“I walked through snow for over a week straight. One night, my shoes were soaking wet from walking in snow all day, and it was below freezing overnight so when I woke up my shoes were frozen solid. Jamming my feet into frozen shoes in the morning was a challenge.” – Kris Geary
“I broke down crying on the trail more often than I wanted to. Sometimes it was over how much my body hurt, sometimes it was my exhaustion, and other times it was from personal endeavors.” – Dawn Koziatek
“I didn’t know how my back would hold out… I had to really retrain my leg to learn how to walk on it where I now have a limp because of the nerve damage. There would be days when I would fall 10 times and faceplant.” – Kelli Cofer
“The snow kept coming down. It was below freezing. The wind was howling, and every step you took, you slid back. I lost feeling to my hands and my feet. My face had wind burn.” – Dawn Koziatek
Running through the heart of New Hampshire, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is a 2,190 mile path reaching from Springer Mountain in Georgia, to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. Despite the grueling terrain, demanding distance, and a one in four chance of finishing, thousands of people attempt to complete the trail every year. “Thru-hiker” is the esteemed title for anyone in the process of or has completed the Appalachian Trail. Thru hikers are often seen sporting unruly beards, large packs, and/or an overwhelming scent of sweat and dirt and if you’ve ever hiked a section of the AT, you can often smell these folks before you see them. Thru-hiking is a profound physical, mental, and emotional challenge that leaves non-hikers dumbfounded as to why anyone would volunteer to walk 20+ miles a day for 4-5 months.
So, why someone would ever want to hike the Appalachian Trail?
The most obvious lure of the Appalachian Trail is the promise of an atypical adventure and the ability to get off the grid, disconnect from society, and live a little wild. Kris Geary was looking for exactly this when she decided to hike the trail before heading to law school in 2016. Leading an active lifestyle prior to her thru hike and known for her adventurous personality, the AT seemed like an obvious choice for an adventure. Half of the adventure is spontaneity and unpredictability that comes with trail life. Geary found her adventure in this sense; “It can be easy to get caught up in a plan and try really hard to stick to the plan. But some of my most memorable moments from the trail were moments when things did not go according to plan.” Unplanned moments aren’t only found on the trail, but can be what leads someone to it.
Tyler Socash hadn’t originally been expecting an adventure when he decided to not only hike the AT, but the Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 miles) and the Te Araroa (1850 miles) all in one year. Socash, the then Senior Admissions Director at the University of Rochester and a grad student in the process of his masters in counseling, reflected on the events that brought him to the trail in his blog post: “Some great moments happen over long-extended periods of time. Others are spontaneous and require mere happenstance. This moment was a combination. I pulled out a calculator and began entering ballpark costs of how much it would cost to hike around the world for a year. The result was a little too ironic: $24,000. The total cost of my fabricated fairy tale was exactly the same as the brand new 2015 tangerine Subaru CrossTrek that I was scheduled to finance the next day.”
On April 28th in Georgia, Socash started the AT third of the journey he had traded his new car for. Through his expedition, Socash encountered some of America’s wildest landscapes, the beauty of the trail’s entirety, special moments with friends and fellow hikers, and a once in a lifetime kind of freedom, and so much more than what a new car advertised.
Some reasons for the long trail come down to aspirations, education, and growth through the unique experience. Edward Amadoro, 44, and his 9 year old daughter Alexandria have been hiking sections of the AT near their home in Pennsylvania for years, but the decision to pursue their upcoming thru-hike of the entire trail was actually inspired by a desire to help others and promote kindness.
The Amadoro family enjoys partaking in “Trail Magic” or unexpected acts of kindness towards AT thru-hikers. The family has donated food, shuttled, and hosted tired hikers in their home and has even brought injured hikers to the doctors. “There’s a lot of ugliness in the world and only a fool can believe they can change the world but we thought we could make a better world for our daughter by helping one person or one group at a time or spreading some love and helping some people who might be in a position where they’ve had a fall…,” shared Edward Amadoro. Such profound acts of kindness seem rare in everyday life but the Amadoro’s have committed themselves to helping others, and reaped benefits in the people they’ve met and unique moments they’ve shared. “For us it was about making a difference in individuals lives because we thought if we could make a difference in an individual life we could make a difference in the world.”
The circle of kindness continued when Alexandria came to her parents in 2017 with a proposal to hike to raise awareness and research for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Starting in March of 2019, Alexandria and Edward will hike the AT in partnership with St. Jude to raise money for sick children and their families. Alexandria’s parents know that not only will the experience allow their daughter to foster her goals of helping others as she grows up, but will educate her through experiences. Not only does the promotion of kindness and love make the trail attractive, but the opportunity for experiential learning and expanding one’s world view also lures hikers to the AT. “In our little sleepy town the whole world can come to our daughter…That’s how true growth will come to her life, by finding different experiences and different ideas by talking to people that necessarily might not share her same thoughts or cultures or beliefs…,” noted Edward.
The AT can also provide a temporary escape from school, careers, and life. The threat of being tied down to a monotonous job or a mediocre and average routine often pushes people to search for answers on the trail. Dawn Koziatek decided to attempt the excursion back in 2015 while she was attending Widener University in Pennsylvania. “The looming fear of working every day and possibly living back home after graduation made me so anxious that I wanted a way out. I started daydreaming of the trail my last two years of college and the six months prior to graduation, I planned excessively.”
On June 2nd, Koziatek began her southbound journey, and although never technically finishing the trail (due to minor setbacks and taking some time off before returning to it), she relayed that the experience was more than she had ever expected. The trail restored her faith in humanity, allowing herself to emotionally open up, and that realizing that life holds more options than working daily in a unpleasant job. “I crave experiences too much in life to be sane working a job to pay bills I don’t need and don’t make me actually happy in life.” With the self realization she achieved by thru-hiking, instead of working a 9 to 5 job, Koziatek now travels the U.S. in a cargo van with a fellow hiker met on the trail, planning more big hikes.
The AT can be used as an outlet to prove something to one’s self and/or others.
It fosters determination and pride in completion, as well as personal development and a dash of therapy.
After falling off a 20 foot tower, breaking everything from her ankle to her jaw, the AT gave Kelli Cofer exactly what she needed. Retired from the military, and left with spinal fusion and 9 inch rods in her back following 6 months in the hospital, Cofer was told she very well may never walk again. Prior to serving in the military and her injury, Cofer was a professional boxer on ESPN with a bachelor’s degree in engineering who had dreamed of hiking the AT since first hearing about it at age 13. After her accident, Cofer held on to the trail as a goal she needed to achieve for herself. “It was a chance for me to prove to myself that I could still be the same. When you have an injury like I had, you hear a lot of, ‘you can’t do that now, you can’t do this now.’” Cofer decided not to focus on what she couldn’t do and saw the AT as an outlet to prove to herself and others that “there’s a whole hell of a lot of stuff I can still do.” Cofer managed to get through the trail, despite damaged nerves in her leg, swollen nodules in her back, and terrible pain, with the help of a friend from her boxing days and her service dog (who hiked the first 1,065 miles with her). Cofer experienced more than her fair share of troubles on the trail, and it took her 6 months to finish the trail while dealing with the aftermath of her accident, remembering, “There’s days I fell on my face a million times, I’ve peeled my nose open, I’ve given myself black eyes falling down. I’ve had shooting pains, I’ve had them in my back, just everything you can think of. But, ok, that’s a bad day. You go to bed, you sleep it off, and you start over the next day,” Cofer stated, just 8 days after completing the trail she had started on March 4th, 2018.
Cofer managed to get more out of the hike than she had ever expected. In the 6 months it took her to complete the trail, she was able to process the events of her last year, as well as focus on negativity she needed to expel. “To me, it wasn’t just the physical completion of a hike. To me, I felt like I was still capable. I’m injured, my body’s beat up, I’ve got all kinds of stuff wrong with me, I have that now. But I’ve come to accept that now. You know what? I’m hurt but I’m not dead and I can still do a lot of stuff. I needed that for my accident. It was like the crowning first step to my comeback.” Despite the obstacles and challenges she faced, Cofer’s hike was driven by her need for closure and proving her capability to herself. She closed, “I’m never going to be the same as I was, but I sure as hell am not going to be the cripple invalid they act like I should be.”
Now, while the idea of abandoning civilization for anywhere from 4 to 7 months sounds daunting, and the thought of the sore legs, aching back, and constant coverage in sweat leaves much to be desired, the AT still manages to entice thousands. Consistently, the AT seems to spit hikers out on the other side a bit more confidence, a little tougher, perhaps with new profound friendships, but most importantly with an entirely unique adventure under their belt, and having had the best time of their lives.
So, why on Earth would someone hike the Appalachian Trail?
“The many miles on trail may fade into obscurity someday. As will the days of our lives if we let them. But I’ll never forget the big moments with friends.” – Tyler Socash via his blog
“You can talk to someone you’re just passing. It’s so rare in society to actually have a genuine conversation with a stranger. In the 100 mile wilderness so many of us came together in commiseration from the shared suffering of rain and physical struggle.” -Dawn Koziatek
“…Everything about the experience was better than I could have imagined. The people were incredible, I saw beautiful things every day, I was challenged in new ways, and I learned a lot about myself. Most importantly, I learned how happy I can be living out of a backpack, wearing the same dirty clothes every day, as long as I’m surrounded by great people and doing something I love.” -Kris Geary
“I got my self confidence back, in what I can and can’t do. I know I can still do this. To me, this was such an amazing adventure, and I got more out of it than I ever hoped to, for myself, for my relationships with other people; it gives you a better power of outlook on the whole world. ” -Kelli Cofer
“The first time I hiked I was most excited for the freedom. The second time I hiked the trail, knowing what was possible, I was excited to get the instant deep connection with strangers back.” -Dawn Koziatek
Where to find:
Tyler Socash – @tylerhikes & @footstuffpodcast
Edward & Alexandria Amadoro – www.goalexandriago.net
Written by Grace Castonguay