Sparbel, left, and Hajdu, center, met many other hikers along the way—Trail Family, as it’s known in Appalachian Trail lingo—and traveled with them for the majority of their journey.
You can’t read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson or Wild by Cheryl Strayed without wondering how hiking a long-distance wilderness trail might change you. There’s an allure of stripping yourself of most worldly belongings, and testing your physical and mental limits while immersed in nature.
The United States boasts three major systems: The Pacific Crest, The Continental Divide and The Appalachian Trails. Doing all three and completely hiking the combined 7,700 plus miles on foot entitles hikers to the “Triple Crown” title. Arguably the best known, The Appalachian Trail, runs some 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine, cutting through 14 different states, up and down mountains, through fields and forests.
James Hajdu and Lindsay Sparbel, both of Wausau, spent 15 weeks last year traveling over 1,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail. The experience is the antithesis of modern society’s focus on instant gratification and owning things, says Hajdu.
For Sparbel, the trip was life changing. “I am more appreciative now. I see the beauty in everything. I pay attention to the little things. It’s reaffirmed my faith in humanity… It was very mentally moving. It was pure happiness.
Hajdu, a Wausau East graduate and 27 when he made the journey, had always loved camping and being outside. “I had plans on doing the Appalachian Trail years ago with a buddy but it didn’t happen.” When he mentioned the trail to Sparbel, the two become immersed in the idea of doing it together.
“This was something different,” says Sparbel of her decision to hike the trail. “I knew I needed to get out of Wausau. I was claustrophobic. I was looking for something bigger.”
The two gave themselves a year to study up on all things Appalachian Trail and get into shape for the hike. To become physically ready, they filled their backpacks with weights and hiked Rib Mountain to simulate the grueling hikes they would do daily on the Appalachian mountains. They purchased trail running shoes, trekking poles, cold weather gear, food and rain apparel. To prepare for all weather conditions, emergencies, and daily living, they packed a three season tent, first aid equipment, a sleeping bag, water bladders and bottles, water treatment drops, and rope.
Sparbel and Hajdu started their hike on March 23 last year in Georgia at Amicalola Falls, trekking over ever changing terrain with jaw dropping ascents and descents, logging an average of 16 to 18 miles a day. Their journey ended July 9 in Harper’s Ferry, W. Virg., 1,022 miles later.
Within days it was apparent that while they had worked diligently in the year leading up to their journey, nothing truly prepared them for what was ahead. “There is no way in hell to train,” says Hajdu laughing. Sparbel agrees. “I was never in so much pain in my entire life. All of me ached,” she says.
The elevation changes and precarious footing were far more challenging than Sparbel expected. Her feet were often blistered and bleeding. “The terrain is different and it’s mentally exhausting,” she says. But she pushed on. “At times I questioned my ability to do this.”
“The trail’s empowering and it’s such a big thing, there is no way you can quit,” says Sparbel. “And we had each other to hold one another accountable. It’s a completely mental state. You can’t go into the trail negative.”
Plus, Sparbel found it way too exciting to stop. “I was realizing a dream.”
“Trail Magic” from the community
There are bail-out points and towns along the way if hikers want or need to stop, or if they’re injured. But, “If you feel like shit, give it 24 hours before you decide to quit,” says Hajdu. As the days and miles added up, and they shed some extra pack weight, Sparbel noticed her body looking and feeling like a hiker.
And they met other hikers—Trail Family, as it’s known in Appalachian Trail lingo—and traveled with them for the majority of their journey.
“Over 5,000 people attempted [the trail] this year, so especially in the beginning we ran into people constantly,” Sparbel says. “There were people who tended to stick to themselves more, but for the most part people were friendly, outgoing and excited to be there.”
Their days would typically start at 8:00 in the morning: dress, untie their food bag, pack, eat a Clif Bar, get water, treat it and “hit the road,” says Sparbel. They would pick a spot in the guidebook for lunch about seven miles away, and then after lunch, hike until dark. “We would then set up camp, get water, cook dinner, hang our food and go to bed,” she says.
Sparbel: “I am more appreciative now. I see the beauty in everything. I pay attention to the little things. It’s reaffirmed my faith in humanity… It was very mentally moving. It was pure happiness.”
Because the trail is raw wilderness, nature can come into play at any moment. Sparbel and Hajdu encountered a black bear cub and two adults. “We never saw any poisonous snakes, but a lady that had just passed us no more than five minutes before had to pass a bunch of copperhead snakes sunbathing on a ledge,” says Hajdu. “We saw a bunch of wildlife, too, like deer and turtles and nonpoisonous snakes.”
About every week they went into a town to stock up on food, to shower and do laundry, and occasionally pick up packages mailed to the town’s post office. They devoured food like hamburgers, chips and soda. “Usually what we ended up craving the most was pizza and burgers,” Sparbel says.
On the trail, food had to be simple, such as Clif Bars, energy drink powder added to water, tortillas, tuna, snacks and candy. “Tortillas were a staple. You can’t squish them and they go with everything,” she says. “For dinner we had pasta and rice or ramen. Anything light and all you need to do is add boiling water.”
There’s a safety net community along the trail—other hikers and town residents along the trail willing to help. “Trail Magic” is the term for a random act of kindness done by somebody. “People will leave things in places, like cases of beer or fruit or soda,” Sparbel says.
Hiker boxes are commonly found in towns for people on the trail to leave things they don’t want and pick up items they might need. These boxes were found at all hiker-friendly motels, hostels and outfitters, Sparbel says. “Whenever we stopped in town we would look for any food and snacks or extra seasoning packets,” she says. They were also on the lookout for toiletries like shampoo and soap.
Organized trail maintenance is done at various times and hikers are invited to join in. Hajdu and Sparbel took a few days out of their trek to patch up the path and build stone stairs.
“We were able to volunteer for a pretty unique experience,” she says. “Often the opportunities for joining in on trail maintenance are on a much smaller scale, like clearing branches, trimming overgrowth… Our experience was with 50-plus volunteers working on one little section of trail all with the help of some people who’ve been doing this for 30, 40, or 50 years.”
The group consisted of people of various ages and backgrounds “and we built camaraderie almost immediately. It’s pretty amazing what we accomplished… it makes you realize how much work goes into keeping up the trail year-round by so many different people.”
Roughing it isn’t cheap
The Appalachian Trail was completed in 1937, and improvements and changes continue. It is maintained by 31 trail clubs and managed by the National Park Service, United States Forest Service, and the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The majority of the trail is in forest or wild lands. About 3 million people visit the trail each year, and more than 3,000 typically attempt to hike its entirety in a single season.
The wild ponies of the Appalachian Trail, in and around Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park, have populated the area and greeted hikers since the 1940s.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail isn’t cheap. Adding in packs and provisions, Sparbel and Hajdu said that hiking the whole trail would cost roughly $5,000-$6,000 per person.
“We spent about $500 each on gear and packs and supplies,” she says. They spent $200 each getting to Georgia by bus, then a shuttle from Atlanta 50 miles to the trail head.
“That, along with about $50 to $75 on food every week or so starts to add up,” says Sparbel. “We paid for shuttles to and from town if we weren’t able to hitch or walk in; we would shower and do laundry; and, if we wanted to indulge a bit, an overnight stay in a motel.” For their experience, the cost totaled $5,000, she says.
It’s possible to spend less. They met people who acquired most of their clothes and gear from thrift stores or second-hand. “Usually it’s difficult to save money while resupplying in town but a good rule is to get in and get out as soon as possible so you don’t want to spend money on something that isn’t a necessity,” says Sparbel. “It adds up fast so saving a little here and there can be the difference between finishing or not.”
Sparbel and Hajdu want to hike the Appalachian Trail again in its entirety by 2020. They say they learned a lot about the logistics and will be smarter the next go around.
Sparbel can’t wait to go back. “On the trail, life is simple” she says. “It was pure and natural, there’s nothing extra.” On the trail at 21 years old, Sparbel felt like she started her life. “I don’t take things for granted now.”
A trail closer to home
Wisconsin boasts the Ice Age Trail, a thousand miles of footpaths through the state, and one of only 11 national scenic trails of its kind. The Ice Age Trail website offers resources to plan a one day, several day or longer hike experience. A section of the trail (20.4 miles) runs through areas of Marathon County from Hatley north to the Marathon/Shawano county line.
“The Ice Age trails goes through the Eau Claire Dells, which is probably the big one because it’s so beautiful,” says Patty Mishkar of Rib Mountain, secretary for the Ice Age Trail Alliance for the Marathon County chapter. The Alliance, says Mishkar, maintains, builds and promotes the trail through Wisconsin.
Mishkar has hiked almost 500 miles on the trail and highly recommends the Plover River segment north of Highway 52. “The lower half is one gigantic boardwalk,” she says. “It was featured in Backpacker Magazine as one of the ‘can’t miss trails in the country’.”
For the beginner hiker, Mishkar recommends starting closer to home as the trail around this area isn’t very difficult. Conversely, the northern and southern Kettle Moraine segments in southern Wisconsin are more advanced, hilly and technical, she says.
Mishkar enjoys getting out and seeing what’s around her. “I like to explore and I like to take pictures,” she says. “I like to show people the things that they may not notice along the trail… I like getting out of the car and off of the road.”
For more information on the trails, go to appalachiantrail.org and iceagetrail.org.