Lifetime lessons learned on the Appalachian Trail

By Lynn R. Parks

From Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine, there are 2,175 miles on the Appalachian Trail. That's more than 18 million feet, about 5 million footsteps, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. And Alvin Hastings Jr. has taken every one of them. Hastings, 34, Seaford, started out on the National Park Service trail April 2 and finished it six months later, on Oct. 2. The trail winds through the Appalachian Mountains, touching on 14 states, eight national forests and six state parks and going from 124 feet above sea level to 6,625 feet, on Clingman's Dome, Tenn. According to the conservancy, about 8,000 people have walked the entire trail since its creation in 1968. "It was the best thing I have ever done," said Hastings. "I learned some lifetime lessons." Among those lessons was an appreciation of Thoreau's dictate, "Simplify, simplify, simplify." "Being out there makes you think about all the things we have," Hastings said. "About all the stuff we buy and we think we need. When you are carrying a 40-pound pack, you learn pretty quickly that you don't need a lot." It also got him away from many of the concerns of modern life. "There are not too many things to worry about out there," he said. And along the way, he formed friendships that he expects will last a long time. While he started the trail by himself, he quickly became acquainted with people who started at about the same time as he did. "My biggest worry before I went was about how the people would be," he said. "But they were all totally excellent. Very rarely did I not get along with the people I met." Hastings said that he had read about the national trail about 10 years ago and decided to walk it when he found he had time on his hands. "I was laid off and for the past two years have done a lot of odd jobs," he said. "I thought this would be a good time to do this, before getting another job." He intends to move to Portland, Maine, after the first of the year, to look for work.

On the first day of his journey, he encountered snow. "I couldn't believe it," he said. On Clingman's Dome, it was cold and rainy, and a short layover in Gatlinburg, Tenn., turned into a three-day stay when the roads iced over. He was in the middle part of the walk, in New Jersey and New York, during this summer's heat wave. "Every day, it was 90 or 100 degrees," he said. "At the end of the day, there wasn't a piece of clothing on me that was dry." And by the end of the trail, in New England in October, there was snow again, on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Also by the end of the trail, Hastings had seen bear, deer, moose and several rattlesnakes. He had also lost 30 pounds. At the start of his walk, he went only 7 to 9 miles a day before blisters and sore muscles convinced him to set up camp for the night. "It took the first month to get my body conditioned," he said. "After that, I started feeling a little healthier," and traveling up to 20 miles a day. He carried a water filter in his backpack so that he could drink water from streams and rivers. His dinners were usually packaged, dehydrated dishes, mixed with chicken or tuna that comes in a pouch. For lunch, he had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and breakfasts were Pop Tarts and instant oatmeal. He carried three or four days worth of food and stopped in towns along the trail to replenish his supply and to take showers. Hastings said that there are a couple trails in the United States that compare to the Appalachian Trail, including one in the Rockies and another that meanders along the Pacific coast. But he does not anticipate hiking any of them. "I might do some shorter backpacking, but never anything like this," he said.

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