A masochist’s dream vacation on the Appalachian Trail

2 years after leaving trail before its end, Cady Kuzmich hikes from Georgia to Maine on her own
A pony nuzzles up to Cady in Virginia's Grayson Highlands.
A pony nuzzles up to Cady in Virginia's Grayson Highlands.

Scrambling from boulder to boulder, using rebar to hoist myself up, I summited Mount Katahdin on the 5th of September over five months after setting out on foot from Georgia. Though Penobscot folklore warns against climbing the 5,269-foot peak, this was the second time I walked across its otherworldly terrain.

Legend has it that the summit is guarded by an evil god named Pomola (also spelled Pamola) with the wings and talons of a bird and the head of a moose. The mythical beast was known for creating harsh winds, booming thunder and cold weather on top of the mountain. Citing fear and respect for Pomola, natives avoided climbing the mountain. The peak wasn’t officially summited until 1804, when Charles Turner Jr., a U.S. representative from Massachusetts, ventured up the mountain. Henry David Thoreau summited in the 1840s.

Standing on top of the highest peak in Maine as the clouds whipped through the alpine landscape dotted with scrubby bushes and resilient lichen, I was in awe. I had spent the last five and a half months walking through tunnels of rhododendrons and mountain laurel, hail and snow. I had gotten used to hitching rides with strangers and not having to plan anything beyond how much food I needed to get to the next town. I crossed through 14 states to be standing in front of that summit sign. This was the end destination. The chapter was quickly closing and there was no slowing the momentum of the pages turning.

The group I was hiking with pushed a 25-mile day to the base of the mountain on the 4th of September in order to summit a day early and avoid nasty weather on the 6th. Three of the 12 hikers in our group had visas expiring on the 8th; we were cutting it close.

As we walked up that final mountain, those who had already summited passed us on their way down with fist-bumps and red-rimmed eyes, the sole sign of tears from otherwise stoic and outrageously bearded men. I took my time at the peak, hugging friends who were strangers not long ago.

Waffles, the Dutch taxi driver with a mischievous smile and a taste for hardcore electronic dance music, stood at the top of Katahdin with me in a colorful knit hat. I first met him in Georgia, where I can still picture him sitting on the floor of a hotel in Hiawassee crammed with at least six other people.

Switchback, Dusty and Bearbag, three childhood friends from New Zealand who grew into men with face-consuming beards, piled atop the summit sign for a photo together. With golden locks that make most women jealous, Dusty was always bursting with booming laughter that carried through the woods. Bearbag, towering over 6 feet tall with a thick orange beard, earned a reputation as a ferocious dancer on trail. Switchback, with a wild tangle of hair and two slightly different-sized pupils at the center of piercing light blue eyes, always had a quiet one-liner ready to fire. Years of growing up together leant them a special sort of comedic chemistry. The fourth honorary Kiwi, Footprint, hailed from Austin, Texas, but had been hiking with the trio since day one.

Horse, who in his thirties was one of the older hikers in the group, worked as a road painter back in Ohio. When he wasn’t flying up mountain trails leaving 20-year-olds in the dust, he could often be found standing knee-deep in water with his fishing pole or critiquing the work of local road crews.  

Mojito and her absurdly cheerful boyfriend Sonic, both from Maryland, often kept me company in the rear guard. The rest of the group—Ham, Silver, Barbell and Amazon—hailed from North Carolina.

Along the way, I hiked with a physics teacher from England, an architect from Georgia, mechanics and landscapers from Cape Cod, Southern preachers, a chef from New York City and young counselors who worked with children in the Utah wilderness.  

The trail attracts a wide range of individuals—professional cellists, carpenters, teachers, road painters, artists, retirees, fruit-fly farmers, archers, taxi drivers, graphic designers, professors and everything in between. The trail takes these people who likely wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise and throws them into a situation where nomadic families are bound to form.

“Are you thrilled to finally be done?” asked a friend two days after I returned home from living out of a rank backpack that left calloused skin on my shoulder blades. I looked at her and considered the question. In her eyes, I had set off with a goal and had completed it. Clean and simple. Those are two words that did not apply to my thru-hike.  

When I set off to solo-hike the 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine in March, I expected it would test me in ways I hadn’t been tested before. That was the whole point—to test my mettle after what had arguably been the worst year of my life.

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Though I had walked through the same ancient mountain range two years prior and had hiked 20-mile days with a 50-pound pack on my back (far too heavy), this time I had set off alone. In 2015, I had zero experience and an abundance of doe-eyed optimism. I had just earned my undergraduate degree and was engaged to my college boyfriend when we set off to thru-hike southbound from Maine to Georgia together. We put nearly 1,200 miles behind us before throwing in the towel at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, so we could be closer to home where his mother was battling ovarian cancer. Low morale and dwindling bank accounts also played a role in the decision to return home. The ensuing year would turn my life inside out.

If I allow myself to think about it, I can still feel that heavy knot in the pit of my stomach when my mom dropped us off at the base of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park that summer two years ago. After tearful goodbyes, I wandered into the woods trying to calm my nerves. The enormity of the 2,189-mile challenge had lodged itself in my gut. Bent over a wobbly bog bridge, I heaved.

This year, the nausea came at the bottom of the mountain—when it was time to say goodbye to the trail, the characters I met along the way and the way of life the trail allows, the intimacy it fosters between strangers.  Finishing the trail meant my days would no longer be measured by miles. It meant I wouldn’t be camping on stony lakeshores or atop mountains under a blanket of stars with any regularity. It meant putting aside the ease and sense of identity that comes with being a thru-hiker.

Like any experience worth having, the months I spent walking from Georgia to Maine can’t be processed or understood by striking a checkmark through a box on a crisp sheet of paper. This was not a line on a to-do list.

I was planning on being uncomfortable, lonely, cold, wet and hungry. I knew I’d scrape my knees and go longer than anyone should go between loads of laundry and showers. What I had not anticipated was that my love of hiking and of the trail would grow exponentially as the miles piled up.

Taking the time to finish this trail has been the kindest thing I have ever done for myself. That sentiment echoed in my mind almost daily. It was the surest thing I knew.

The closest thing I can liken the experience of finishing a thru-hike is this—reading the final pages of a book you’ve come to love. You start reading slower than usual, savoring each sentence, each word. The characters become something like family. They remain in your mind, tucked away safely for years to come, just as true as your memories.

Unlike the characters stuck on the pages of well-loved books, however, the story of the last five and a half months leaves open the potential for future chapters, new narratives and adventures yet to come. With that in mind, there’s some peace in this most recent page’s turn.

Facts about the Appalachian Trail

As the “granddaddy” of America’s hiking trails, the Appalachian Trail draws thousands of aspiring “thru-hikers” each year. The notion of the A.T.  was first conceived by U.S. forester Benton MacKaye in the 1920s. MacKaye envisioned a wilderness trail stretching through the mountains of the Eastern United States spotted by small farming communities — a utopian refuge from the increasingly industrialized world. While the reality of the trail fell short of MacKaye’s vision, the trail has attained great stature in the hiking world.

Earl Shaffer, a World War I veteran, was the first individual to report finishing the trail in one go—a feat that later became known as “thru-hiking” — in 1948 in an effort to “walk the army off,” according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

A few other tidbits:

  • The trail covers 2,189 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
  • When accounting for the change in elevation throughout the course of the entire trail, the ATC says the trail is equivalent to hiking Mount Everest 16 times. 
  • One in four individuals who attempt a thru-hike will finish. 
  • Though the trail attracts all sorts, demographics are largely white and male. According to the ATC, women represented just 29 percent of total thru-hikes in 2016. 

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