Stories by fire: Telling the journeys of Appalachian Trail hikers

Around 3,200 people hiked the 2,000-mile long Appalachian Trail last year.
Around 3,200 people hiked the 2,000-mile long Appalachian Trail last year. (Photo by Megan Authement)

By Lindsay Miller
The Appalachian Mountains bring people from different walks of life together and build a unique community, one with many stories to tell.
Last year about 3,200 people set out to hike the Appalachian Trail. This year, almost 5,000 people will follow in their footsteps, shattering the already groundbreaking number, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
These people identify as through-hikers — people attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail in its entirety, from Georgia to Maine, in one season.  Whether that takes three months or a year, hikers aim to finish the 2,000-mile trail in no longer than a year.
Through-hikers, universally recognized by their peers from their huge packs with sleeping bags attached at the bottom, are generally white, according to a study done by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, but as of recently, more races and ethnicities hike the trail.
The equalizing gender balance can also be seen as a massive victory in terms of diversity on the trail. There are more women hiking the trail solo today than ever before, according to the same study.
Despite the differences, these people all come out for one purpose: to hike the Appalachian Trail.
A dream unrealized by those who wait too long
Florence Miller, 73, hiked through almost every part of the trail in New Hampshire. She began hiking in the White Mountains, part of the Appalachian Trail, with her husband Michael in 1970.
“The second mountain we climbed was Mount Washington, in August of 1970. For years, we went back every August and over time, we climbed the 48 highest peaks, thereby gaining membership in the 4,000-footer club,” she said. She displays her accomplishment in her front closet, where worn-down boots are stacked neatly beneath a rack of winter coats.
Despite her age, Miller and her husband still hike regularly. Last summer they hiked a section over Mount Clinton that they had hiked some summers before.
“A hard day’s hike leaves me with an honest physical fatigue that is unlike anything else I experience. My muscles ache, but with a good ache. For all my fatigue, I feel alive,” she said.
Miller said she considers the best part of the hike to be when she finally reaches the summit of a mountain.
“It’s an exhilarating experience. Climbing that mountain, I become part of it, in a way. I am closer to nature than I am at any other time. On a clear, crisp day, the views are spectacular. You can see way off into other mountains and into valleys.  You are literally on top of the world.”
Miller, a retired communications director from West Chester, Pennsylvania, talks eagerly about her hiking experiences, always ready with a story no matter the question asked.
One story took place in 2013, when she was dining in the Appalachian Mountain Club facility with her husband.  It was there that she encountered a young hiker that had injured her hip.
“We asked the young woman what she considered the most difficult part of the trail thus far, expecting her to name a section of the White Mountains that she had already traveled. Instead she named this cliff at the Lehigh Water Gap. We were astounded and assured her that we had hiked that cliff often. She dissolved into laughter and said ‘you hiked that for fun?’ Well, yes, we did.”
Despite her many stories, she does regret one thing: not hiking the entire 2,000 miles.
“For years he dreamed of hiking the entire trail,” she said about her husband. “I was not especially enthusiastic about it, although I suspect I would have joined him. Lots of people still do it at our age, but we are not in the physical condition to try it. So it will go down as a dream unrealized. I’m kind of sorry now that we never did try.”
Trail magic strikes
Tim Black through-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2003 at the age of 30, accomplishing a dream he had since he was 13. Now in his early 40s, Black works as the director of retail for the Trail Magic Festival, a festival geared toward hikers attempting the Appalachian Trail.
The festival takes its name from official hiker lingo itself, a sort of unlooked-for phenomenon hikers occasionally experience while on the trail.
“Occasionally you’d kinda be walking down the trail whether it was in the south or up in New England and you’d run across, like, some nice people who have either through-hiked or just really love the trail community and they would be out there cooking hot dogs or hamburgers,” Black said.
Trail magic comes in all different forms, whether it is someone cooking for hikers or just leaving some water bottles in a cooler along the trail. Hikers give thanks by cleaning up after themselves.
“It’s just unexpected good graces from someone that’s not on the trail. Unlooked-for help, basically, or unlooked-for food,” Black said.
Students paving the way
Walter Vozzo, a freshman at UNC Asheville, conquered part of the trail in 2012 with Boy Scout Troop 398. Just fresh out of his freshman year in high school, he hiked 51 miles of the trail between Spivey Gap and Hot Springs, both in North Carolina.
Vozzo, an EcoRep at the Student Environmental Center at UNCA, said he admired the beauty of the trail and appreciated the biodiversity he did not experience in his home of Raleigh.
Despite this, the trail still had its challenges, this time in the form of disease.
“It was hard because six out of eight of us contracted Norovirus from a McDonald’s that we ate at on the way up and it spread through the group,” Vozzo said.
The disease struck during the middle of their second night, about 36 hours into the trip, Vozzo said.
“It was accompanied by violent vomiting that purged your entire stomach several times a day, so hydration and maintaining energy was hard,” Vozzo said.
“I believe I was infected when I was thrown up on while sharing a tent with the first two victims. That made it hard and made us all consider getting off the trail and giving up several times – and two of us did – but we made it through,” Vozzo said referring to the highly contagious vomit.