By Jeffrey Ryan
There was a time when long-distance trails were the province of adventurers able to tackle them in one trip. Thirty-five years ago, I was one of them. Two years out of college and 16 months into a job that hadn't yet morphed into a career, I got a phone call that reset my life's path. My college friend, Mick, and I hadn't spoken in a few months, but he got right to the point. "Hey, remember that time when we were talking about doing the Pacific Crest Trail some day? What if we leave the Mexican border next April 1st?" Just like that, we set the wheels turning to pull off a six-month hike.
In those days, the early 1980s, the gear and food choices were a lot different, and a thru-hike carried the added weight of planning — lots of it. On the gear side, we were at the beginning of a synthetic fiber revolution. Patagonia introduced the world to Polarfleece®, and other manufacturers scrambled to catch up. Gore-Tex® had also recently become the rainwear fabric of choice. Fortunately, we were outfitted from head to toe for our trip by L.L. Bean, who wanted our feedback on the performance of their equipment. On the food side, we were decades away from significant innovations. Peanut butter, mac & cheese, and oatmeal were the default settings. Realizing this, I spent six months drying food in advance of the hike to ensure we had a supply of vegetables to add to our nightly stews.
Of course, trustworthy gear and tasty food helped contribute to the success of our hike. But nothing compared to the feeling of being outside among some of our country's most spectacular scenery for six months. I'll never forget my last day on the trail. I stood looking out over the enormity of the North Cascades with tears in my eyes. It was so incomprehensibly beautiful that I never wanted to leave. I felt that the trail had become my life. But, to paraphrase Thoreau, I knew I couldn't stay up there forever. I'd have to leave it behind for a life of work — indoor work, nonetheless. So I thought.
One thing my first long-distance hiking adventure taught me is that if I just kept moving ahead, I'd make all sorts of unexpected discoveries — jaw-dropping views, the kindness of strangers, a fundamental "right sized" belief in myself. What I had yet to learn was that the same philosophy would apply to my career. I went back to my native Maine to ship orders out of the L.L. Bean warehouse. But I was no "one and done" hiker. In my time off, I continued to follow my passion. I scrambled up all the trails I could find nearby, which set yet another journey in motion.
In 1985, a new hiking buddy, Wayne, and I climbed Katahdin via the Appalachian Trail. As we stood at the northern terminus, almost 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain at the other end, we had no idea what we had started. A few years later came the epiphany. The two of us were section hiking Vermont's Long Trail (America's first long distance hiking trail). Over dinner in the tent one night, Wayne looked up from the guidebook he was reading and said, "You do realize that we've started the Appalachian Trail, don't you?" At first, I laughed. It seemed preposterous. "You have to be kidding. It would take us 30 years at this rate", I said. Wayne responded with two words. "So what?" So what indeed.
As it turned out, it didn't take us thirty years. Only twenty-eight. On a late autumn day in 2013, we turned a corner to discover a bronze plaque on a boulder marking the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Thirty years after my first long distance hike, I arrived at Springer Mountain a much older and still content man. The 28-year hike had helped sustain me. There had been no long hiatuses from the outdoors in my life as I had feared when I turned to climb down from the Pacific Crest Trail. And I had found another form of sustenance — writing.
I had started writing about hiking and camping gear in 1987, and I still loved doing it. But I wanted to tell other stories about the outdoors. Once again, I didn't know just where the path was leading, only that I needed to follow it with purpose. Shortly after our Appalachian odyssey, I pulled my stack of trail journals out. I had read and re-read them many times, particularly during snowy Maine winter nights when days on the trail were at their yearly apogee. Those notes and observations began blazing a new path for me. Only 18 months later, I was touring the country as a published author, sharing stories from my adventures and encouraging others to just lace up their boots and go. Two plus books and over 100 speaking engagements later, I find that (of course) Thoreau had it right. You can't stay on the summits forever. But staying true to the path between them is mighty important.
Adventurer, author and keynote speaker Jeffrey Ryan has written two books about the Appalachian Trail: Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-year hike on America’s trail (published in 2016 by Down East Books) and Blazing Ahead: Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery and the Rivalry that Built the Appalachian Trail (published in 2017 by Appalachian Mountain Club Books). He and his friend, Wayne, have almost completed the New England National Scenic Trail and have their sights set on more hiking adventures. When Jeffrey isn’t hiking, he tours North America in his 1985 VW camper between book signings and speaking engagements. Learn more at www.JeffRyanAuthor.com