There are two ways to hike the famous Appalachian Trail: “thru-hiking,” which means a continuous trip from one terminus to the other; and “section-hiking,” which means splitting the hike into sections and tackling them piece by piece, perhaps out of order, perhaps over years.
Jeff Ryan didn’t realize, when he first set foot on the A.T., that he was making the first of many section-hikes. It wasn’t until later that the plan formed to hike the entire trail – and it wasn’t until 28 years later that the feat was finally complete.
We spoke with Jeff to learn more about his epic trip in advance of the publication of his book, Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America’s Trail.
How did you finally decide to start hiking the trail back in 1985? Had you always wanted to hike it?
It’s funny how this adventure started, because the idea of doing the whole trail wasn’t even on our minds. It actually started with a group hike up Katahdin’s Hunt Trail (which is also the AT). One of the participants was a guy I had done a couple of hikes with (but didn’t really know all that well yet) named Wayne Cyr. When we got down off the mountain and were back at camp, he suggested we do more hiking in the future.
Was the plan ever to thru-hike the entire trail, or did you want to section-hike from the start?
Over the winter of 1985-1986, Wayne got in touch with me and suggested we hike the Long Trail in Vermont. Over the next five years, we spent a number of 3-day weekends doing that 270-mile-plus trail the length of the state. About 150 miles of the Long Trail are also the Appalachian Trail. It was only when we were hiking one of these sections that we realized that a larger goal was taking shape beneath our feet.
What sort of planning or training went into each trip? How was it different from tackling the whole AT at once?
One of the things that made doing the AT this way so unique was the logistical aspects. For one thing, we didn’t do the trail linearly. We jumped around quite a bit (doing part of Pennsylvania one year, part of Virginia the next, etc.). Then there was the planning/research we needed to do to simply get to and from the trail. Once we got out of New England, we entirely used public transportation — a hodgepodge of trains, buses, cabs or independent trail shuttles (people who will drive you to the trailhead for a fee).
I had done a through hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1983 and the differences between the two approaches is dramatic. For example, we rarely took days off to rest or resupply (something you need to factor in on a through-hike). We generally took all the food we needed for a whole trip and stayed out on the trail as much as possible.
Finally, there was the seasonality factor. Early on, we hiked in the spring. We ditched that idea after two really hot and buggy hikes through MA/CT and Shenandoah National Park. After that, we mostly hiked in October, although on a few trips work schedules made it so we had to go as late as the second week in December. We didn’t see any other hikers on that trip!
The last section we hiked was south from just inside the Georgia border to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the AT. Here’s what I wrote about the experience:
“Amazing. 28 years worth of memories flooded through me like a fast speed slide show. A devastatingly hot hike through the Shenandoahs in May, the hard earned granite summits of the Whites, the high mileage jaunt through Massachusetts and Connecticut, meeting Helen twice at her Port Clinton Hotel in Pennsylvania and so much more. Every trip had its own character. Every section its own charm. And now, at 2:35 on this October afternoon, it was complete.”
Did you have any favorite sections? Particularly rough ones? Sections you were looking forward to or dreading?
Favorite sections: I really enjoyed the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and I am really partial to the AT in Maine (which I have now done four times). But I also need to give a special shout out to Pennsylvania. The urban legend is that the Pennsylvania rocks are horrific and the hiking through the state isn’t fun. I wouldn’t say I was dreading that section, but I was wary of the reports. What I discovered was really pleasant hiking. The ridges there are long and the views from them are fairly frequent. I look forward to going back there.
Did you get a trail name? If so, what’s the story behind it?
I initially adopted the trail name “Trampus”, which was the name of a character in an old TV western. I thought it was also indicative of me tramping about the trails. Wayne would have none of it. He felt that I deserved a more, in his words, “official and ancient” sounding title. So he dubbed me “Thumpias Maximus”, which I have pretty much stuck with. His trail name, by the way, is “Old Skiing Dude”.
Over the years, we started giving our hike itself a name, which we dubbed “The Masters Tour” — a nod to our ages more than anything. A couple of 50-somethings traveling to and from the trail with 60-pound packs isn’t a common sight and a lot of strangers would approach us in our travels to ask about our exploits. This in part led me to set out on another journey — writing a book about a trip that spanned half a lifetime.
Any instances of Trail Magic that jump to mind?
Plenty of them. Most notably, a group of volunteers that left jugs of water at trail crossings in drought regions. We had one 24-mile stretch in North Carolina where all the usually reliable water sources were dry. It was amazing to climb down off the ridge and find jugs of water with notes saying “For Hikers” on them.
We also had our share of adventures that weren’t exactly magic but added so much to the experience: a porcupine eating all the rubber hoses in my truck while we were hiking through Vermont, a stray dog adopting me as her owner for 30 miles, and walking hundreds of miles with “a-wee-ma-weh, a-wee-ma-weh, the lion sleeps tonight” endlessly playing in my head among them.