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Wednesday, 22 April 2009 16:47

Hiking the AT: A journey of mind, body, spirit

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By Josh Mitchell • Staff Writer

The bad economy may be good for business along the Appalachian Trail.

The AT typically attracts recent college grads, young people taking a break from their jobs, and a growing number of retirees. This year another group is hitting the trail — laid-off workers.

Every year at this time hundreds of hikers pour through Western North Carolina as they make way their way to the end of the trail.

Last Thursday The Smoky Mountain News caught up with dozens of hikers in Hot Springs, which the trail runs directly through, and talked to them about their journeys.

Doug McPherson of Sylva said when his employer told him to take a hike he did, literally. McPherson was employed by Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, and as soon as he was laid off he seized the opportunity to take on the trail.

Andy Crow of Pennsylvania had enough of college and needed a break. He didn’t want to take the typical route of graduating high school, going to college and getting a job.

Crow, who was majoring in geology before dropping out, said his parents were “cool” with his decision to hike the Appalachian Trail and put his conformist future on hold. Other hikers agree with Crow, saying hiking the AT represents another life experience they can rack up before they die.

Hiker Kim Morley was sitting down with her friends from New Zealand and ordered up a Trail cheeseburger at the Smoky Mountain Diner after being on the trail the past few days.

Morley, an employee with an environmental consulting company in Atlanta, plans to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, which begins in Georgia and ends in Maine for a total of about 2,200 miles.

Morley’s New Zealand friends had gotten six-month visas so they could hike the entire trail, but they are bowing out due to an injury.

The New Zealand couple, Merryll Burr and Ron Burr, said hiking the trail is more difficult than they thought it would be. They first became acquainted with the trail about 15 years ago when they were in the area for a conference and hiked part of it.

At that time they decided they would try and do the whole thing one day. They were on their way until Ron sustained a shoulder injury that precludes him from being able to carry his pack.

Poor weather conditions have beaten down hikers this year as they battle through snow, wind, hail and freezing temperatures in the Smokies. When Morley gets back on the trail it will be four or five days before she reaches the next town.

Two other hikers, Alan Sloe and Kyle Fiasconaro, don’t have much money, so they were earning their keep at a hostel by moving timber.

Fiasconaro, from Long Island, N.Y., was working as a chef when he left everything behind to hike the trail. Hiking the trail seemed like the right thing to do rather than get “sucked into a career,” Fiasconaro said.

Sloe, from Greenville, S.C., said he didn’t have a career and agreed that hiking the trail is a good way to meet interesting people and see the mountains. The two met the first day on the trail.

While they were working they had a small tape player emitting music as their Pabst Blue Ribbon beers rested on cinder blocks.

Fiasconaro bemoaned that he has only $1,000 to make it to the end of the trail and said earning his keep at hostels by doing odd jobs is the only way he’ll make it.

Their mantra is to stay positive despite dramatic highs and lows that the trail brings, like the 2- to 4-foot snowdrifts they ran into. Luckily, they were able to stay overnight in a friend’s condo in Gatlinburg to get through that night.

All of the hikers have a trail name that gives them a separate identity from the one they have in the modern world. A hiker log at the Hot Springs Post Office lists hundreds of different trail names that have come through over the years including Hippie Chick, Grizzly, and Chaos.

Rob Phillips, from Lehman, Penn., goes by the trail name Tank, which is appropriate seeing that he’s endured rain, snow and thunderstorms so far. Many of the hikers on the trail are either recent college graduates or retirees.

Phillips said he wanted to take a year off school and hike the trail before returning to get his master’s degree. He was hiking out of Hot Springs on the way to Erwin, Tenn., which is the next town and 70 miles away.

Hikers do the trail for different reasons. Keith Hubbard, who goes by the trail name Huck Finn, said he simply loves the outdoors.

“I’m not trying to find myself,” he said.

Hubbard just graduated from college in Indiana where he earned his degree in physics. His parents are very supportive of him hiking the trail and putting the real world on hold, he said. Family members keep up with how he is doing through a blog he updates at libraries when he comes into trail towns.

The camaraderie of like-minded people on the trail and the beauty of the mountains make hiking the trail worth it, even on bad days, said Hubbard.

With only $1,000 he is on the low end in terms of how much money is needed to hike the trail. He didn’t engage in much preparation for the journey; he basically put on a backpack and started hiking. In his pack he carries a one-man tent, sleeping bag, rain jacket, lightweight pants and shirt, stove and a fuel can.

The northeast is the part of the trip he is looking forward to the most since he has never been to that part of the country.

Inside the Hot Springs library, Michael Given of Maine sat at a table looking through an Appalachian Trail book. He said he was abandoning the trail, but his 65-year-old mother is continuing on to the end.

He said hiking with his mom part of the way was his way of showing her that he supported her in her journey. Being on the trail was a great adventure, said Given. “It was like going to a different country,” he said.

Surviving the trail is 90 percent mental, he said. He and his mother were hiking 22 miles a day, although, “mother and I are pretty tough Mainers.” His mom has run a marathon on every continent, he said.

Getting through the trail requires organizing mail drops at post offices along the way to replenish supplies, he said. He and his mother were getting their water from creeks after cleaning it with water purifications pumps, he said.

He was a much faster hiker than his mother, which meant he would get far ahead of her and then have to let her catch back up with him. This earned him the trail name “Leap Frog.”

John Conlin and his friend, Bert McAdam, were sitting down to eat at the Smoky Mountain Diner, exhausted from hiking and hungry for a hearty meal.

“Don’t mind the odor, but I’ve been out in the woods for five days,” said Conlin.

Conlin and McAdam didn’t know each other prior to hiking on the trail but now seem like they’ve known each other a lifetime. Both men are from Florida and plan on hiking the entire trail as they now have the time being retired.

“I’ve been wanting to do this for 30 years,” said Conlin. “I retired a year early so I could do this.”

Hiking the trail can give one a voracious appetite, Conlin demonstrated as he ordered up a double cheeseburger and a grilled cheese sandwich.

The Appalachian Trail represents a personal challenge that Conlin and McAdam want to overcome. They recalled the deep snow near Gatlinburg, and how 17 people were trapped under a ledge during a snowstorm. Several had to be treated for frostbite, Conlin said.

Conlin, being a Floridian, goes by the trail name Gator, while McAdam goes by Rusty, which, he says, is a comment on his physical shape. Both men are 65 and said taking on the trail is an adventure that gives them a sense of accomplishment.

Conlin commented that he has the financial resources to do the trail while some of the younger hikers are operating on a shoestring. He has given some of them food. To prepare for the journey Conlin said he researched the trail over a year and lost 12 pounds.

Hikers drop many pounds on the trail as they eat granola and hike 20 miles a day. As Conlin sat at the diner’s table, he said coming into trail towns is great because it means high-carb, high-fat meals to be washed down with iced tea and milk.

“You dream of getting here,” he said.

After hiking 14 hours a day for the past few days, McAdam and Conlin said they will take a “zero day,” which means they will stay in town to rest, do laundry and get supplies.

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