One Section At a Time: Completing the Appalachian Trail
Personal story told by: Danny Bagwell, Pioneer Member and Vegetation Manager
My love for backpacking began in high school, while I was growing up in southern Illinois. We didn’t know much about backpacking, but my friends and I loved to camp, nonetheless. Our local state park had backcountry campsites, and we’d improvise and use school bags to hold our gear. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion.
Over the years, I’ve been able to hike all around the country, and it became a symbol of freedom and self-confidence to go wherever my legs would take me. The Appalachian Trail (AT) was always on my radar, but it was a distant dream I had reserved for retirement. I didn’t think the demands of a full-time job, family, and life’s responsibilities would allow me to complete it. After all, “thru-hikers” — the term given to those hikers who do the AT all at once — typically spend four to six months completing the trail.
In case you don’t know much about the AT, it’s a 2,198-mile footpath winding through 14 states from Georgia to Maine. It’s a bucket list item for many hikers, including me. The trail was proposed by Benton MacKaye while hiking the Long Trail in Vermont, the country’s oldest long trail. He was inspired to create a trail that returning soldiers could “walk off the war.” It’s a trail filled with history and adventure.
My journey on the AT started around 2011 with sporadic trips, casually hiking sections of it with close friends. I hadn’t initially set out to complete the entire trail, but with each section, I started to fill in the gaps from previous trips. By the time I reached Pennsylvania, I was getting more serious, and people started asking how far I had left to go.
Most hikers will head north bound from Georgia, but there are southbound hikers, who start later in the season from Maine. Hikers climb up and down through tough but beautiful terrain. The reward may be a serene overlook, rock feature, waterfalls, or just a quiet brook.
For the southern half, I used trail shuttle drivers and hiked back to my car. However, the northern half required a more complex web of transportation, involving planes, trains, buses, and shuttles.
The hardest part of the journey, by far, was navigating the White Mountains in southern Maine, which provided brutally challenging terrain.
Mother Nature can throw a lot of weather at you in the mountains, and little things can set you back besides an injury and soreness, such as blisters, chafing, dehydration, or hypothermia. This is all part of the experience.
Along the way, the “green tunnel” provides primitive shelters every eight to 10 miles, often located near springs for water access. I camped in a tent primarily, but occasionally I stayed in shelters or even tried “cowboy camping,” which is to say sleeping under the open sky. Hiker hostels along the trail offer showers, beds, hot meals, and a trip to the grocery store. Carrying enough food to reach the next town or post office was essential and protecting it from curious critters looking for an easy dinner was a nightly ritual.
Wildlife encounters, from rattlesnakes to moose and bears, were common on the trail. But it wasn’t just the scenery and the animals that made the trail so fascinating; it was the history along the way. The AT crosses Civil War battlegrounds and original homesteads.
One thing that makes the trail so special is the support from local communities and fellow hikers. On the AT, hikers often adopt trail names, sometimes self-given or the result of funny stories.
“Trail magic” — when you stumble upon food, rides into town, or even a place to stay — is a common occurrence. Many trail angels along the way work to cut downed trees and build and repair trails each year. I received so many little motivations from complete strangers — acts of kindness, something we need in everyday life.
I met so many people from various backgrounds, ages, and stages in life, including hikers from other countries. Some of my fondest memories are of brief encounters with fellow hikers. We were all on the trail for the same purpose.
I completed the Appalachian Trail in July 2023 —12 years after it all began and long before retirement.
As I reflect on my experience, I encourage anyone with a sense of adventure and a desire for accomplishment to take a small trip on the trail. Start with a shorter section to get a taste of the trail’s magic. This trail is hard, and it gives nothing away. You earn every bit of it.
So, let me encourage you to embark on your next adventure. I’m far from done with mine, and I can’t wait to see where the trail leads me next!