October means the end of the season for Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers. The deadline to summit Katahdin is October 15th. Hikers who leave Georgia in the spring have to keep this date in mind while trekking to Maine. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a huge accomplishment, and summiting Katahdin is oftentimes a highly emotional experience.

If you’re asking yourself, “Why in the world would anyone want to hike 2,190 miles?” you are not alone. To find an answer we decided to go straight to the source—2018 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers! We interviewed a handful of the 2,542 registered thru-hikers to find out why they decided to attempt this colossal undertaking.

Kelly Guimond
Age: 23
Trail Name: Wicked
Hometown: Southern New Hampshire
Began the Trail: March 8, 2018
Finished the Trail: September 5, 2018

I grew up hiking in the White Mountains. I felt that the mountains were always an escape for me. The Appalachian Trail was so intimidating to me that I never thought I could do it. When I started college I began reading a lot of books by people who thru-hiked various trails and I became really interested in thru-hiking. I asked myself, “Why not?” and started planning my own trip.

I’ve always wanted to travel and see the world, and a thru-hike allowed me to do this while proving to myself that I could complete a challenge. For me, the AT was a huge leap into an unknown place, and that was exciting!

I loved my thru-hike, but the last couple of weeks were mentally hard for me. When I was about a mile from the top of Katahdin, I started running. As soon as I reached the sign I began to cry. I was so overwhelmed by what I just completed and filled with so many emotions. I struggled a lot with anxiety through my hike, especially at the beginning. Katahdin felt like a reflection of everything I had been through and a victory of coming out the other side. I spent about an hour at the top taking in the moment. I was so happy to be done, but also sad to leave the trail and the community I surrounded myself with for the past six months.

What now? I am an elementary educator, so I hope to find a teaching job soon. I love teaching and I’ve been really excited to back to it. Hopefully I can find a job that lets me take my passion for the outdoors and adventure into the classroom in some form.

Jeff Englander with his wife, Hannah
Age: 30
Trail Name: Penguin
Hometown: New Jersey
Began the Trail: March 20, 2018
Finished the Trail: September 15, 2018

My wife and I had been living in New York City for a while and we were done with city living. The hustle and bustle was exhausting. We moved there for work, but knew deep down we were both small-town folks who belong outside. Hannah had always wanted to hike the AT and it was a great time in our life to do it. We both were freelancers, so we could simply stop taking new jobs rather than quitting a job.

Summiting Katahdin felt indescribable. A week later and I wasn’t sure it had hit me yet. At the top all I could do was laugh, and I got a bit teary eyed. My wife had a similar reaction…it was wild. To devote all energy, money, and focus toward a single goal, one task, for nearly six months…and just like that you are at the finish line with dozens of day hikers who could never understand what you’re feeling. I think we ran up Katahdin fueled by adrenaline; we made it up in 2.5 hours. We hung out on top and enjoyed the views for almost an hour.

What now? We moved to Princeton where my wife got a job. We both work backstage for theater, television, film, etc. She is a properties artisan and I program lights. I’ll commute to NYC as needed and she starts at the McCarter Theatre in October. I can’t wait to find a relatively local AT community to volunteer with!

Jamie Zepp
Age: 44
Trail Name: Playmaker
Hometown: Rapid City, South Dakota
Began the Trail: March 19, 2018
Finished the Trail: September 24, 2018

When I turned 40, a friend and I decided to do something out of our comfort zones. Neither hikers nor campers, we decided on a short section of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park. After 10 days and 50 miles, I returned home to a better version of myself. For the next three years, a whispered call to return to the AT became a relentless scream. If I didn’t answer, I think I would have smothered a part of my soul.

From the beginning, I’ve never felt like a hiker. As odd as it may sound, I still don’t. The closer I got to Katahdin, the more pressure built up. The moment I touched the sign, the weight fell away. I felt relief.

What now? Heading back to South Dakota to rest up the body and sort through pictures and videos with plans to write a book.

Heidi Nisbett
Age: 25
Trail Name: Picasso
Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina
Began the Trail: March 10, 2018
Finished the Trail: September 5, 2018

I got the bug in my ear to do this hike two years ago. My track coach from high school was attempting it. She made it 900 miles when she had to get off the trail due to injury. After hearing her stories I was fascinated. I started saving my money and making tentative plans, not sure when I would actually be able to do the hike. When I found myself in a job I knew I didn’t want to stay in, I knew it was time.

Summiting Katahdin was incredible. I’m so glad that the weather was so great because the hike up and the views were some of the best on the whole Appalachian Trail. I started the climb anxious and full of adrenaline. Once I could see the summit, I was practically running. It was surreal to see the sign at the top. It’s something I’ve seen in thousands of pictures, and to actually be able to touch it, I couldn’t help but cry. Of course I was sad for the journey to be over, but I didn’t think about it at the summit. I just wanted to relish the moment with my friends.

What now? That’s the million dollar question! A lot of the people I hiked with are discussing hiking the Pacific Coast Trail soon. It’s certainly something I am interested in doing at some point, but I don’t think I’ll attempt it in the next few years. I want to focus on finding a way to sustain an adventurous lifestyle. I want to enjoy my weekends and explore the hiking and other outdoor activities the Carolina’s have to offer. I’m looking forward to finding new trails and hiking with my dog.

Gary Teesdale
Age: 46
Trail Name: Phish out of Water
Hometown: California
Began the Trail: March 30, 2018
Finished the Trail: July 8, 2018

After completing the Pacific Coast Trail I told friends I might attempt the Continental Divide Trail. They responded with, “Then you’ll have to do the Appalachian Trail!” I asked why and they said that some people do one trail, some people hike all three, but no one does just two. I assured them that they were wrong and went on to hike the TE Araroa in New Zealand. The following year I hiked the CDT as planned and suddenly realized that they were right…I was going to have to hike the AT! I started a fundraiser to hike with a purpose—to provide clean drinking water to the residents of Barbuda who were displaced by Hurricane Irma (#footstepsforfilters).

It felt fantastic summiting Katahdin! I was a little beat up with a broken wrist, sore knees, and an Achilles strain, but it was too glorious to notice the aches and pains. I was fortunate to summit on a bluebird day with a small group of four friends from the trail. It was sublime.

What now? It looks like I’m taking a crack at the Great Eastern Trail in October. Can’t wait.

Christopher Murphy
Age: 31
Trail Name: Papa Smurph
Hometown: Auburn, Alabama
Began the Hike: May 5, 2018
Finished the Hike: August 12, 2018

I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail after ending my marriage. It was a quest for healing. I was a very depressed individual when I started, and the trail was calling me. To this day I don’t quite know what made the trail pop into my head. The AT taught me to meditate and gave me a chance to seek personal therapy by using nature and beauty.

Summiting Katahdin was surreal and emotional. I reflected on my life and my emotions during the climb up Katahdin. I felt a happiness I’ve never felt before. The trail truly does provide.

What now? Now that I’m finished with the trail I have moved to Stratton, Maine. I continue to give to the trail all that I can. I manage the Stratton Hostel and Motel and encounter fellow hikers every day. My hike encouraged me to start Hiking2Heal on Facebook and I plan on making a website this winter. I want to share how healing hiking can be with others. It’s honestly the best therapy I have ever had. No matter your problems—depression, anxiety, PTSD, drug abuse, or just personal life problems—the trail can heal. I’m living proof.

Briar Owen
Age: 27
Trail Name: Phoenix
Hometown: Santa Cruz, CA
Began the Trail: April 15, 2018
Finished the Trail: October 13, 2018 (Left the trail for the month of July to hike 300 miles of the PCT and returned to the AT in August)

I had thru-hiked the Pacific Coast Trail last year and had such a huge stoke for it that I wanted to do another long-distance trail. I love to backpack and wanted to see the East Coast, so the AT seemed like a natural next step. Four years ago I survived a cardiac arrest and have a defibrillator implanted in my chest. Thru-hiking has been an incredibly empowering and exciting experience.

It felt really surreal and bittersweet to summit Katahdin. I think that sort of thing always does. There’s a relief and exhilaration that comes with reaching your goal, and, inevitably, a little sadness knowing the journey is over. And then there’s the excitement and fear of not knowing what comes next. It’s a beautifully complicated mix of emotions.

What now? Oh man, there is so much I’d like to do next! I hope to hike the Continental Divide Trail in one of the upcoming seasons. I’d also like to expand my horizons in the outdoors, particularly with mountaineering and kayaking/rafting. Maybe sprinkle a bit of international travel in there, too. I’m just getting started!

Written by Melanie Brooks

Categories:   Hiking, Katahdin