By Ali Wilt
It’s four in the morning on an early-March day, and 22-year-old Jacob “Valhalla” Myers awakes in a hammock next to a group of people he has just met. A storm is set to move in, so they’re getting an early start on tackling Blood Mountain, the highest peak on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.
“We’re walking up the mountain, in pairs essentially,” said Myers, a Sapphire, North Carolina, native and employee at a concierge business. “The entire world is asleep right now, and you can just see people marching single-file, in a line, their headlamps bouncing off in the distance, illuminating the sides of these mountains. It was the first moment of ‘What the hell are we doing?’ It’s too magical for me to properly describe.”
That trek up and over Blood Mountain is just a miniscule, if mystical, portion of the roughly 2,200 mile-long Appalachian Trail, stretching across the eastern United States from Georgia to Maine, and thought to be the longest hiking-only trail in the world.
Each year, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), thousands attempt to thru-hike the entire trail. About 1 in 4 makes it the whole way.
And making it the whole way was Myers’ mission, after preparing for about a year and a half for his thru-hike. But when COVID-19 first struck the globe early this year, halting the daily activities of, well, everyone-- Appalachian Trail thru-hikers exited the trail and left behind their dreams of conquering it. At least for now.
In early March, Sandra Marra, president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, asked registered thru-hikers to leave the trail in an email. Later, Marra issued a public statement about the importance of this recommendation.
So, on March 16, after 17 days and over 200 miles of hiking, Myers exited at Newfound Gap on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, in what he describes as a “morbid, soul-crushing heartbreak.”
“They (the ATC) told us all, ‘We need you to be considerate of these very sensitive and fragile trail towns with no hospitals and retirement-age folks,’” Myers said. “And I could relate to that because that’s the kind of place I grew up in...I knew I was getting off for a morally sound reason.”
Still, Myers’ rich tales from his short time on trail speak to the magnificence of such a journey. In past seasons, hikers fortunate and skilled enough to successfully complete an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, such as 24-year-old Kyle “NarNar” O’Grady, got to experience this magnificence in its entirety.
Growing up in Burlington, Vermont, O’Grady became interested in hiking and backpacking in high school, which is when he first learned about the Appalachian Trail. By the time he was 22 and fresh out of college, O’Grady felt “compelled” to pursue his long-time goal of thru-hiking it.
Preparing for a Thru-Hike
It took O’Grady about four and a half months to complete the over 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, but he was no novice. The ATC estimates that an average thru-hiker takes five to seven months to finish the trail. Regardless, a thru-hike does not happen without some preparation.
“I had never done a hike this long...but I’d backpacked for a number of years,” O’Grady said. “I had kind of been preparing ever since I started hiking...I always had this goal in the back of my mind.”
O’Grady never set out on a particular plan to prepare himself for the trail, unlike Myers. Having set his thru-hike start-date of Feb. 29, 2020 — eight months in advance — Myers trained extensively. Each morning of last summer, he ran 2.5 miles of hills, rain or shine. On the weekends, Myers would try to get in an extra-long day of training.
“I would go to a place I had never been in the woods and just hike, and that worked really well. The variety that the AT offered was exactly like what I had done, going to these foreign places,” he said.
Collecting just the right durable, lightweight, weatherproof gear for a thru-hike is a challenge in itself — and one that does not come without cost. The total retail price of everything on Myers’ gear list, itemized on TheTrek.com, comes to a whopping $2,731.74.
Stories From the Trail
Alone, But Not Really
According to those who know the trail best, thru-hiking often starts as a solo venture but rarely ends as such. Apart from the communities of people common to their ‘normal’ lifestyles, thru-hikers find that human connection thrives even in the backcountry.
Hikers who begin the trail around the same time and keep a similar pace end up sharing plenty of nights at camp together.
“It’s the best of both worlds. People would just do their own thing during the day... so you can go as fast or as slow as you want,” O’Grady said. “And then at the end of the day, at camp, you can still get that camaraderie and kind of reflect on the day.”
Myers knew before ever stepping foot on the trail that it “was going to suck,” but ultimately found solace in the communal suffering of his fellow tired, hungry, unshowered thru-hikers. The support of those he met also helped him cope with the decision to leave the trail.
However, when 25-year-old Audrey Aug embarked on the trail, her close friend, Hannie Glenn, was by her side. After a venomous spider bite forced Aug to leave the trail on a prior attempt, she met Glenn while they worked at the same Starbucks. Though Glenn had no prior backpacking experience, she wanted in on the action for Aug’s second attempt. The pair successfully completed their thru-hike in September of 2019.
“We’re all the more friends for it... being able to start and finish together means that we’ll always have the inside jokes and so many things to relate to,” Aug said.
Meeting other people on the trail was one of the aspects of thru-hiking that Sydney King was looking forward to most. After three years of preparation, the 26-year-old native of Fort Smith, Arkansas, had planned to start an Appalachian Trail thru-hike on April 15 of this year, having worked several aspects of her life around the trip. She ultimately decided to cancel her hike given the ATC’s recommendations surrounding COVID-19.
“Imagine you’re with thousands of people that are doing the exact same thing you’re doing,” King said. “I feel like there’s a lot of camaraderie in that aspect... I was excited.”
'Valhalla or Bust'
Thru-hikers embrace a new way of life during their time on the trail, even altering their monikers. In a trend not unique to those on the Appalachian Trail, hikers adopt special “trail names,” sometimes chosen by themselves and sometimes awarded to them by other hikers. The names can be as odd as “Spreadsheet” and as valiant as “Sherpa.” But the common thread running through all of them is a story.
Myers chose “Valhalla” for himself, a glorious afterlife for warriors in Norse mythology.
“I have a brother who’s deployed to Kuwait, and we always say ‘Valhalla or bust’ no matter what happens…,” he said. “Valhalla is an afterlife you have to earn. You can be a good person, you can think the right things, but you actually have to go out into life and take life for everything that it is worth to enter into the halls of Valhalla.”
Perhaps more serendipitously, Aug was officially deemed “Rooster” after other thru-hikers took notice of her red hair and the fact that she was always first to awake at camp in the morning.
Meanwhile, King still awaits the opportunity to get her trail name. Before pursuing her career goal of working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, she is hoping for that chance in the 2021 thru-hiking season.
Standing 5,269 feet tall in the middle of Maine is Mount Katahdin, but for thru-hikers traveling northbound, it is no ordinary mountain. Katahdin marks the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, signifying the accomplishment of a lifetime and the end of a 2,200-mile journey for every thru-hiker who has stepped foot on its peak.
“It was a wild feeling going up, thinking that this is the last time I’m going to have to hike up a mountain for a long time,” Aug said. “There’s this overwhelming feeling of relief, and sadness...It’s bittersweet.”
Reaching the peak was “surreal” for O’Grady. He was able to summit Katahdin with a couple of other thru-hikers he had met and camped alongside for long sections of the trail.
"I'm not really even an emotional person but...it still kind of makes me choke up a little bit when I think about it,” he said.
On the other side of Katahdin comes the reality for thru-hikers of adjusting back to life before the trail. Following the completion of his thru-hike, O’Grady had just two weeks before starting his first job out of college in software development.
“I was just hiking for so long, and now I’m, like, in a cubicle,” he said. “That was not great at first.”
Lessons From the Trail
Even amid the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the spirit of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers and thru-hiker-hopefuls is alive and well. Those from years past cherish their memories from the wilderness, while 2020-hopefuls have now become 2021-hopefuls.
Though he spent just 17 days on it, Myers left the Appalachian Trail with plenty of inspiration. On one particularly chilling night at camp, a kind gesture later became a symbol of something more.
“Before we even make introductions, this fella...made me a cup of hot chocolate. He just goes, ‘You look like you could use this.’ Even in that harsh environment... you can still find some of the epitome of human decency in those moments,” he said.
Myers added, “That’s (one thing) I’m so happy to be seeing out of COVID. Because everyone is suffering together, everyone can pick each other up, and that’s very akin to the trail community at large.”