated freedom associated with a thru hike.
Just at the moment when I thought I would give up on the thought of a thru hike; I decided to give the dream one last chance and sign up for a class at REI titled, ‘Planning a Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail’. When I signed up for the class I had no idea that this moment would so drastically change my life and my new dream of a thru hike. When the day came along for me to go to this class I, admittedly, almost didn’t go, but when I got to the store and began to get on the elevator a girl, about my age, was standing there with a pack and we said, “hi”. Then when I walked through the door and saw a room full of people from all ages, races, and backgrounds, and everyone was talking to the man in the front of the room, who was standing there with a hockey stick, (yep! A hockey stick, but that hockey stick has traversed the AT with this man!) I felt almost at home. I sat down in one of the only open seats, next to the same girl from the elevator, and the man in the front of the room began talking. He asked who in the room was interested in a thru hike and I raised my hand along with the girl next to me. At that moment on we introduced ourselves. Her name was Sarah. The man in the front of the room introduced himself as “Bman”, and for the rest of the night I felt as if he was talking directly to me! Everyone in the room paid the utmost attention to him and at no point did I ever feel judged for wanting to, “throw away my career and run away to the woods”. I felt as if I was around people who just understood me and my desire to do this. At the end of this class I walked up to “Bman” and introduced myself, Sarah was standing there also and the three of us began to talk about the trail and what obstacles we faced. I found out that Sarah was actually setting out on the AT in April of 2017, and I couldn’t help but show my excitement for her! I asked them the only question I had on my mind and that was, How do you afford to Thru-hike? Both of them initially answered in the same way and that was “you just do”. I’m not sure exactly what it was but at that moment I felt as if I understood it finally. Maybe it was the inclusion into a group of people, a community of hiking, a “Trail family”? I walked around the store a bit more and when I finally walked to the parking garage, who did I find at the kiosk to pay, Sarah. I asked her if there was a way I could follow her while she is on the trail and she shared her Instagram and phone number with me. We sat there for only about 15 mins, but I knew from that moment on that not only did I make a new friend, but that I was going to thru-hike the AT. (I still tell “Goonbag” (aka Sarah) to this day that her and “Bman” were the people that brought me from “Oh, a thru hike is a cool idea” to “YES! I’m going to thru hike”.)
So now that my mind was made up, and I decided that I was going to thru-hike. The very first step was for me to find a way to save the money necessary to complete this endeavor. Admittedly, this alone was a bit life changing for me, I have always flat out been horrible with money, and spent money like it was going out of style. I don’t mean to bring up the idea of how consumer based our society is, but I bought into the materialistic ideas like no other (pun definitely intended). The Idea of having a savings was completely foreign to me, but if I wanted to complete this dream, I would have to figure it out. I started first by leaving my supervisor job in Youngstown and taking a job with a smaller, better paid ambulance service. With the extra money I was making I began paying off my debts, several student loans, a few collection accounts and the remaining cost of my cell phone. While doing this I also started cutting out bills, I asked myself, “Do I really need cable?” or any other idea that popped into my head of where I could cut back. Then a door opened for me that helped me tremendously with saving, a very close friend offered for me to stay in her basement so that I could save even more on rent and bills. This was a double edged sword at the time because I have been living by my self for years, and wasn’t exactly sure how to live with someone. However, it made sense so after a long consideration I jumped on the idea. This process of savings morphed into the almost year long wait for my hike to begin. Once My debts were paid I again changed jobs, (yes the theme of not staying in one place for a long time is very strong here too!) this time to another ambulance service in the area where I felt I could put my general happiness first and enjoy by job, until I left for the trail.
I began taking more and more day hikes with a pack and several more overnight hikes to try gear out. The reoccurring theme throughout, was the push to make my pack lighter. There are basically three categories of backpacking, and the idea of ‘base weight’ is used to describe them. Base weight is the weight of everything in your pack except food, water, fuel, and other consumables: Ultralight which is a base weight of under 10 pounds, light weight back packing is a base weight of under 2o pounds and heavy backpacking is a base weight of over 20 pounds. So with this being said I slowly cut away weight. I sought out more people who have done long distance backpacking, and did pack shakedowns (where they go through your gear piece by piece and try to tell you what you need and don’t need). One of these people was named Kerinan, she was another sales person from REI, and a teacher for ‘troubled youth’. With her help, I cut my base weight from 25 pounds to about 18 pounds. Not only did she help me cut weight, but she also became a very good friend! This idea of the friendships made among hikers; I have found kind of crazy. People talk about a ‘Community’ around the AT and hikers, and I slowly found myself being pulled further into the community.
During this time of dialing in my gear, I also had the amazing opportunity to begin following Sarah (who I will start referring to by her trail name “Goonbag” at her request) on Instagram as she began her hike. I found myself glued to my phone every morning, looking for pictures and updates from her to be posted. Every time I saw a new post from her my world would stop for five minutes or so, and I would be transported to the trail…….exactly where I wanted to be…… As time passed and I realized that this was “Actually” happening, I began to tell EVERYONE about the trail, and my upcoming hike. I’m sure my close friends became very annoyed anytime that “The Trail” was mentioned, but it was the overwhelming thought in my head. Even strangers weren’t exempt from my stories as time passed. Admittedly, this might of been in part to ensure that I actually did this, because you can’t tell everyone you’re going to do this and not do it.
Now a new problem arose. How do I tell my work about this and not lose my job on the spot? I work for a family owned 911 ambulance service, that prides itself on it’s appearance and the quality of it’s service (which for anyone who knows anything about private EMS knows that is rare). One day I asked to talk to our “big boss”, and told him I had something very important to talk to him about. I started by telling him that no matter how this conversation went, I was going to still take this hike, and I just hoped that I could do it on good terms with the company. He then proceeded to tell me that he didn’t expect this from me because I seemed too, ‘straight laced’ but that he was excited for me, and that I would not be in jeopardy of losing my job over this. With this weight lifted off my shoulders I couldn’t see much more that stood in my way…. How wrong was I! As the days went by I found myself in a fog, I wanted to be on the trail, I could only think about the trail, I found myself with less and less patience. This even caused turmoil at home and at work, however, at the time I couldn’t see this.
I continued to follow Goonbag on the trail as she marched North. We would text occasionally, and I would try to send her words of encouragement. One day we were texting and she wasn’t sure if she would be able to finish (it’s not my place to get into why, but what is important is how this moment made me feel). I felt as if her completing her dream of a thru hike, was actually part of the beginning of my dream of a thru-hike. I left her with a few words of encouragement and thanks for setting me on this path, and I hoped and prayed she would finish and love it! As the time went by I noticed that she hadn’t been posting as often. and a thought crept into my mind…. Is she in the 100 mile wilderness in Maine? If that is the case she is on the final leg of this amazing journey. One day I woke up and there it was; the Iconic picture of Goonbag at the mount Katahdin Summit sign! (The 100 mile wilderness is the final stretch for a northbound hiker and its the longest stretch without civilization. Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus of the AT, at the summit is a sign that, I think, all thru hikers get their picture with.) When I saw this I literally jumped up and down in joy and excitement for her!! I texted her congratulations and we said that, when she got back, we would have to meet up a beer and food! After this excitement, a bit more scary of a thought crept into my mind…. “now its my turn”!
I found myself even more excited, and even more nervous about my hike. I began to plan the details of the hike. I knew I wanted to go northbound, because of the timing and the community associated with this direction, and I wanted to leave myself enough time to sight see along the way. I read and listened to every book I could find about the AT, and slowly expanded my knowledge. I also began to drastically downsizing my possessions, I’m not going to make this a post about minimalism, but there is something rewarding about having less, plus it was beneficial, because I knew that anything I kept, I would have to move to storage before the hike. I finalized my gear, and got my base weight down to an even 15 pounds. (I will post a gear list at some point, soon.) Another interesting phenomenon began to happen. As my hike grew closer, opportunities to go other routes in life began showing themselves. Everything from the opportunity to be hired with a local, full time, fire department, the opportunity to began exploring tactical EMS, the opportunity to move stations at work, to a much more desirable position, and then some promising relationship opportunities all became a reality. However, I had to choose my dream of a thru-hike, over all of these, no matter how hard it may be.
So where do I stand now? In the last week I pre-ordered the, “AWOL Guide to a NOBO thru-hike” (this is a guidebook used by a large majority of AT hikers), I met up with Goonbag for those beers and dinner that we talked about, and had an amazing evening of talking about the excitement of the trail and the struggles of being home. I met up with Bman for a final pack shake down, and probably most exciting, I registered my thru-hike with the ATC, with a start date of March 19th, 2019!
I just want to thank everyone for their continued support in this pursuit of a dream! I’m looking forward to my first few Youtube videos, and sharing my final gear selections. I’m also planning a few upcoming posts on here, that dig a bit deeper into my EMS and work experience, and how that has shaped me into the person I am, and how it has pushed me in some surprising ways to the AT.