What would make a person want to hike for six months along the spine of the Appalachians? Were they seeking anything from their experience, and if so, what?
Perhaps it is the physical challenge that drives them? The men and women who attempt this hike are walking along one of the world’s longest marked footpaths, running roughly 2,200 miles (depending on annual trail variations) from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail climbs a staggering 515,000 feet from beginning to end over the Smokies, the Shenandoah’s, New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains, and Maine’s craggy wilderness. For some perspective, that's like climbing Mount Everest eighteen times, an astounding feat even when spread out over more than 2,000 miles. Add to that the rocky, muddy, and switchback-less trails of the East Coast and the thru-hikers face a truly grueling adventure.
Maybe it is the sustained connection to nature that lures them in? In total, the trail touches fourteen states, several national parks, eight national forests, and twenty-four wilderness areas which include some of the largest remaining tracts of untouched forest east of the Mississippi. From the verdant temperate rainforests of the Smoky Mountains to the barren high alpine ridges of the White Mountains and Katahdin, thru-hikers get to see a wide gamut of unspoiled wilderness. Since many hikers spend six months on the trail, they experience snow, rain, wind, sun and even the transition of seasons on a day to day basis as few of those living under a roof ever will.
For some, it is certainly the simplicity of life on the trail that draws them away from civilization. As Robert Moore eloquently states in On Trails: An Exploration, “Complete freedom is not what a trail offers. Quite the opposite; a trail is a tactful reduction of options.” Wake, eat, walk, eat, sleep, repeat. One foot in front of the other. The uni-directional days on the trail can offer a reprieve from modern society’s seemingly boundless choices.
If a hiker is looking for solitude, however, the Appalachian Trail is not the place for them. With more than 3,700 hikers setting off on the trail last year, every hiker is bound to overlap with others throughout their journey. To most, these relationships become a key tenet of their hike. They have eaten and slept on shelter floors together, walked through injuries and illnesses together. The people on this trail share a bond, a brotherhood, a sisterhood and a friendship that few others in the world experience.
It was a curiosity about the motives of thru-hikers that started me on this photo project eleven years ago. Over this time I’ve sat along the side of the trail and around campfires talking to and photographing hundreds of hikers. Some stories surprised me with their complexity, other hikers had simple reasons for being in the woods. Some didn’t have any reason at all, or if they did they decided to keep it to themselves.
All of these images were taken on the trail in Maine, so these (northbound) hikers have walked roughly 2,000 miles to get to the point where they are standing. These are the people who haven’t quit, haven’t run out of money or motivation, haven’t gotten injured or sick enough to leave the trail. Only the vast wilderness of Maine’s north woods stands between them and their goal—Mount Katahdin, that towering pinnacle that acts as a beacon for every northbound thru-hiker. For some, the mountain can’t come soon enough, while others enjoy every step along the way.
Maybe when the time is right, you will be motivated to explore the trail yourself, if you haven’t already. Maybe it is after you retire, maybe the time is now. Maybe it is a thru-hike, maybe it is a day hike. Whenever it is, prepare to be touched by the trail forever.