The Appalachian Trail @ 25 Years

It’s been 25 years since I set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.  Time has moved exponentially since then, and I now appreciate that there are a few pivotal years in your life. 1994 was the year for me.

In the winter of 1994 I lived in Chicago.  I moved to Illinois from North Carolina and as a 20 something enjoyed the conveniences of this large city – walking to restaurants, bars, friend’s houses, and taking the short train rides to Cubs and Bears games.     

Yet I missed the South.  I missed the beaches and the mountains.  I missed hiking the Appalachian Trail.  And I missed the Spring – especially in March and April.  So on a wintry Chicago morning in February, I sat down to watch a 180 min VHS tape that Lynne Wheldon made on How To Hike The A.T.  It was a Christmas gift that I supplemented with Wingfoot’s Thru-Hiker’s Planning Guide and I studied both intently. 

My roommate “The Ox” entered the apartment on that fateful winter day and briefly watched some of the VHS tape with me.  Then … it was official.   I told him that I was hiking the Appalachian Trail in April.  He shook his head in disbelief – but eventually was one of my biggest supporters.  He even helped me move …  

And assisted in the surprise send off party with some mutual friends that lived in the West Armitage/North Sheffield area of Chicago…

And yes, he even took pleasure in watching my head get shaved (which earned me another $50 for the trip). 

On April 7, I officially left Chicago for South Carolina.  My parent’s lived in Hilton Head and had a place for me to leave my car for six months.  So I bought some last minute items, loaded my backpack, and spent the next 24 hours with them.  Water and Swiss army knife included, my pack weighed ~57 lbs.   

Here’s a shot of me in front of their house on the same Friday – 25 years later.  As fate would have it, I would also make the drive from Hilton Head to Atlanta on the same Saturday in 2019. 

But in 1994 my parents dropped me off at my sister‘s house on Saturday, April 9th near Buckhead.  I stashed my backpack in her apartment, then she and I met up with some friends and had a festive night in Atlanta – until 2am!  

After sleeping until 11am, my sister and a life long friend from Ohio “The Weasel” drove me to Amicalola Falls State Park on April 10th for the official start of my thru-hike.  

They snapped this photo of me outside of the visitor’s center that afternoon in 1994.  Ironically, I never saw this photo until 25 years later when I started looking through 35mm negatives from that weekend.  It was on the edge of the roll and the developer never printed it.  So seeing the photo for the first time was a bonus that made this anniversary even better…  

Here’s a picture of me at the same spot (and on the same Sunday) 25 years later.  Both the bushes and I have filled out a bit over the years.

In 1994, a thunderstorm was brewing on the afternoon of April 10th.  So I headed for the nearby Max B. Epperson Shelter and met two other hikers that evening – The Red Rainman and Bull.  This turned out to be a blessing.  We talked about the A.T. all night, and I spent the next two weeks hiking on and off with them.

Here I am in front of the Max B. Epperson Shelter on this same Sunday in April 2019 – but this time with my kids.  It hasn’t changed much in 25 years minus the removal of some bunks reinforced with chicken wire…

The winter of 1993-1994 was unusually cool in the South.  So Amicalola Falls was still barren as I set out on the Approach Trail the next morning.  

There was a bit more vegetation in April 2019, and the state park has since installed a footbridge across the cascade which now takes you to the top of the waterfalls…

It took me two months to hike 451 miles along the Appalachian Trail to Damascus, Virginia.  On May 11, 1994, I arrived at the TN/VA border only a few miles from town after hiking nearly 1/4 of the A.T.  

I had been in town a few weeks earlier for Trail Days and camped on the the river with some fellow thru-hikers.  This was “Tent City” in 1994. 

Here is the same spot during Trail Days 2019.  “Tent City” was moved to the softball fields on the edge of town a number of years back to create a more family-friendly environment in town – a good idea.  

In 1994, the Trail Days parade had a lot more locals participating – including local marching bands, beauty queens, military personnel, and Shriners.

Today the parade mostly consists of hikers – many armed with water guys.  I’m guessing that is the reason the locals now prefer to watch rather than walk the parade route.  Here I am hiking with my Class of 1994 down Main Street last spring.

And a nod to two friends “The Camel” and “Drone Boy” who signed on for the trip to Trail Days in 2019.  Here is the Camel in front of one of the vendor booths with a 6′ mega backpack.

There were two non-trail events in 2019 that seemed perfectly timed for the 25th anniversary of my hike.  The first was when I discovered a printed photo from Amicalola State Park in 1994 – which I mentioned earlier.  The second was when I rediscovered some A.T. photo albums which were “lost” during a 2007 move.  I ransacked the house for 12 years looking for them, yet they were in front of me the entire time.  And I realized it exactly 25 years later – nearly to the day that I hiked these mid-Atlantic States on the A.T.  

The recovered albums documented my hiking through the mid-Atlantic States of West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.  While these States lack the 4000′ peaks of those to the North and South – I still have a lot of great memories from the roughly two months it took me to hike them.  Here I am at a sunset in Maryland near Pen/Mar State Park. 

It was really hot during this section of my hike.  So I was really happy to get back to the higher elevations in Vermont and New Hampshire where it cooled off a bit.  New England has a number of ski resorts that touch the ridge lines of the Appalachian Trail and we had a lot of fun riding the chair lifts and Gondolas to the base of the resorts to grab food, drinks, and socialize with the local bartenders and tourists.

On September 20, 1994, I finally crossed the border from New Hampshire in to Maine.  After over five months on the Appalachian Trail I made it to what is arguably the most difficult but most scenic State on the A.T. 

I spent most of these last few weeks hiking with Harry (aka Delta Force) and his dog Jade.  Russ & Terry (Slowly & Surely) also joined us for the walk to Monson, Maine.  Here is a photo of Russ & Harry at East Carry Pond lake in 1994.

And a photo of the exact same spot on our hike from Long Falls Dam Road to the Kennebec River in 2019.  

I talked three friends in to joining me for my 25th anniversary hike in Maine to commemorate the thru-hike.  Roger (The Camel), Reggie (Bono), and Ken (BeerRun) joined me for a five day trip to New England in September.  We planned to hike past some classic Maine backcountry ponds and enjoy the New England terrain that I hadn’t seen for some time.  Here is Russ & Terry at East Carry Pond in 1994 with Harry’s dog Jade looking to poach their peanut butter sandwiches.

And here is Ken and Reggie on the same beach at East Carry Pond in September 2019.

We hiked from here to Pierce Pond to camp for the night and had a chance to walk the short distance to the Harrison Pierce Pond Camps where I had a hearty breakfast in 1994.  Here I am with Russ, Terry, and Harry after eating a pile of pancakes at 7am in the morning.

The camp is owned by Tim Harrison who purchased the property in 1986.  When we visited last fall, he was still running the camp and immediately offered up a free glass of lemonade.  Tim even pulled out an old trail register so that I could find the Class of 1994 and those that also enjoyed the pancake breakfast.

Tim lives full time at the camp which is ~20 miles from the nearest paved road.  I had a chance to interview him about his life at the camp in a podcast a few months later, but for now settled for another picture on his front porch.

The next day we had beautiful weather for our hike to the Kennebec River.  There is still a canoe ferry to get you across the river – since hikers were killed crossing here in the past.  In this picture from 1994, I am standing above the river just before a descent to the ferry crossing.

And here I am again 25 years later – with much less water flowing on the day we crossed.

 

Caratunk, Maine is a tiny town across the Kennebec River.  I stopped here with Harry, Russ, and Terry back in 1994 to pick up a maildrop at the local post office.  We waited out a rainstorm here and took this picture before catching a ride to the Trailside Cabins who were run by Steve “The Ferryman” Longley at the time.

 

The post office is still at this location, but the store has closed since I was last here.  In 2019, the building looks a bit lonely – especially without the convenience store and my thru-hiking friends sitting in front of it.  

So we headed to a nearby pub to join the other backpackers that crossed the Kennebec with us and to grab some food and beers.  Here we are with a cold one…

The Kennebec River Brewery was a fitting way to cap the hike in Maine – which is without a doubt my favorite State along the A.T.  Yet we had some extra time to explore another classic in New England – Mount Washington – and drove south to Gorham, N.H.  Here’s a photo of the climb to Mt. Washington in 1994.

And the view from the summit of Mt. Washington on our trip in 2019 which at 6,288 feet is the highest peak in the White Mountains.  

For more on this 2019 anniversary trip, you can watch a ~5 minute video of our entire hike through New England.  Or flashback to 1994 to check out some additional photos or my trail journal of the thru-hike.   

You know a year is pivotal in your life when you revisit, photograph, and document it 25 year later.  The Appalachian Trail has that affect on hikers – and I expect that I’m not the first.   

Will some 2019 thru-hikers retrace their footsteps 25 years from now in 2044?  Damn … that seems like a long time from now.  But I think you can count on it.  The Trail has that affect on thru-hikers.  

~ BirdShooter


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