Weaving through varying terrain of 14 states, reaching about 2,190 miles between Georgia and Maine, it takes a thru-hiker on average five to seven months to complete the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Lake Tomahawk resident Justin Smith, 26, completed the Trail on July 7, just over three months (100 days, to be exact) after starting March 30 in Amicalola Falls, Ga.
“I’ve always liked hiking and the outdoors, exploring around,” said Smith, who grew up in the Northwoods and graduated from Lakeland Union High School in 2012. “In 2017 I started getting into backpacking and camping. I was never out east or west, I went up to Michigan. My first trip was the Porkies, and then I went to Pictured Rocks that same year and I got hooked.”
It was during a trip to Isle Royale when Smith started researching the Appalachian Trail and other thru-hikes.
“At first I thought those guys were nuts,” Smith recalled. Any long distance hike completed in one attempt is considered a thru-hike. “And then it kinda hit me, like, I’d like to sometime in my life experience a thru-hike and become a thru-hiker, so last year I was thinking about it a lot …”
When a friend asked him if he wanted to join a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Smith took the chance.
“I was going to wait awhile, but I’d like to do it,” Smith remembered telling his friend. When his friend’s plans changed and he ended up not being able to do the hike, though, Smith decided to still take the opportunity. “I was thinking hard about it and I thought, this is the chance — I should just go for it.”
“I kinda needed a change, in a way,” Smith explained. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and face some fears and challenge myself a little bit.”
Last spring Smith started training, walking around with a pack and running as much as he could, “just to kinda get my feet beat up and get an idea for it.”
“There’s a lot of people who go into the hike off the couch and a lot of them don’t make it,” Smith said. “I wanted to be somewhat in shape … I didn’t think I was in shape for that extent.”
Like most AT thru-hikers, Smith began in Georgia and made his way north, hikers known as No-Bos (north bound). He started with the Approach Trail in Amicalola Falls, Ga., about nine miles before the official start at Springer Mountain. It was in Amicalola Falls where he registered and received his tag number.
“Some people don’t want to walk up all the stairs leading to the top of the falls, so they get a ride to Springer Mountain instead of doing the approach trail,” Smith explained.
“There was a lot of people, people everywhere,” he said of the official trail start Springer Mountain. “They call it ‘The Bubble,’ so the majority of people are there.”
“The first day was great, then that night it poured and the next day it started out pouring rain for half the day,” Smith said. “It was hard physically, but it didn’t seem too hard mentally yet, because I was just getting into it.”
Although he had trained on trails around the Northwoods, the terrain he was used to didn’t match up to what he would experience on the trail.
“Since I trained around here, I think that got me mentally prepared, to get up every day and hike,” Smith said. “I wasn’t used to the climbs, though. I would find hills around here and go up and down them, but when I got there (AT), there were gradual inclines for miles and miles long and I don’t think I was prepared for that, but it seemed like I did OK. I just took my time, low mileage to start and just got used to that. Once I got used to those climbs I think it helped me.”
Smith said overall the trail was well marked, and he only strayed away a couple times, but realized it soon after and got back on track.
Not only was the actual hike a change in pace for Smith, but his mentality during the hike proved to also be a challenge.
“Physically (the challenge) just kinda crept — on and off you’d get some easy sections and then weeks of up and down mountains,” Smith said. “Mentally, throughout the whole thing, but I think towards the middle, the halfway mark, it really hit me mentally. You see you are half way and there’s times where … I was kinda doubting myself a little bit. The 3/4 of the way mark, I’d say it got really mentally hard. It just felt like — I don’t know if it was partially because you want to be done, you miss stuff — then you hit views and that mentality will go away. There were certain states you worked your butt off and then just no views or anything to really reward it. You just had to mentally prepare yourself for that.”
To keep his mind from wandering too much and getting him down, Smith listened to music, would think about the upcoming duck hunting season, and think of his family and dog at home.
“I got a supply box from my parents and … my niece, Jayden, she made little pictures for me, mountains with me in there, and I kept those,” Smith said. “A lot of times I would look at them … that got me going a little better.”
Overall, after about a quarter of the way, Smith tried averaging around 25 miles per day, with days in town having less hiking.
“I never stayed at hostels too much, I stayed at a hostel two times and then pitched in on a hotel three times. Saved a lot of money,” Smith said, explaining he mostly stayed along the trail in his tent. “There are shelters along the trail, but there were other people and their pads, I couldn’t sleep. I need my sleep. Some people are rolling around on their loud pads and some people talk, so I lived in my tent.”
Smith said he loved “waking up somewhere new every morning and seeing new areas of this country every day.”
Smith also experienced a few interactions with unfamiliar wildlife, including rattlesnakes.
“Those startled me,” Smith said of that encounter. “I had one feet away and strike at me. That was the highest I’ve ever jumped in my life. Then after the first rattlesnake encounter, the whole rest of the day I’d glance down at roots and sticks and I jumped. I’m not used to that, I don’t see them. That was in Pennsylvania. Then there were a couple copperheads that scared me.”
Although many other hikers seemed to always be complaining about the weather, Smith learned to adjust.
“Overall the weather was good (for me), but there was a lot of rain,” he said. “I got hailed on. You see a lot of people getting in the shelters.” He said he’d wake up and put on wet shoes and socks because they “never dried out, so it’s constantly like a cold wet day … putting wet clothes on.” Rain water would pool in the bottom of his tent if it was raining hard enough.
“I kinda just learned to laugh at it and just try to bear through it so it didn’t bother me,” Smith said. “There’s nothing you can really do about it, it’s happening.”
“I wish I had brought a hammock instead of a tent … because you’re above the ground, so when it’s pouring you don’t have to worry about the spot you are in,” Smith said. “There were some areas where I didn’t stay at the designated campsites or shelters, we call it ‘stealth camping,’ I did that a lot. There were some days where I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll go another couple miles,’ and it’s all overgrown and there’s nowhere to just get a spot for camping, it’s really lumpy. My friends called it ‘playing the game,’ keep going and try to find a campsite, and it’s almost dark … so the next thing you know you are putting all these miles on.”
Besides a slight twinge in his knee at the beginning and sore feet (Smith wore through three pairs of boots during the thru-hike), Smith fared well through the hike.
“In the mornings I would get up, especially after the halfway point, and I’d hobble around … but once you get walking it was better,” he said. “I never got injured, but it was a lot of little pains that tricked the mind. My biggest fear was what if I get hurt, and getting off trail.”
Smith’s favorite places along the trail included the Grayson Highlands in Virginia, where wild ponies were running around along the trail, the White Mountains in New Hampshire and southern Maine.
“Even before beginning New Hampshire I loved it, and Maine, it’s all above treeline and open ridges, that was my favorite,” he said. “But it was the hardest, so the hardest was my favorite.”
The White Mountains in New Hampshire were “the toughest.” “I thought I would be real strong … but those kicked my can. They are steep, rocky.”
Although he went into the hike alone, Smith met many amazing people along the way. Some segments he joined “tramilies,” sticking with the same group for an extended hike, before branching off on his own again.
“The pace I was going — (it) was kinda hard to find other people to go my pace,” Smith said. “You meet amazing people and you want to stay with them, but they say to hike your own hike and just go with what you want to do.”
Smith said some thru-hikers had a goal of how quickly they wanted to complete the hike, but many were there just to enjoy the trail.
“There were a lot of thru-hikers, a lot of section-hikers, and then you’d see people on the weekends doing (the trail),” he explained. Unlike thru-hikers, section-hikers do shorter segments at a time, eventually completing the entire trail, “every year they’d come out and do a little bit of it,” Smith said.
“There are people who go south-bound, and then there are flip-floppers, so they’ll start in Georgia and go up halfway which is like, West Virginia, and if they don’t think they are going to get to the north on time ... they’ll arrive up there and then come back to the other half,” Smith explained.
One trail tradition is earning a “trail name,” which for Smith became “Storm Trooper,” and not just because he used to be a fan of “Star Wars.”
“One day I was in a group and we woke up to a very windy, stormy morning and I got really excited about hiking in it,” Smith said. “So the group I was in started calling me (Storm Trooper).”
There were also the people not hiking the trail, but were helpful to those who were, known as “trail angels” and “trail magic.” Smith said this ranged from people hosting grilling parties for thru-hikers to setting up coolers of food and drinks along the trail.
“People who have never even hiked the trail, like church groups and that, set up and do that for you,” he said.
Trail angels also including people providing rides into town.
“That was a little weird at first,” he said of his first hitchhike into town.
Smith said he would go into town every three to five days, depending on the segment of the trail.
“If there would be a place for a shorter hitch — a couple miles — and then there was one before that that was a longer hitch, I would pack an extra day to get (far enough) for the shorter hitch,” Smith said. “Instead of a 10 mile hitch, I’d rather take a shorter, 1-2 mile. If it was a mile or under I usually just walked.”
Smith would go to town to restock on supplies, charge his battery pack, and “pig out.”
“A lot of people go in (to town), shower and laundry, and I did, but … on the trail I started doing that a lot,” Smith said. “I was the guy — you’d see me with a bag, soaking my clothes, washing them. Other people laughed at me, a lot of people go into town just for that. (I’d) shower in lakes or streams, downstream of people getting their water.”
Smith said one of the things almost constantly on his mind was food. Breakfast was usually Pop-Tarts, honey buns, or donut sticks, and throughout the day he’d snack on different granola or protein bars, trail mix, and “sometimes I’d have chips strapped to the outside of my pack.”
“Every half hour to hour I liked to eat. It’s one thing I see a lot of people lacking,” Smith said. “Eating throughout the day, I think, helps keep yourself fueled.”
Lunch was often meat and cheese wraps, and dinners consisted of pasta sides or ramen noodles. Smith’s “pig outs” in town were usually buffets, but pizza was also a welcomed meal.
“I’d pack the pizza, which is heavy, but towards the end of the day at night, I’d just eat the whole thing,” he said.
Completing the Appalachian Trail
“I don’t know if it really hit me until after,” Smith said of reaching the end of the Trail on July 7 in Katahdin, Maine. “It all feels kinda like a dream now, to be honest, I still don’t know if it’s hit me, but it felt good. I got emotional up there, everything kinda flashed through my head as I touched the sign.”
Smith’s sister, Jamie Cella, was able to meet him for the last 5.5 miles and go up to the summit with him.
“To have my sister up there with me was awesome,” he said. “She did good, she did get her butt kicked … she loved it though. There were steep parts in the woods where we had to take a couple minute break … you could tell she was, ‘oh my gosh, this is crazy’ … it was only a couple miles in and I was like ‘you’ll be fine.’ That’s where all the boulder scrambling started happening, but I think she was having fun with that, though. It was pretty technical getting up there.”
“I wanted her to have nice views and days up there, because she’s never done anything like that,” Smith said, explaining he had taken a “Zero Day” the day before, hiking zero miles, so his sister could get the perfect experience.
“I look back at it now … there were some towns I wish I had stayed in and explored more,” Smith said of the overall experience. “I heard of some things out there after I got away from there, that ‘oh, you should have seen this,’ but I didn’t know about it. When I got back I thought, ‘I almost should have slowed down, but it was comfortable to me, the pace I was going, and I think that’s just because I’m missing it now.”
Smith also said he wishes he had taken more photos of the people he met along the way, although he did get contact information for some to keep in touch.
Besides learning to appreciate the little things at home and becoming more caring about others, Smith said he learned to never give up and to push the boundaries of his comfort zone.
“You’ll run into obstacles, and you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, either on a trail or life,” he said. “I was never a really big crowd person, especially around town and out there I loved it. Nothing is going to go your way all the time, you just have to learn to deal with it and get around it.”
Although Smith did say he would do the AT again in the future, he has other trails in his sights right now. His plan is to become a “Triple Crowner,” someone to hike the three big long-distance trails in the U.S. With the AT complete, he has the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) left to accomplish.
“I’m thinking next year, if not, the following year, but I’m thinking PCT (which starts at the Mexico/California border and goes north through California, Oregon, and Washington, ending on the border of Canada),” Smith said. “After that, if I do that next year, I wouldn’t do the CDT (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico) the year after, I’d probably wait a couple years. Then there’s one other trail that’s on my mind, and that’s the North Country Trail (North Dakota, Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, Upper and Lower Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Vermont), but that’s really long. Not many people want to do that one all the way. That one’s on my mind, though, because there’s a list of only five or six people who have thru-hiked the whole thing. I think that’s kinda what’s getting me to want to hike it. But I want the triple crown first.”
Smith posted to his Facebook page “Justin’s Footsteps” throughout his journey so friends and family could follow along with his hike. He also hopes others will be inspired to follow their dreams and reach their goals after seeing his journey.
“The hardest part is taking that first step towards something that might seem impossible or hard to you,” he said.
To see more of Smith’s Appalachian Trail thru-hike, visit his Facebook page “Justin’s Footsteps.” For more information on the Appalachian Trail, visit http://www.appalachiantrail.org.
Emily Koester may be reached at [email protected]