Two days after Gary Monk retired in March 2002, the former airline pilot and avid hiker laced up his boots and set off to tackle the Appalachian Trail in its entirety — all 2,175 miles of it.
“The thing that kept me going was that I was stubborn,” Monk said. “I wanted to finish.”
He was not alone. A rite of passage for many, the annual hiking pilgrimage begins in earnest each spring.
That’s when hundreds of hikers set out to complete a six-month journey from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin, Maine. Crossing 14 states along the East Coast, the trail tests the mettle of anyone seeking the prestigious title of “thru-hiker,” awarded to those who complete the trip in a more or less continuous fashion.
First proposed in 1921, the Appalachian Trail was completed in 1937 as part the national park system.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that thru-hiking took off thanks to Ed Garvey’s popular account of hiking the trail, Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime. While only 37 people hiked from Georgia to Maine during the 1960s, the following decade saw 755 hikers make the trek. And pop culture fed the growing trend.
In his 1998 book "A Walk in the Woods", Bill Bryson inspired a new generation of hikers with his humorous account of thru-hiking, including his run-in with a bear.“Bear! I sat bolt upright … I reached instinctively for my knife,” he wrote. “When I found it and opened the blade I was appalled at how wimpy it looked. It was a perfectly respectable appliance for, say, buttering pancakes, but patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400 pounds of ravenous fur.”
His hilarious prose helped to inspire more than 5,631 hikers who’ve made the long-distance trip since 2000.
In the parlance of trail hikers, anyone who completes the trail is recognized as a 2,000-miler. Some complete the journey in segments, though the real street cred is devoted to thru-hikers who attempt the trail without stopping.
Thru-hiking is not for the faint of heart. About 10 percent of hikers quit the first week, and only a quarter make it all the way. “The best predictor of success really is the level of desire to complete the trail,” said Laurie Potteiger, information services managers at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “If you’re 20-something, they say it’s more of a mental thing,” said Potteiger, who thru-hiked in 1987. “In you’re 60s, the physical challenge is pretty extreme.”
The conservancy’s main role is to maintain the trail and shield it from illegal timbering, development and pollution, as well as from view-obstructing power lines or even wind towers. To do so requires help from thousands of volunteers.
“I’m a tree hugger. This is our heritage to pass on,” said Monk, who became president of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club after his thru-hike.
Hikers make big sacrifices on the trail, not the least of which is time. “I put in my resignation today from work so I can thru hike in June,” wrote a hiker using the handle Spot In The Sky, on WhiteBlaze.net, a forum for hikers. “It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make but this brings me one more realistic step closer to beginning my hike.”
Monk, 68, said hikers quickly become seeped in the trail’s unique culture: calling people by trail names and adjusting to a “trail appetite.” Many hikers boast of “trail magic,” or unrequested acts of kindness by strangers. Monk said at the end of his thru-hike, a stranger joined him at the summit of the mountain with a congratulatory six-pack of beer.
“We were sitting there. There were some tears, a lot of joy. This young man came climbing up,” Monk recalled. He handed the group the beers and then started back down the mountain. “That was the best beer I’ve ever had in my life,” Monk said. “That was trail magic.”
Monk said his friends from the trail are “friends for life.” (To this day, when a certain friend calls, he says its “Pickle” calling for “Blazes,” the name Monk earned when he insisted on counting every white blaze on the trail.)
Wendy Pacek, 67, and Denny Libby, 68, met and married on the trail. The romance started in 2006, when Pacek placed a magazine ad seeking hiking partners. About 12 people responded, including Libby, who lived nearby in West Virginia. “I started hiking with Denny and one thing led to another,” said Pacek.
Wearing fleece jackets, the couple married in April 2009 at the Quarry Gap Shelters in Pennsylvania. “All of our family had to hike into the wedding,” the bride recalled.
Before their wedding, the couple began the Appalachian trail hike, but left early due to injury. What about the others who responded to her ad? None completed the trail that year, either. “Denny was the only one who was my hiking partner,” Pacek said.