REI’s wide-eyed Joe Rhoten, 28 (trail name: Backpacking Fool) describes a run-in with a mountain lion as sunset turned to dark. “We knew that he was following us along the trail – I could see the reflection of his eyes from my light and I thought I had seen another one behind us.” With no feline-free way to the next shelter, Rhoten and his friend flagged down a motorist and rode back to town, to start the hike anew. Despite lingering thoughts of mountain lions and “seeing tons of bear” Rhoten speaks with compassion about nature. “Rattlesnakes are gentlemen snakes; they give you a warning and leave you alone if you leave them alone. If you got bit by a rattlesnake, you must have really deserved it.”

Meeting with REI’s sober-sided Outreach Coordinator Mark Nelson, 53, and mellow equipment guru Joe Rhoten in Arlington, Virginia gave a new perspective to a mountaintop adventure. Rhoten hiked the 2,160 mile trail while taking six months off in 1998 from a Bachelor’s degree in Recreational Adventure.

Nelson adds a camping conundrum: “Humans attract mice, mice attract snakes. It’s just knowing that snakes are out there – or having a mouse run across your face at two in the morning – that can keep you from having a good night’s sleep.”

According to Nelson and Rhoten, black bear blues, venomous bites or parasite-infected waters are the least of my worries. Human factors are often overlooked.

“People’s perception of where adventure ends and anxiety begins is this far apart,” Nelson gestures with his hands 12 inches away. “The fact is, most people develop anxiety the second they set foot outside of their house,” as Nelson narrows the gap to about an inch for emphasis. “You really need to be a creature of habit, think about what you are doing and eliminate distractions to keep focused on where you are going,” dispatches Nelson, like a concerned drill instructor preparing troops for combat.

Conversely, Rhoten is almost giddy. He describes how the Appalachian Trail transformed him from an introvert to embracing the company of other through-hikers. “It’s all about meeting people. People are amazing. The Appalachian Trail restored my faith in humanity.” Rhoten cites “Trail Magic” – the kindness encountered from others – whether a hot meal, ride into town or sandwiches and drinks left for hikers by complete strangers.

Historians tell us of Blue Ridge pioneer Daniel Boone running 60 miles in a day, with 35-pound rifle in tow. Thanks to lightweight, modern equipment and a well-defined trail, Rhoten managed a 19 hour, 40 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail, fighting: rain, fatigue-induced hallucinations and cold.

Nelson and Rhoten kept stressing minimizing the weight of my pack and strategic placement of gear to maximize: speed, the perception parameter and agility – all important safety considerations, especially when eight hours of each day is consumed by walking along a mountain ridge shouldering a pack growing heavier by the minute.

Shelters dot the trail every ten miles or so in the Shenandoah National Park – an easy day hike, for most. While many hikers speak wistfully of modern conveniences and prepared meals, they also report peak fitness and dramatic weight loss. For a week I could forfeit showers, air-conditioning and my wife‘s gourmet cooking.

Undermining Rhoten’s infectious exuberance was a nonchalant comment from my wife. “Be sure to give me your friend’s names and numbers (for funeral notices?) in case anything happens on the trail.” Gulp!

To make sure that the AT experience was for me, I took a hike in the early spring, with a stop at the Bearfence Mountain shelter. The whistling, swaying trees danced with the wind. A symphony of birdsong choreographed to a vision of this site at full swing:

camaraderie amongst weary hikers, a boisterous fire crackling with sparks and the spontaneous combustion of laughter amongst kindred spirits. Trail-tired bones collapse in a heap, a good night’s rest guaranteed before setting out again. Of such dreams life is made. Visions for the future and memories of the past tell us who we are. At the end, life’s activities are but a fleeting shadow – perhaps just a conduit to dreams and memories. Could intangibles we hold dear – like yearning for time in the wilderness – be what define our spiritual existence?

That afternoon’s epiphany steeled my desire to capture a glimpse of life on the Appalachian Trail.

On the AT

“Excuse me, I’m going crazy!” laughs Greg Towson, 50 a retired union carpenter from Kokomo, Indiana. I interrupted Towson chatting to himself early in the morning. As he broke down his camp, he spoke of the Appalachian Trail’s significance: “My youngest daughter died three years ago. Being on the trail lets me talk to God and cry when I need to.” Averaging 10-12 miles per day, often more, a fit and rugged Towson has 900 miles behind him. What keeps Towson going? “In a week I will hit my 1,200 mile mark in Harper’s Ferry. I am going to take a day off there.”

Many hikers diesel past us – like a big rig in the fast lane, with a long-overdue shipment. Burning up 20 miles daily for a week at a time, many through-hikers see little more than the finish line in Maine.

But such as hasty strategy leaves some unfulfilled. “I sold my house and belongings for a second attempt at completing the Appalachian Trail,” mourns Vicki “Baby Steps” Jones, 37 of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Starting on April 2nd to avoid the bad luck of April Fool’s Day, Jones found herself in a blizzard. “I don’t think I am going to make it again this year. I like to listen to the sounds of the woods and look at things.” Jones is torn between unfulfilled goals and wanting to learn more lessons of the trail. “I was a perfectionist and control freak. I had to do everything myself. The Appalachian Trail has taught me to slow down, let go, take a step back and give myself a break.”

Amidst a pack of “get-there-itis” hikers, Jones is on a path of her own. “The Appalachian Trail gets you right back to basics. When we go into a Wal-Mart to get supplies, I’m overwhelmed by the consumerism. I really don’t need much. Being inside is over-rated,” Jones laughs. “The AT gives you a good adjustment.”

Others find the Appalachian Trail provides benefits beyond a clearer perspective. “As a mother, my family is constantly under threat of being pulled away,” notes homemaker Jan Shaw, 55. Shaw’s husband is a North Carolina lung specialist. Her three children enjoy varied academic pursuits, from music abroad to medical school. “Being on the Appalachian Trail brings us together at the same place at the same time – free of distractions.” The Shaw family enjoys a lively discussion atop Hazeltop Mountain – providing one of the most panoramic views along the Appalachian Trail in the Shenandoah National Park. Daughter Caroline, 22 cites recent Bush Administration policies she sees as detrimental to wildlife preservation and savors the moment. “I am glad the Shenandoah National Park is still here, and hope that it remains.” To Robert Shaw, MD, 55 he’s happy to hike and camp with his family, free from stress. “There’s more to life than cell phones and traffic. The Appalachian Trail and backwoods camping gives us a touch of being self-sufficient. The AT makes us grateful for food and water.”

Other trail hikers contemplate the big picture and capture clever insights. Job-less Mike Fagerstrom, 23 of New Jersey is taking graduate courses in history. He seized upon the freedom and relatively low cost of the AT experience. With 1,000 miles (roughly 5.3 million steps) behind him, Fagerstrom offers: “Hike your own hike. Too many people fixate on mileage, gear and calories. They think hiking the AT is a competition and move as part of a pack. It’s important to not lose sight of why you started. For me, it was a love of nature. My role is to co-exist with nature and other through-hikers, meeting a variety of people and enjoying a lot of good relationships. Try to redefine why you are here every day.”

If you go:

REI rents and sells exceptional hiking and camping gear. For more information, visit: www.REI.com

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy offers maps, networking opportunities and expert advice: www.AppalachianTrail.org

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