A thru hiker’s journey on America’s favorite footpath
Clint Barnett braved the five-month, 2,200-mile mountain range hike from Georgia to Maine and discovered that life in the slow lane is pretty sweet.
Completed in 1937, the Appalachian Trail is a continuous footpath that follows the Appalachian Mountain range through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, approximately 2,200 miles. Each year a few thousand people attempt to walk it in its entirety; it’s referred to as a thru hike, and roughly 20 percent succeed. Along the way, they camp in tents or at small shelters spaced about a day’s walk from one another. Many adopt or are given nicknames, or ‘trail names,” that they will go by for the duration of the hike. They must carry with them everything they need, gathering water from streams or springs and resupplying food or broken gear in nearby towns along the way.
In late February 2013, leaving his wife and their two children behind, Jefferson City native Clint Barnett decided to chronicle his attempt at the thru hike of the Appalachian Trail by starting a blog to stay in contact with family and friends and to document the adventures that came to pass. Here is his story.
On the afternoon of Feb. 16, I found myself on the MARTA heading north out of Atlanta. That morning, Christina and the kids had dropped me off at the airport in St. Louis.
Luckily they had my in-laws along for the ride and were continuing on to visit family for the weekend. The fact that they were in the car kept things from getting too emotional. We managed to say a quick goodbye without excessive tears, and finding my way through the hustle of the airport kept me from having that feeling that I was repeatedly swallowing my tongue.
When I boarded the plane, I found that a young lady in her early 20s had the seat between me and a rather large man by the window. Being the consummate “nice guy,” I gave her my aisle seat across from her friend and squeezed in next to the big guy. She was grateful and inquired about my reasons for traveling. She was the first person I ever told of my plans while on the trip. She sounded impressed and liked the idea, but the words that were coming out of my mouth scared me. I was going to try to walk from Georgia to Maine.
I panicked at the Atlanta airport when my pack didn’t come off the conveyor belt, but after several minutes I found it in a special area full of odd-sized items such as car seats and baby strollers. I had been extremely worried about the straps of the pack being caught in the conveyor system and being torn free, so I’d placed it in a canvas laundry bag. In the middle of the Atlanta airport, I took my backpack out of a large sack and stuffed the sack into a trash can. I think I can feel every camera and TSA agent looking at me.
So I was on the MARTA heading north, my nerves shot; I’ve just walked away from my job, I’ve left my family for five to six months, and I’m going to try and walk halfway across the country. This would be the first of many public transportation experiences over the entirety of the trip, and every one of them left an impression on me.
A circus had been in town, and at one stop the train filled with folks heading home with kids loaded up with souvenir balloons and sugar. A guy next to me asked if this train was going to a certain station, and I quickly and quietly replied, “I’m not from around here.” His rather salty response and the look he gave me immediately showed the absurdity of my statement. It also reminded me that I was out of my element in more ways than one, and I’d do well to remember this in the future.
I was nervous, not just run-of-the-mill nervous, but completely shot, I-think-I can-feel-my-hair-vibrate-and-I’m-about-to-poop nervous.
That’s just one of thousands of experiences that never made the blog. Several were equally or more profound. Many were very simple and entertaining. There was the first time I met Tim (Infidel), and I didn’t immediately take him for a thru hiker as he appeared to have a lot of fancy stuff. He even had a GoPro camera attached to his shoulder, reminiscent of the alien in the movie Predator. That was Feb. 18 and the second full day of hiking. It was also the first time I introduced myself by trail name, and I felt like an idiot.
There was the time I saw Rash fall asleep in a hotel room with an open beer can in his hand. I had been on the trail for less than a week and met this guy only a few days prior. I fell asleep that night wondering what kind of roommate situation I’d gotten myself into. We ended up walking some time together; he’s a great guy, and we still talk on a regular basis.
The other guy in the room that night was Colin; he’s in his mid-20s and a very sharp computer engineer. He also knows every word to every Taylor Swift song ever recorded and could often be heard belting it out somewhere on the same mountain I was climbing.
There was the time Fez asked me in the restaurant/bar of the Doyle Hotel which long distance trail I was going to do next. I told him I didn’t know as “hiking wasn’t really my go-to thing.” We both got a good laugh out of it — we were 1,100 miles in at that point.
There’s Lucky and the story about his trail name, which also includes the story about how he came to have the word “luck” tattooed on his right buttock.
There’s the running commentary about all the different methods by which one may handle one’s business in the woods. Every method has a descriptive name. For example, Colin invented a method known as the “angry kitty.” Yes, I have a go-to method. No, I’m not telling you here. But it’s not the angry kitty.
There’s the time I tried to convince a hiking “expert” about the approaching rain and that he and his sons should share the empty shelter with me. He scoffed at me (literally out loud), and preached on about all his experience leading two Boy Scouts trips in New Mexico where they do “real backpacking.” He all but called me a moron for suggesting that evening’s rain was going to amount to anything. The next morning we all walked out into Tropical Storm Andrea.
There’s the time Grandpa killed, cooked and ate a snake, the time Sampson’s pack floated down a rain-swollen river, the time Ground Pounder maced himself with bear spray and the time I told a shelter full of people that I’d just awoke from a dream in which Lady Gaga had a parasitic conjoined twin surgically removed.
There’s the time I helped two lost young lady hikers at dusk coming out of Hanover, N.H., get to the next shelter. I was worried I would creep them out, so I told them my life story in about 45 seconds, ending with, “My wife would have wanted me to come back and help you guys.” I’m not sure that I still didn’t creep them out, but they made it to the shelter by following my light through a very dark and foggy stretch of forest. As I was breaking camp early the next morning, one of them came over to thank me and said my wife should be proud.
Then there’s the time in Pennsylvania when I was not mauled by wild dogs. This was a big one, and it occupied my thoughts for a couple weeks afterward. I actually tried to write about it on several different occasions. The experience was so thickly entwined with me mentally and emotionally that I was never able to describe it without having strong feelings that I was not doing it justice. It still resonates with me now, and I haven’t even been able to tell Christina about it yet.
That’s just the surface. Experiences that seem quite noticeable compared to everyday life filed past in a steady procession until they quickly became common place. As such, I’ve begun writing feverishly trying to record as many as I can before time dulls their impact.
The experiences were really the incredible part of the journey. I saw some exceedingly beautiful sites: morning fog nestled into the valleys making the mountain peaks look like islands in a sea of white foam, impossibly tall waterfalls thundering into deep blue pools with a power you could feel in your joints. As spring comes to the mountains, it slowly works its way from the bottom to the peaks as the temperature variation allows.
Climbing up and down several times a day will take you from green forest to bare trees with no undergrowth. It really is an interesting phenomenon. But when you walk through the woods and climb mountains all day every day, you can get used to seeing such things, and they become almost predictable.
Unlike the nature experience, the human experience could never be predicted. I walked into a road crossing one day and met Leo. He was a gregarious Russian chiropractor with a very thick accent (when he said my trail name, it sounded like, “Halibut”). He and his wife were out on a day hike. He gave me some hot tea and one heck of a back adjustment. After four and half months of carrying a pack, the difference was amazing.
I also walked into a garage one day and met David. He hand crafts jewelry from moose droppings. Walking the 100-mile wilderness in Maine solo gave me several days to think about all the experiences, and as I would pass brand-new South-bound thru hikers on their way to Georgia, I was jealous. I knew what they had ahead of them, and as we chatted I could only advise them to take the time to drink it all in and take plenty of photos — especially of the people they meet along the way.
There are an intrepid few (the crazy of the crazy) who attempt what’s called a yo-yo hike. Heading north, it would entail walking from Springer to Katahdin then back to Springer, almost 4,400 miles total. In the 100-mile wilderness I realized why they do it. The human experience is incredible, even life changing, and I didn’t want it to end. However, I really wanted to go home, and I was starting to come apart a bit physically. But I understand why they do it.
I’ve had several people ask if I’ve changed since the trip (they also ask if I discovered the secret to life during the journey). I don’t think anyone could walk in the mountains for five months and not change somehow. I’ve found my mind is much less restless.
Several months before I left, I tried to take up meditation as a mental exercise and source of stress relief. I was horrible at it, and the only time I could enjoy meditation at all was first thing in the morning when my mind was still quiet. I now find that’s the one time of day when I cannot meditate. I have to be up and on the go for a while, or it will put me into a weird place where time slips by quicker than it feels like it should.
I’ve become mildly obsessed with the concept of mental endurance. There were many moments along the way when my mind talked my body into continuing (mostly weather related). When the rain came, I literally sloughed toenails and chunks of flesh from my feet. When fatigue finally caught up with me in New Hampshire and Maine, I experienced bouts of exhaustion when I could not climb for more than a few hundred feet without stopping to rest. My mind was able to drag my body along when it started to fail.
The experience reinforced my thoughts on materialism, what it really means to live a happy useful life and the fact that 98 percent of Facebook posts serve no real use whatsoever. Living life at 2 mph for five months is an eye opening experience, and one of my greatest hopes would be that more people could have it. When you are forced to put down the phone, email, schedule, agenda, etc., amazing things happen. You start to really notice your surroundings, your environment and the people and things occupying it. Life in the slow lane is pretty sweet.
And then I learned to live deliberately. Thoreau coined the term; I wanted to figure out what it meant to me.
When my father passed away at a reasonably young age, I started thinking actively about the phrase and how it translated today. I tried to stamp an easy definition on it and found myself struggling to do so. I had to walk nomadically through the woods for five months to feel like I really had it figured out.
I think it’s much more than not settling on the easy path; it’s something that has to have a conscious presence in my mind to be fully realized, and I find its influence in my everyday activity all the way down to how I drive, what I buy, what restaurant we might eat at and what I would order there. It is an active pursuit of life, almost a style of living. It’s what causes my family and I to undertake any number of activities and new ideas, and it’s greatly enriched our lives. Before I started calling it “living deliberately,” Christina referred to it for years as “building memories.” It’s a philosophy we have entertained for some time, a seed planted by my father in life that grew exponentially with his death and was further strengthened by this grand adventure.
I’m forever thankful to my father. My kids might have never met him, but he has had an active hand in shaping the people they are becoming. I like that.
I’ve had plenty of time to reflect now, and when I look back at my blog, the only thing that impresses me is what is missing. Much like photos that don’t do justice to the landscape, I was unable to put this experience down on virtual paper and come even close to accurately describing it. Beyond my sophomoric writing skills, there were often just too many experiences at the end of a given day to try to cram into my phone as darkness fell and exhaustion took the helm.
Maybe a five-month trek from Georgia to Maine isn’t your deal, but there is an equivalent out there for you. Even if it’s just trying something new, taking up an instrument, learning a second language or writing a book. Never be afraid to live deliberately. I wholeheartedly believe that life does truly begin when you get outside your comfort zone, and the rewards are incredible.
Go do something awesome. The only secret to life is living it.
By the way, I still dream of the trail vividly on an almost nightly basis.
*A special thanks to family and friends: Andy and Lesha Neidert and Jerry and Erin Callahan for helping out while I was gone; Ben Kuster and the folks at St. Mary’s Sports Medicine and Rehab for helping me bring my ankle back from an injury that almost ended my journey before it started; and of course, my wife, Christina, and three children, Grace, Liv and Hayden, for making it all possible and embracing a life less ordinary.
Meanwhile back at home…
Clint’s wife, Christina, faced a different set of challenges while he lived out his dream: solely running the house. Everyday tasks such as cooking, snow removal or switching cable companies presented new but confidence-boosting challenges. “This particular experience was freeing and showed me I could do so much more on my own than I had given myself credit for,” she says.
“Our lives did not stop because Clint was gone,” she says. “In fact, it was quite the opposite. We spent weekends at the river, planned trips and even drove to North Carolina to meet Clint along the trail over spring break.” She also learned to ask for help from family and friends who were eager to assist, something she previously wasn’t very good at but now feels differently about.
“I was completely unprepared for how much I would miss my husband but was pleasantly surprised by how much I was able to take on and conquer,” Christina says. “The time we gave to Clint was never about his turn or my turn or, ‘You owe me big for letting you do this.’ We don’t work like that. It was about dreams and living and supporting each other.”
“I’m proud of Clint for reaching and accomplishing this particular dream and feel good about being part of the adventure and helping it happen,” she adds. “Overall, I believe that our kids feel the same way and hope it will not only encourage them to reach for their own dreams and goals but teach them to support the dreams of others as well.”
Discover more chronicles from Barnett’s journey of his thru hike of the Appalachian Trail on his blog howbouttheat.wordpress.com.