Aging with Adventure with Eric Weld: Return to the Appalachian Trail 

By ERIC WELD

For the Gazette

Published: 05-18-2023 4:20 PM

It wasn’t how I planned it. Then again, what in life, or adventure, ever goes exactly the way it was originally planned?

I never planned to return to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail because my intention was to complete the entirety of it in one go in the first place. One continuous thru-hike.

But things happen in life, in adventure, and in our daily activity that disrupt our plans and force us to take detours, replan or give up. We plot out our intentions, we can carefully anticipate things that could go awry and allow for them, and build in flexibility when necessary. But there are simply too many variables and outside factors throughout our lives and within any undertaking to expect that all our endeavors will flow smoothly.

That certainly applies to hiking the Appalachian Trail. For every person who completes the journey hiking southbound, there are four more who started and didn’t finish, for an array of reasons. Injuries major and minor. Lack of funds. Missing home. It’s difficult.

I started my AT thru-hike on June 30, 2022, from Maine’s Mount Katahdin, headed south for, ultimately, Springer Mountain, Georgia. I was planning to take somewhere around five months for the 2,194-mile journey through 14 states, finishing by late November or early December. My plan was interrupted when, following a bout of Covid and a week off the trail in Front Royal, Virginia, I pushed too hard to regain lost miles and contracted a stress fracture in my right foot. I’d hiked about 1,450 miles. Still another 750 to go to the end.

I flew home for a long winter rehabilitation and recovery. Completing my AT thru-hike was still possible, but it would have to be on different terms than I first envisioned. According to the Appalachian Mountain Club, a thru-hike is a completion of the entire AT within one year from the date of starting.

With that in mind, I focused on repairing my cracked toe bone and returning to the trail in March to hike the final one-third.

Return to the scene of trauma

Returning to the Appalachian Trail after a winter hiatus was a bit surreal. It was like revisiting the scene of personal trauma. I flew to Roanoke on March 17, Lyfted to Daleville and hired a shuttle to run me 30 miles north, to a remote trailhead at Jennings Creek, where I’d hobbled off the trail in late October, unable to put any weight on my foot without wincing.

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I didn’t spend a lot of time there before crossing the road and resuming the hike. But I couldn’t resist a momentary search for my former, injured self that I imagined still lingered there by the creek, for what lessons that dejected hiker might teach as I reembarked on my thru-hike.

Now, three weeks into my resumption, I’ve re-recognized an enlightening phenomenon. When things don’t go your way — when they diverge from your initial plan and force you to detour — you experience things you never would have had you completed the journey as you first intended.

You meet different people than you would have. You see different views. Most importantly, you come at it all as a different person. A grown person, equipped with wisdom and perspective of having lived through a setback and readjusted to return and finish the endeavor.

Had I not cracked my toe bone and taken the winter off before returning, I would not have met the Weatherman, a fellow thru-hiker who also took time off over the holidays after suffering a staph infection that forced him off the trail.

“We’re all hiking our own hike, you know,” the Weatherman intoned when we shared a bunk room at a hostel near Catawba, Virginia. “I was only off the trail for three weeks, so my mind was always still in the game. But I benefited by now knowing to listen to my body at all expense, the little tweaks and such, know how they impact you physically and mentally.”

For the Weatherman, seeing loved ones over the holidays also provided a mental boost that enabled his return to the trail. “It was really, really nice to see my family,” he said, “and knowing they had my back for another go at it.”

I also wouldn’t have met Linda and Kelly Mulheren, who invited me to share their home outside rural Newport, Virginia, for a few days. Linda, whose trail name is Willow from her AT thru-hike several years ago, taught me how to feed the honeybees as thousands of them buzzed around me in their backyard hives. The stay at their home and the kindness and generosity they offered instantly became a highlight of my thru-hike. The homemade honey, mead and maple syrup from their trees were the frosting.

Familiar stories

Since returning to the trail, I can’t count how many hikers I’ve met with similar stories to mine. One day as I hiked up a steep ridge named Kelly Knob, I passed a hiker heading north who looked vaguely familiar.

“Didn’t I meet you up in Maine last summer?” I asked.

“Yeah, I was up there at the beginning of July,” said Inferno, who started his thru-hike a couple days after mine, but broke his foot somewhere along the way and had now returned to the trail, hiking north, after a healing hiatus.

Others have taken time off for Covid, for sprained ankles, broken bones, a herniated disk. And I’ve talked to at least three others who also had stress fractures.

Another day, I took refuge from a freezing rainstorm at a hiker hostel named Woods Hole south of Pearisburg, Virginia. “A hiker named Laptop is here,” one of the hostel employees announced, using my trail name.

“Laptop? I know Laptop,” said Migrator, a fresh-out-of-high-school hiker from New York that I’d met back in southern Maine. She finished her thru-hike and now works at Woods Hole.

Relearning life lessons

Serendipitous encounters with people haven’t been the only benefits of my altered plan. I have also experienced the AT in all four seasons, having begun in summer, hiked into the fall, resumed at the end of winter and now hiking in spring. That in itself is worth the price of having had to reconfigure my thru-hike.

Returning to the AT has not been easy. The first few weeks of a thru-hike are arduous as you spend long days with foot and leg pain while waiting to get your “trail legs.” That’s the term for attaining a level of body fitness in which your muscles recover at the end of each grueling day so you don’t wake up every morning with debilitating soreness and can hike again the next day. It takes between two weeks and a month of daily hiking. I had to go through this protracted process a second time, having lost that edge over the winter.

There are also logistical complications with readjusting a months-long hike. The long stretches away from home, realities of caring for a house from afar, generating income, arranging transportation and accommodation.

But upon returning to the trail, I’ve learned that the unexpected upsides far outweigh the inconveniences of having had to reconfigure and start again. I’ve returned to finish what I started. That will always be part of my AT story.

In doing so, I’m relearning once again a lesson that life teaches us repeatedly and insistently. Things rarely go as planned and that’s just fine. Allow the journey to take you where it will, remain open to unforeseen possibilities, engage with every step, and don’t regret.

Eric Weld, a former Gazette reporter, is the founder of agingadventurist.com.]]>