AT Thru-Hike #1 – Why in the World?

“Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside of them was superior to circumstance.”

– Bruce Barton

“While adventure reading is thrilling and adventure watching is exciting, nothing compares to living your own adventure and having your own story to tell.”

– Big Steve

On March 12, 2016, I will depart Springer Mountain, Georgia, and attempt to thru-hike the 2189.2-mile Appalachian Trail. During a family visit, my dear mother-in-law inquired about my plans and motivations for hiking the AT. I spent a solid ten minutes explaining my rationale to her. I made a thorough and compelling case. It was so convincing that, upon finishing, I was certain she would not only heartily endorse my trek, but might even join me. Instead, she looked at me, shook her head, and said, “Now why in the world would you want to go and do something like that?”

Why in the world? That’s a fair question…one that all aspiring thru-hikers should try to answer at some point. Here then, in no particular order, are my Top 10 reasons…

1. I love adventure. In my mind I have traveled across the continent with Lewis and Clark, thanks to the novel Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. I have mentally journeyed into space with the crew of Apollo 13, battled snakes and Nazis with Indiana Jones, and scored the winning goal in Quidditch with Harry Potter. I have imagined picking up giant-slaying stones with David in a hundred Bible classes, and floating with Rose on the raft as Jack sank to the bottom of the ocean in Titanic. In my mind’s eye, I have hiked the AT a thousand times through countless movies, journals, YouTube clips, and books. In fact, the original seed was planted while reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson and later Through Hiker’s Eyes, Volumes I and II, by Larry Alexander. While adventure reading is thrilling and adventure watching is exciting, nothing compares to living your own adventure and having your own story to tell. Whether my story will be a tragedy or comedy, featuring a devastating injury or a thrilling final summit, remains to be seen. Either way, it will be an adventure.

Training Hike, Oak Mountain State Park
Training Hike with the Genrys, Oak Mountain State Park

2. I love the outdoors. Nothing lifts my spirits, gets my blood pumping, and connects me more with my Creator than a good hike. Lil Jan and I have hiked some impressive trails this year and each time have been amazed at God’s handiwork. His presence is whispered to me throughout the day in all sorts of ways, but God seems to shout his awesomeness when I’m out hiking and thinking in nature. I know I will live to regret this next statement but…I even enjoy hiking in the rain. I will walk two thousand miles in all sorts of conditions. I will get wet and dirty, and will carry a stench like none other. But I’ll be outdoors, staring at countless stars from a mountaintop on a clear night, hanging out with wild ponies and squirrels…and it will be amazing.

3.  I love a challenge. Thru-hiking the AT is really, really difficult. It ranks somewhere between running 83 marathons and clothes shopping with your wife while your favorite football team is playing. The total elevation change on the trail is the equivalent of hiking Mount Everest 16 times! Of the 2000 or so crazies who attempt an AT thru-hike each year, about 75-80% fail. Those are bad odds. It has to be difficult in order for the eventual summit at Maine’s Mount Katahdin to mean something. There’s little joy in accomplishing the “Easy” Sudoku puzzle or beating a 5-year-old in chess. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. As my friend, Terry Reeves, once said about mission trips to 3rd world countries, “If it were easy, everybody would be over here doing it. There’s a reason why most people haven’t done it.” Or as a hiker in the movie Everest said, “You suffer for a few days. But for the rest of your life you’re a guy who got to the top of Everest.”

4. I love meeting new people, seeing new places, and then writing about them. What will I find around the next bend? Can I run faster than the approaching bear (no), or at least faster than the person hiking next to me (maybe)? Who will I meet at the campfire tonight? What’s their story? What can I learn from them? Can I encourage them in some way, or will I be the one needing encouragement? Will the shower be hot at the next trail town, and will there be an all-you-can-eat buffet to devour? I look forward to the unexpected twists and turns on this journey as much as the expected ones.

Training Hike with the Diamonds
Training Hike with the Diamonds

5. I love planning. I don’t know if this is my military background or what, but I love “assessing variables” and making or revising a plan. In fact, I’m pretty geeky about it. If you want to get the most out of 24 hours in Paris, or 3 days in Italy, I’m your guy. My AT prep has been an obsession…a truly magnificent obsession. I spent over 3 months researching sleeping bags and over 3 hours researching sporks. That’s right…3 hours on sporks. The very thought that I have to get from Point A to Point B, in the forecasted weather, with the projected elevation changes and terrain, using nothing but prayer and what I can carry on my own back…and that my survival depends on it…well, I find that all rather intriguing.

6. I love getting in shape. I hope to lose at least 20 pounds on the trail and get a resting heart rate in the 50s. The AT will do that to a person. It’s one of the few activities where you literally can’t eat enough to replenish the 5,000-6,000 calories burned each day. Six months of pigging out and losing weight? Sign me up!

7. I want to help Amber and Julio Colon adopt a child. I hope my hike and blog will raise awareness, and some money, to help a really awesome Christian couple fulfill their dream of having a child. More on that later.

Training in Marshall, Texas
Training in Marshall, Texas

8. I hope to inspire some 5th and 6th grade students at Foundation Christian Academy. Yes, two Florida classrooms full of students will be tracking my journey and completing some related geography and history assignments. With each hundred miles trekked and each state traversed, they’ll get to move a thumbtack on an AT map on the wall of their classroom. More than that, I really hope that in some small way, I can encourage them to dream big dreams and then go after them. In the Everest movie, Jon Krakauer asks Doug Hansen, “It hurts. It’s dangerous. I gotta ask the question, you know I do. Why?” Hansen responds, “I have kids. They see a regular guy can follow impossible dreams, maybe they’ll do the same.” I hope that’s what at least a few of the FCA students will see in me. Perhaps their first assignment should be to answer the question, “What is a really big dream that you’d like to achieve some day?”

9. The timing is right. Carpe diem, folks. It’s time to seize the day. My wife has lovingly and graciously given me the green light. I will embark on this journey less than one month after turning 50. The body and mind aren’t getting any younger. I need to do this before the urge to lie down and grab the balance beam, click on “safe mode”, and coast to the end of my life kicks in. On my deathbed, I want to be able to look back on my life and know that I took some risks and didn’t always play it safe.

Beach Training, featuring chest hair, Freeport, Bahamas
Beach Training, featuring chest hair, Freeport, Bahamas

10. I told my mom I would do it. I don’t know if people can watch things from heaven, but I will hike as if she can. For this hike, and for my life in general, she is among my “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) I doubt she would be all that concerned whether or not I finish, but I think she would be disappointed if I didn’t follow my dream and make an attempt. As added incentive, my dad has agreed to let me take a teaspoon of her ashes with me, which I will spread at the final summit. I hope some day one or both of my sons will thru-hike the AT and do the same thing with my ashes. (No pressure, fellas.)

So there you have it…my reasons for attempting a thru-hike of the AT. I’m not a recently graduated guy in his early 20s trying to figure out what he wants to do in life. I’m not a guy in his 50s facing a mid-life crisis or trying to escape something. I have a great life and, hands down, the greatest wife. And yet, I have my reasons. This is something I must do. I must find out if there is something inside of me superior to circumstance. I must learn to rely on God like never before.

Some of you will identify with one or more of my reasons. A few of you will identify with enough of them to join me on the hike…in 2016 or perhaps some day in the future. As for my mother-in-law, I suspect she will read this blog, shake her head, and say, “Now why in the world would you want to go and do something like that?”

Big Steve

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16 thoughts on “AT Thru-Hike #1 – Why in the World?”

  1. Steve, in early May of my 65 th year your dad dropped me off at Aminicola State Park in Georgia, with a profound statement, “have you lost your mind”. I then spent 3 very cold nights and some 30 + miles later exited the AT as planned and got in my car and drove back to Tallahassee, no reason for doing it, just wanted to! The dozen or so people I encountered could fill a few pages of a book. Having abt 45 lbs on your back up a 6/7% grade made me reflect on your dads statement! Go for it and I will be watching. Uncle Phil

    1. Uncle Phil – I discussed your trip with my dad just last week and he remembered it well. I’d say that’s a pretty cool 65th birthday challenge!

    1. Thanks, Lynne! I may need your help with a time travel portal to get off the trail a little quicker.

  2. Big Steve,

    Wishing you God Speed , hikers legs, and safe adventures as you set out to experience “Walk’n on the Happy Side of Misery.” (title from my favorite AT book pinned by Model T – aka JR Tate)

    I am sure you have also read “Appalacian Trials” by Zach Davis. He recommends that part of getting the gear between the ears tuned in is going public and making a list of reasons why you are hiking the AT. Well, you cleared those two wickets masterfully.

    Alicia and I will be following you closely between 3 hour spork shopping and AT prep hikes (that’s an oxymoron for sure), I wish we were setting out on our quest for Katatin this year, but the good Lord had other plans for us, so we will be joining the AT class of 2018
    (at the more seasoned age of 55). In the meantime, we will just have to live vicariously through you (an adventure in its own right), We will also look forward to a few days trying to keep up with Big Steve the trail beast as he saunters his way through the SNP.

    Following your trek will certainly intensify that feeling that has resided in my gut for 25+ years. As you well know, it is a hankering that will only be quenched by setting out into the wild.

    So, go ahead, take you a walk on the wild side, and we will watch, pray, yearn and learn!

    1. KrazyLegz – I so wish you and Alicia were going with me. Although, if I remember correctly, she sets a brutal pace. Look forward to seeing you at SNP (cough, cough, pizza, cough) and sharing a tale or two. Thanks for continuing to serve our country.

  3. Looking forward to hearing about your adventure. I asked that question…but why…to Jan over the holiday and I can now see why. You’re just plain ol’ crazy! jk You can do this and we’ll be routing you on from the comfort of our home. We walked up to the trail in VT outside West Hartford after spending a night in a comfy B&B and that was enough for me. (our innkeeper got visits from those who wanted a warm place to stay off the trail). We’re big wimps, but you got it in you to do the entire thing. Make some friends along the way and stay a far distance from any bear. Be noisy out there my friend. Sing those crazy Johnson songs as you hike. God speed.

    1. Thanks, Karen…I appreciate your confidence in me. We’ll see how it plays out. Definitely looking forward to the Green Mountains of Vermont. I’ll sing “We Da Johnsons” just for you as I cross them.

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