“I got very comfortable as a kid just wandering around in the woods by myself,” Stoltz said.
As a young man in his early 20s, that love for wandering took him to Shenandoah National Park. On a day hike across part of the Appalachian Trail, he ran into a man carrying a large pack who looked well-traveled. Stoltz asked the man where he’d been — Georgia — and where he was going — Maine. The man’s 2,167-mile hike sparked Stoltz’s curiosity.
“I just started asking him all these questions,” Stoltz said. “I thought what a romantic adventure.”
And so, Stoltz made plans of his own to hit the AT. He spent the winter working in Vermont, saving up money and plotting his course. He wanted to start in early spring and follow the seasons south to north so that he’d be in New England for the fall.
It took Stoltz a little more than six months to complete the trip —longer than most, as the trip averages four to five months. But Stoltz was taking his time, hiking side trails and exploring along the way.
“As I got toward the end, I started slowing down,” he said. “I did not want to see it end. I made shorter and shorter days and I started thinking, ‘Well, what am I going to do next?’”
Stoltz loved the freedom of the pack, of carrying just what’s needed, nothing more.
“I’ve learned how happy I can be without a lot of stuff,” he said.
And each day was a new adventure, a chance to meet new people — something the once shy, withdrawn man never thought he would like.
So with the AT under his belt, Stoltz decided to go coast to coast. Again he spent the winter working, and in spring headed out from Maine toward the coast of Washington. Then it was from Mexico to Canada — three times.
On that third trip, Stoltz began carrying along a guitar. He’d been playing professionally since before his hiking campaign began. Without formal training, Stoltz based his music in traditional folk, which translated well to the trail.
He began writing songs about the wilderness, and eventually his stories, his music and his photos grew into a multi-media presentation titled “Forever Wild.” In 1991, Stoltz won the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Environmental Protection Agency for sharing nature and wilderness with others across America through his words, images, and music.
Stoltz, who has covered more than 26,000 miles in his journeys, will bring “Forever Wild” to the Highlands Playhouse in Highlands at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20. The presentation is sponsored by the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, a coalition of organizations, professionals and individuals whose mission is to protect and preserve the natural environment and cultural character of the headwater regions of western North Carolina.
The presentation is free, thanks to Stoltz’s year-long commitment to spreading the word through environmental groups and fundraisers to help protect nature. Forever Wild focuses on universal issues such as clean water and endangered species.
“We don’t do a whole lot of soapboxing, but try through the music and the images and the art to reach people’s hearts,” Stoltz said.
Stoltz encourages audience members to get involved with protecting the natural environment.
“The main goal of this tour this year is getting folks to write letters on behalf of the environment to their senators,” Stoltz said. “This offers people a chance to realize that they have a voice.”