An AT hiker at last
Because of his job, Hess has always stayed in good shape, and he’s using that to walk the entire length of the 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine. In spite of his conditioning, he’s already lost 20 pounds, and he’s considering using a protein supplement to keep up his muscle mass and stamina. He hikes about 15 miles a day.
“Physically, it’s harder than you think it’s gonna be. It’s very strenuous, very vigorous sometimes,” he said Saturday while stopping at the AT Conservancy in Harper’s Ferry, WV. “Other times, it’s extremely boring. You can walk for miles and miles and you don’t have any overlooks. So you look for flowers and birds and different kinds of trees.”
One of Steve’s sons, Brady, is handling many of the construction duties while Dad is away. Steve and his wife Chris hiked together when they were first married 35 years ago, but Chris had no intention of walking the AT. None. She’s a day hiker, she says. During their early years, Steve sported a full beard and long blonde hair. Now on the trail, Steve is back to a beard and long hair, although a shade of gray.
Steve began his trek in mid-March, and this is the first time the pair have been separated for that long. Last week, Chris drove to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to visit Steve.
Most through hikers have trail names, like “Eternal Optimist,” “Peter Pan,” and “Crumb-snatcher”. Steve’s nickname is “Sherpa”, a person that the younger hikers have come to like and respect. At Harper’s Ferry, Hess had his photo taken and posted in a notebook with other through hikers who have stopped at this traditional rest area. He’s number 627 this year.
Hess guesses the median age of the hikers is about 40, but that’s misleading, he says. The two largest age groups are 23-30 and 55-65. The younger group may have left school but not begun a family, and the older group has retired. According to the AT office, 20-25 per cent of hikers are female. While the majority of males may travel solo, most females hike with friends.
Probably on Sunday (on the AT, timelines are fluid), Hess will meet with family again at Pine Grove Furnace in Cumberland County, the official halfway point. Only one in four hikers who begin the trail will actually finish it on Mount Katahdin, Maine.
Aside from sheer exhaustion, Hess says injuries keep plenty of hikers from finishing. Broken ribs, twisted knees or broken ankles caused by falls or slips stop some hikers. Hess says viruses will knock out a hiker for days, so he tends to keep to himself in his tent. You don’t shake hands with other hikers; ‘fist bumps’ are the greeting of choice. Once a week, Hess tries to stay in a hotel or lodge to clean up. Still, he would rather sleep in his tent, where he can hear the sounds of the forest.
“I want to walk the trail,” says Hess. “That’s the whole deal… If I lose the ‘want to’, then I’m going to get off the trail. Can’t see that happening, but it does happen to people.”