Evanston resident Steve Brunton celebrated his 58th birthday in 2022 hitching a ride to a hospital in New Hampshire to get a test for lyme disease.
The test ended up negative, but Brunton had reason to be worried as he had found a blood-filled tick attached to his leg that morning.
Since high school, Brunton had aspired to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail, “the longest hiking-only footpath in the world,” according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website. It stretches from Georgia to Maine, traverses 14 states and is 2,194 miles long. It is visited by more than 3 million people a year.
Most of those 3 million people are day hikers or weekend backpackers. But a small number, reportedly about 5,000 per year, attempt to hike the entire trail – though less than half complete it within a single calendar year. Brunton is one of them. It took him about eight months, starting on March 17 and finishing Nov. 16.
Brunton prepared by walking his dogs two to three hours a day and taking two major urban hikes of about 20 and 30 miles, respectively.
Gearing up for the hike
Each Appalachian Trail hiker needs to carry their own backpack, tent and sleeping bag. Keeping the backpack light is essential, so every item must earn its place. Other “must haves” are a bear-safe food container, high-quality socks, a head lamp, a cellphone battery charger, basic first aid kit, toilet paper and hiking poles. Water and a week’s worth of food add about another 10 pounds.
When asked if he brought a book to read, Brunton looked horrified. “Oh no. Too much weight,” he said.
Non-hikers may be surprised to learn that boots aren’t the “must have” footwear of even 20 years ago. The hiking shoes Brunton wore look more like tennis shoes. He needed two pairs – the second pair was mailed to him along the trail.
And instead of the old complicated apparatuses to purify water, there are filters that fit into bottles. Fill up at a stream and screw in the filter. It’s ready to drink.
Right from journey’s start there was a problem. Brunton flew to Atlanta, then took public transit and an Uber to reach the entrance to Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia, site of Springer Mountain and the entrance to the southernmost part of the trail. He arrived at 8 p.m. The visitor’s center was closed, it was dark and he was alone.
He turned on his headlamp and began. He hiked 8 miles on the approach trail to reach the start of the Appalachian Trail.
At around 4 a.m. he got to the shelter closest to the trailhead, the actual start of the trail. There were four sleeping hikers inside. One of them woke up and made room for Brunton.
Later that morning, he got up and started on the trail. The peak of Springer Mountain was about an hour from the shelter. After reaching the peak, he hurried to the next shelter two-tenths of a mile away to escape the rain.
On the trail he was ‘Radiolab’ or ‘Dad’
Although he was traveling by himself, Brunton met people easily and soon became part of a “trail family,” which he described as “the people you end up traveling with most of the time along the way. They’re the ones you meet up with and keep in touch with by texting.”
There were about 10 people in his trail family. Hikers acquire trail nicknames, and Brunton was given two: “Radiolab” to the larger hiking community on the trail, and “Dad” to his trail family.
Brunton was older than most of the hikers on the trail. The typical Appalachian Trail hiker is “Definitely younger, probably 30s,” he said. “Most of the people I met were in some sort of transition phase, like having just graduated from college, gotten divorced, retired or left the military, some dealing with PTSD. There were more men than women, but that is changing. Racially, it’s still heavily white, although that is changing too.”
Brunton met people from all over the U.S. and Europe, and he also saw a number of animals on the trail. He saw a bear in Virginia, a bald eagle in North Carolina, a bobcat in New Jersey, snakes and porcupines in Massachusetts and more porcupines in Pennsylvania, and two moose in Maine. Orange salamanders are seen so frequently they’re an unofficial trail mascot.
Hikers can’t carry all the supplies they will need, so they plan to resupply about every week. Throughout the length of the trail, there are towns on or a few miles off the trail. There are hostels and businesses that cater to hikers who need to do laundry, recharge cellphones and battery chargers and stock up on food. Brunton was an outlier in one respect: He made a point of shaving every time he resupplied. Most male hikers were bearded.
Brunton was fortunate in that he did not get ill or hurt while hiking. About two weeks before he finished, he was wracked with pain and thought it was muscle cramps, but it turned out to be shingles. It did not keep him from finishing.
One strategic decision Brunton made was to leave the trail about a third of the way through and fly to Maine to tackle the northern section during the summer. Maine has what is known as “the hardest mile” of the trail, Mahoosuc Notch. Cold weather can occur even during the summer.
The trail community is very tightly knit. There are apps available to help hikers avoid annoying people and animals. In Massachusetts, Brunton inadvertently displaced a very territorial (and trail-famous) porcupine who wanted to stay in “his” shelter, but Brunton had set up camp first and called dibs.
Appalachian mountain high
Trail gossip is also helpful for knowing special places to visit. One recommended stop was to visit a resident praised for providing free refreshments to hikers, kept in coolers on the porch of his cabin. Brunton and his trail buddy at the time approached and saw the coolers, but the cabin owner was not home. Still, the handwritten signs were welcoming.
Brunton and his friend each took a sandwich, a drink and about four squares of chocolate. A few minutes later, his friend realized they had mistakenly eaten some of the owner’s personal food that was alongside the “help yourselves” food. And the chocolate? It was chocolate mixed with medical marijuana.
The next three hours easily made up for all the times he declined getting high with his trail friends.
He said, “I lost all concept of time. I was hiking with my friend. Later he passed me and that was my first concept of time passing because he went from being behind me to being ahead of me. I had no idea how long we hiked. When I finally reached the next shelter, I found out three hours had passed. I dropped my backpack and immediately went to sleep. I got up a couple of times during the night, but pretty much slept the next 16 hours. And I was still woozy when I got up the next day.”
On this trip Brunton hiked about 10 hours a day and ate ready-to-eat food like tuna packs, energy and granola bars, nuts, dried fruit, beef jerky and junk food. He only indulged in cooked meals when he went into a town to resupply.
He lost 45 pounds over the eight months.
Another challenge was the loneliness he encountered as the crowds thinned out. “Traveling with a group is slower. People want to do different things, especially if we were in a town,” he said. “But in the fall, there were times when I was the only one sleeping in a shelter. It was more solitary and lonelier.”
In mid-September, he needed a break. He took a train from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to Chicago, then the Red Line up to Evanston, and walked home. He rested, spent time with his wife and daughters, and rejuvenated. After 10 days, he was ready to go back to Pittsfield to complete the final leg of the journey.
Brunton said he learned on his adventure that “we are more resilient than we realize. We can get by with less than we think. We need to rely on strangers more, and at the same time learn to be more self-reliant.”
A get-together with some members of his trail family is in the works.