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Shelby man turns crossroads in life into Appalachian Trail trek

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By Stephanie Dunn

You can count this accomplishment in many ways: 178 days, 2,184 miles, 25 bears, 8 rattlesnakes, 2 copperheads, 1 porcupine, and one monumental feeling were some of the things Dustin Abild covered, discovered and gained when he completed his hike along the Appalachian Trail last fall.

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Starting out April 17 from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, Abild journeyed on foot across 14 states, finishing Oct.11 on Mount Katahdin in northern Maine – a trek that took him just shy of 6 months.

Abild, 25, said he had heard stories about the trail and some of the interesting people who had hiked it over the years: “It sounded fun, but more than anything, it sounded like a huge challenge. I wanted to test my limits and prove to myself that I could do it.”

Abild said this opportunity presented itself at a time in his life when he had very little confidence in himself.

"I'd been feeling kind of hopeless, and one day I happened to see a documentary about the Trail, and I thought to myself, 'If I could do that, I could do anything.' I decided that very minute that I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail."

 

Tales of the trail

Here is how Abild described his Appalachian experience, from beginning to end:

“I started out with very little hiking experience. I wasn’t in physical shape. I didn’t know anyone out there, and in general I had no idea what to do. I was pretty nervous. But I made friends, and we figured it all out together. There’s a real sense of loyalty between AT hikers, whether they know each other or not.

“My days were spent walking in the woods. A very small percentage of the trail is outside the forest. I got so used to the canopy of trees above me, the clear springs, the rocks, the wildlife and the fresh air.  Eventually I felt more comfortable in the woods than I did in towns. I think I still feel that way. Every time I went into the towns, even small, rural ones, I could hardly stand the smell and feeling of them.

“The majority of people I met from towns had no idea that the Appalachian Trail ran through their back yards. Sometimes I would emerge from the woods onto a road people would act as if they had just seen a ghost. Other people had known of the trail but had yet to meet a ‘thru-hiker.’ I had one person exclaim, ‘I can’t believe I’m talking to a real thru-hiker!’

I would hike into towns and buy as much food as I thought I would need to last me until the next town. It was a guessing game at first. Normally I traveled about sixty miles between resupplies. After buying food, I would sit on the pavement outside the store and try to fit it all into my pack. I got a lot of odd looks from passers-by.

“It was amazing how much I could eat during that time. Even a large, sixteen-inch pizza was not enough to fill me. Once, I ate a whole tub of ice cream to complete what’s called the ‘half-gallon challenge,’ an old thru-hiker tradition.

“There’s a whole community of people called ‘trail angels’ who just like to do nice things for hikers. They’d leave coolers full of sodas and snacks on the trail, supply water in dry areas and even take hikers into their homes for a shower sometimes. Hikers call this ‘trail magic.’ I met trail angels from Georgia all the way to Maine, including a couple in Vermont who took me into their home, fed me, and gave me a bed to sleep in for a couple of days.

“Aside from food, the one thing most AT hikers are obsessed with is the weight of their packs. After you’ve lugged a heavy pack around for a few hundred miles, you start to wonder what you could live without. My pack weighed forty-six pounds [with food and water] when I started the hike, and by the end I had it down to about twenty. I became obsessed.…I threw away everything that wasn’t completely necessary. I cut the handle off my toothbrush, tore out extra pages in my notebook, and even cut off the pulls from the zippers on my jacket. Every ounce counted.

“My journey continued for many months. It was hard work, but I was constantly rewarded with breathtaking views. I got to see a sunset and a sunrise from above the trees on a mountaintop. I saw wild ponies roaming around beside the trail in southern Virginia. When the leaves started to change at the onset of fall, I saw fantastic views of red, orange and yellow trees from the mountaintops.

“Once I reached New England, it started getting cold. There were many nights where temperatures fell to twenty degrees or lower. Everyone would put on all of their clothes and lay shoulder-to-shoulder in their sleeping bags in the shelters to keep each other warm. I had to use an emergency blanket a few times.

“The last 500 miles were the most difficult. There’s a saying on the trail – once you reach the White Mountains of New Hampshire, you’ve done eighty percent of the miles but only half the work. The Whites are characterized by constant ups and downs, often taking hikers above the tree line, where the views are fantastic, but there’s no shelter from the wind.

“The mountain most feared in the Whites is Mount Washington, which holds the highest recorded wind speed on earth, at two hundred and thirty-one miles an hour. I was blessed with perfect weather during my climb of Washington, but several of my friends had to make their way through snow and ice on it the very next day.

“In Maine, there’s a stretch called the “hundred-mile wilderness,” where there is no opportunity to resupply for 100 miles. This section is notorious for slippery, rocky terrain and rivers that have to be crossed at shallow places. It rained almost constantly while I was hiking that section, so the water level was high and everything was even slicker than usual. I fell more times these hundred miles than all the rest combined. Some of the rivers had a rope tied from one side to the other, because the current was just too strong to cross without holding on to something.

“Many times during my hike I got completely soaked from a rainstorm. It’s an awful feeling, knowing everything you own is completely saturated with water. You have to go to sleep in a wet sleeping bag, and put on cold, wet clothes in the morning. You get used to it, though….

“At the end of the journey lies Mount Katahdin, which is the longest, toughest climb on the AT – a fitting finale, Katahdin is basically a five-thousand two-hundred and seventy-foot-tall pile of boulders that have to be climbed and navigated. Some parts are vertical and can only be climbed because metal bars have been drilled into the rock.

“My girlfriend, Sydney, drove to Maine to climb it with me. We started in the morning and finished at night. The weather was great at first, but by the time we reached the top, the sky had grown dark, and the temperature had dropped. We made it off the mountain shortly after nightfall.

“Hiking the AT is physically strenuous, for sure, but I think it’s more of a mental challenge than anything. Being in the woods for so long can drive some people crazy, and there are times when you feel isolated. Sometimes a spring will be dry, and you’ll have to walk extra miles in search of water. Sometimes you’ll be out in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles from shelter, and a storm will blow in. Sometimes mice will get into your pack and spoil your food while you’re still days away from a town. Sometimes you won’t see another person all day, and you’ll start feeling alone. These things won’t kill you, but they sure can kill your morale.”

 

Dangerous weather

Was he ever in any danger while in the wilderness?

“I had plenty of scares, but there was only one time I truly feared for my life. I was hiking alone at night in Georgia, and my foot started hurting badly – I could barely walk. There was a warning posted about problem bears in the area, so I wasn’t too keen on setting up camp. Then, right at nightfall, this insane thunderstorm came out of nowhere. Within ten minutes of seeing lightning, I was blown off my feet by wind. It sounded like a freight train. Trees were swaying, and there was dust and debris hitting me in the face. Then it got worse.…

“I started hearing trees cracking and falling to the ground in every direction. Several times, they landed right in front of me on the trail, and I had to climb over them or navigate around them. I learned later that twenty-two people (not hikers) died in that storm, and that five states had declared a state of emergency. I’m very thankful that I was spared.”

 

A new perspective

All in all, though, Abild says the positives he experienced far outweighed the negatives.

He didn’t use a tent and instead slept in shelters or on the ground. He hiked the last 1,300 miles in sandals, and his longest day was 33.5 miles. You can find his name on the 2,000-miler listing at www.appalachiantrail.org.

And he learned along the way.

“Now, any time I face a challenge, I just look back at what I’ve already done, and my present mountains look a lot smaller. It puts everything in my life in perspective,” he said.

Abild credits his family for helping him through the life-changing trek: “My family supported me the entire way. My mom had some sort of mail waiting for me at nearly every stop so I would know the family was thinking of me – those letters kept me sane during the more trying times of my journey. My girlfriend sent me supplies and replacements for any gear that I wore out. She and my family drove thousands of miles to visit me along the way. I couldn’t have done it without all of them.”

And after all of that, there remains one last bit of wisdom Dustin Abild discovered on the Appalachian Trail:

“It’s said that a thru-hiker starts by observing his surroundings, then he observes the items in his pack, and finally, he observes himself.

“I found this to be completely accurate.”