The Interview: Jeffrey Ryan & 28 Years on the Appalachian Trail
Interview by Everett Potter
Jeffrey H. Ryan is the author of Appalachian Odyssey and his subtitle says it all: A 28 Year Hike on America’s Trail.
Your read that right. Of course, he hasn’t been out on the legendary trail from Georgia to Maine the entire time. He “section-hiked” it, to use the parlance of avid AT hikers, one section at time. But 28 years is a long span of time to devote to anything so it’s not surprising that Jeff knows the trail as well as anyone that I’ve met. I recently had a chance to interview him while he was traveling to promote his book, which is a fun and engaging read. It might even make you want to lace up your boots and go.
Jeff, why hike the AT?
The AT appeals on so many levels. It is iconic. The AT is the second oldest long-distance hiking trail in the U.S. and the first multi-state trail, touching or traversing a total of 14 states. It is challenging – over 2000 miles of walking through an amazing variety of terrain are consistent tests of strength and perseverance. Yet, even more than these, the AT has an irresistible, beckoning aspect to it. If you get hiking in your blood, it is inevitable that you will at least entertain the idea of hiking the AT.
What is the appeal to section-hiking the AT?
There are several reasons to section hike. The most practical is that most people don’t think they can take the time away from work and/or family to hike the trail in its entirety. That was initially the reason Wayne (my hiking partner) and me hiked the trail this way.
But we found out that section hiking has a much greater appeal than simply the convenience of working the trail into a busy life (or as one reader put it, “Maybe it’s the other way around”). It has to do with the depth of the experience. Having done an extended hike (I was on the Pacific Crest Trail for almost seven months in 1983), I can say that the pull of finishing the trail can sometimes prevent you from completely enjoying the moment you’re in. You need to constantly be making progress toward the end goal in ways that can make you speed through sections you might have spent more time in if you weren’t racing against the changing seasons or a finite end date.
Section hiking can allow you to immerse yourself in the surroundings to a greater degree. If you know you are doing 80 miles in a week, you have the luxury of slowing the pace and getting a deeper feel for a place. The hike through Maryland is a prime example. You traverse a 40-mile ridge that was the site of intense fighting during the Civil War. I was able to research the battles before I went, which yielded a completely different hiking experience. Could I have done the same as part of a through-hike? Certainly. But with it being a 40-mile stretch out of 2,100, I doubt I would have.
It took you 28 years to complete the AT. You kept coming back for more — and more. For an endeavor that many people find demanding and difficult, there’s clearly an addictive aspect to the trail – or perhaps it’s just the need to finish what you started?
That’s a great observation. It’s not as much a yearning to complete what I started as much as it is an honoring of a pact I have with myself to periodically “get on the trail” — any trail. I’ve found that being in the outdoors is one of the greatest gifts I can give myself (and by extension, others). In that sense, the trail is an elixir. The combination of generally knowing where the path leads and the unknowns of the weather, how you will feel on a given day and what you will see along the way have a seductive draw. I really consider it an honor to be walking in the woods and mountains for days on end. That’s what keeps me coming back for more.
You report that the “toughest mile” on the AT turns out not to be a walk in the park but also turns out to be not as tough as some other parts. What were the most challenging hiking moments for you?
Many times the toughest parts of the trail are followed by mountaintop views that immediately diminish the memory of the effort it took to earn them. But one particular trip was the most difficult. We were in Tennessee, where there were several days of ups and downs. I struggled mightily on that trip and it frightened me because I had never berated myself like I did on some of those climbs. I was able to periodically make the “voice of the drill sergeant” go away, but it kept coming back, day after day. In retrospect, it was fatigue that made me susceptible to the negative self talk. It was also a needed reminder of how much your mental approach comes into play on hikes of any duration.
The drop- out rate for AT hikers is quite high. Is it the sheer physical difficulty? Boredom? Or just a lack of mental preparation?
I think it’s a little bit of everything. I love Bill Bryson, but I do think the title “A Walk in the Woods” paints a picture that isn’t anything like what you encounter on the trail. The AT is a mountain trail. There are a lot of ups and downs. If you’ve never carried a pack before or slept in a tent for days or months, there’s a steep learning curve.
The mental part can’t be underestimated. As I say in my book, you either have perseverance, learn to get it or you go home. There are so many things you can grab onto for reasons to go home. You miss the food. You’re sore. The trail is harder than you thought. You miss your own bed. How firmly these things take root directly affect whether you can or will want to stay out on the trail.
You need to be mentally nimble out on the trail. I equate the things you need to be adept at juggling with a hard drive that’s constantly running in the background. As you hike, you need to make sure you are constantly pulling things “onto your desktop” or, if you prefer, into your consciousness. These include keeping tabs on the weather, your mental outlook, your physical health, your food situation, where the next water source is and how you are doing vs your intended itinerary.
How about moments of unexpected beauty and grandeur along the way – what really took you by surprise?
I, like most people that hike the AT, had often heard horror stories about the Pennsylvania section. A number of people complain about the rocks on the trail. Over the years, this has created a kind of group resignation and dread about the evil rocks. I adopted an attitude about the rocks that helped put the whole situation into a healthy perspective. My feeling is that complaining about rocks on a mountain trail is like going sailing and complaining about the ocean. This, in turn, set me up to discover just how beautiful a walk across Pennsylvania can be. The ridges are long, and the views from them spectacular — encompassing valleys chock full of farms below and enormous migrations of hawks and hundreds of other bird species above.
Walking through the Great Smoky Mountains was also a thrill. At some points you are completely surrounded by peaks, which fills you with both awe and gratitude.
It may sound trite, but what I found through section hiking was that every part of the trail is capable of providing a sense of beauty and wonder, that each area has it’s own personality, shaped by time, and to greater or lesser degrees, man. Digging into the histories of the sections made my journey much more interesting and hopefully for my readers as well.
What was your physical regimen to prepare for one of your section hikes?
In “the old days”, say when I was under 50 years old, I had done so much hiking that I could literally take leave of my desk job for a week or two, put a 50 or 60 lb. pack on my back and traipse up and down mountains all day. By day three, I’d be broken in and be completely ready to roll. I admit that even that was probably an anomaly. By the time I was in my early 50’s, I put more emphasis on making sure I was regularly walking several miles per day. Sometimes I’d walk to work and back. Others I’d head to a nearby park. Still others I’d walk to the grocery store with an empty backpack to buy the week’s food.
Tell us about your diet along the trail – what worked and what did not?
My mother was a gourmet cook. That had a tremendous impact on what I pack for food. For example, I found a mini-pepper grinder 25 years ago and I’ve been carrying it in my pack ever since. I can’t abide by eating the regular trail staples. (I declared the “fall of the Ramen empire” a few years ago. I can’t stomach the stuff. I’m convinced that the flavor packets may say, “mushroom”, “beef” or whatever, but they all come from the same vat.) We have had a great time cultivating our trail menu. Dehydrated chili and freeze dried eggs make surprisingly good breakfast burritos for example. You can even buy mini packets of guacamole. You definitely don’t need to suffer from a poor diet on the trail! We even joke that we don’t start losing weight until after the first week.
The only food disasters we’ve had were a time when we were winter camping and I decided to pack apple turnovers for dessert. The box showed golden brown turnovers on the package, so I threw them in my pack. (I didn’t have time to research them further, or even repackage them, because we were on the way to the mountains.) Two nights later in the tent, with the outside temp of -20°F, I sprung my surprise dessert. They were uncooked, disgusting looking blobs accompanied by “pre-heat oven to 400” instructions. Uggh. From there on out, I paid close attention to packing and preparation.
After 28 years, what were the injury tallies?
I can’t believe how fortunate we’ve been to stay healthy and still going strong. My injuries have been pretty much relegated to ankle twists (hard to avoid on rocky, roots trails) and a few bouts with colds. Wayne took a really bad tumble in New York when a rock pile gave way beneath his feet. He hit the back of his head and had quite an egg, but pulled through. I think the fact I use two hiking poles has been instrumental in keeping me upright. They have also saved my knees. I won’t hit the trail without them.
What’s the next long hike for you?
We’ve actually started hiking the New England National Scenic Trail, which goes from Guilford, CT (on the ocean) to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire. We’ve walked the length of Connecticut so far and will pick the trail back up in Agawam, Massachusetts late this year. In 2017, we plan on starting a new 1,800 mile adventure on the Great Eastern Trail, from New York’s Finger Lakes to Florida. As long as we are healthy, we’ll keep on walking!
Visit Jeff Ryan’s site to learn more about his epic hike and purchase his book.