In March of 2002, Brandon started hiking north and five months later completed all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Brandon is an example of what it means to go beyond. He embraces and embodies our “keep going, never give up” mentality.
Tell us a little about the Appalachian Trail.
The Appalachian Trail is a roughly 2,200 mile long trail that winds through the Appalachian Mts from Georgia to Maine. It’s probably the most famous and the toughest long-distance trail in the US. It takes you up every peak and down every valley, and never really lets up. It’s over 550,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Around 20% of people who set out to thru-hike make it to Katahdin.
What about hiking the Appalachian Trail appeals to you?
At the time I was 20 years old and looking for an adventure and a raw encounter with nature and the wilderness. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could accomplish something that was very challenging. It still appeals to me now as a metaphor for life, a beautiful natural symbol of this journey that we are all on called life. It’s also beautifully simple and straightforward. You eat, sleep and hike and feel very fulfilled at the end of the day.
What made you decide to take the leap and thru-hike the AT?
I’m from TN and my dad and I had always talked about hiking it but were probably never going to get around to doing it. At the end of my freshman year of college, I was dying to something crazy and adventurous. I met a friend who’s brother had done it, and he was planning on doing it as well, and I knew it was exactly the kind of adventure I was looking for.
How did you prepare for your hike?
Read about it, and talked with a couple of people who had done it. I did a couple of solo overnight hiking/backpacking trips but there’s really no way to prepare for the physicality of it besides long distance hiking, and it’s hard to do that while working/going to school etc.
What are specific moments that you remember from your trip?
Seeing a huge black bear walk right in front of me about ten feet away was pretty amazing. Doing a 40-mile day that involved slight hallucinations and waking up in the morning to find I had thrown my tent down on a briar patch and didn’t even notice.
Above all, though it was the people I met, lots of amazing memories and fun times in interesting towns and hostels with some incredible people, some of which I’m still friends with 16 years later.
Where there specific times that you wanted to give up but you kept going?
Yes, especially in the beginning. The first couple of nights are overwhelming because everything hurts on your body, it’s cold, and there is still a lot of work even after the hiking is over for the day: setting up your tent, getting water, cooking food, hanging your bear bag. Not to mention you are still unproven and the idea of having to endure this for the next 2,000 miles can be very heavy on you.
Any challenges along the way? If so, how did they affect your trip?
The whole thing is pretty challenging; you think that it’s just going to be a walk in the woods all day and you naturally assume it is a pretty, flat and winding trail but it is straight up and straight down for five months. You get little ridge ways that are flat for a while but it is pretty demanding
The main one being just getting your hike fine-tuned and personalized. It’s a real process in figuring out a system that works for you. Footwear is a really big deal, I basically hiked with gaping holes in my heels for the first two states and somewhere in North Carolina, I knew I had to either figure it out or quit. As basically a last resort I asked for my mom to send my Chaco sandals to Erwin TN, and they kind of saved my hike. My sores healed and I never got another blister. I wore the same pair of sandals from TN to Maine. Also getting sick is a challenge. I had a fever two or three times and that’s miserable alone out in the woods. Like anything, you can put your mind to it and keep doing it. Don’t quit and keep going.
What would you say to others who want to hike a long distance trail?
I would say it’s a wonderful journey, and it teaches you a lot about life. Go for it – you can do it!!!
What did you get out of your experience?
Truly, I met a bunch of wonderful people… and I got the confidence in saying “I can do something that is hard.”
How did your trip “go beyond”?
When I think about “beyond” I think about something other than myself, something higher and for me that is the humble realization that no matter how tough you think you are or how seasoned or how good of shape you are in, stepping the wrong way on one root or rock can end your hike or even your life, and so I believe that you have to approach everything in this life, especially the forces of nature and the trail with humility, respect and in God’s grace.
Also, relationships on the trail take you beyond. I believe that we are all greater than the sum of our parts and that a friendship is more than the sum of each person. That’s “beyond” to me, and the natural beauty of the AT is such a cool place to discover that.
How can others “go beyond”?
Take a leap, get passionate about something, approach it with awe, respect and in need of grace and you just may find it.