Journey across America
Boyhood friends look back at 2,180 enlightening miles on the Appalachian Trail
The start, Feb. 27: Looking apprehensive about the journey ahead and the snow that fell on Georgia's Springer Mountain the night before, Ollie Cardin, left, and Alex Letvinchuk sit beside the marker for the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. (COURTESY)
About the Trail-- The Appalachian Trail is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world - roughly 2,180 miles.
-- The trail passes through through 14 states between Springer Mountain, Ga., and Mount Katahdin, Maine.
-- Virginia is home to the most miles of the trail (about 550), while West Virginia is home to the least (about 4).
-- Maryland and West Virginia are considered the easiest states to hike; New Hampshire and Maine are the hardest.
-- The total elevation gain of hiking the entire A.T. is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times.
-- The trail was completed in 1937 and is a unit of the National Park System.
-- Between 2 million and 3 million visitors walk a portion of the A.T. each year.
-- "Thru-hikers" walk the entire trail in a continuous journey. "Section-hikers" piece the entire trail together over years. "Flip-floppers" thru-hike the entire trail in discontinuous sections to avoid crowds, extremes in weather, or start on easier terrain.
-- Only 1 in 4 who attempt a thru-hike successfully completes the journey.
-- Most thru-hikers walk north, starting in Georgia in the spring and finishing in Maine in the fall, taking an average of six months.
-- Backpackers can burn up to 6,000 calories a day hiking the trail. They favor foods high in calories and low in water weight, such as Snickers bars and ramen noodles.
- Alex Letvinchuk, April 21 blog item
A three-sided shelter had failed to protect them from an icy storm.
Barely a week from the start of a planned hiking trek from Georgia to Maine, Cardin and best friend Alex Letvinchuk were facing one of many challenges.
"To me, it was a little bit of a pride thing," Cardin said. "I thought two guys from New Hampshire, if there's a reason I go home, it's not going to be because of the snow."
"Every day, probably around mile ten, when my legs start to fatigue and my feet beg me to stop I think of the alternative. What would I be doing if I wasn't hiking? Would I be sitting at a desk somewhere cursing myself for taking a monotonous job just so I could pay my college loans? Would I still be living at my parents house cursing myself for not having a better monotonous job so I could get out of the house? Would I be happy?"
But during their college break for Thanksgiving, the boyhood friends who grew up together on Manchester's Bayberry Lane signed on for early 2013, nine months after Letvinchuk graduated from St. Anselm College and Cardin from the University of New Hampshire, for "one last big adventure that we could do together," Letvinchuk said. In the meantime, they saved money and trained at the Manchester YMCA, countless steps on the Stairmaster and endless miles on the treadmill, taking turns wearing a weighted vest to simulate a backpack.
"As soon as you got on the trail and strapped on the pack, you knew any amount of training that we did was really not going to prepare us adequately for the trail," Letvinchuk said.
In North Carolina, an Ohio man told them he was dropping his plans to complete the trail after about a month of hiking. He missed his wife, had a cattle farm to tend to and was awaiting a new grandchild.
Scott Hopkins, a Virginia hiker who met the Manchester pair in North Carolina, recalled their perseverance.
"Hiking with them, it helps me keep going in the tough moments, when all you want to do is stop for the day and go into town (but) you have to keep hiking," Hopkins said.
A turn in the weather boosted their spirits.
"The snow stopped right when we reached Virginia," Letvinchuk said. "It was a real big confidence booster to beat the snow."
Once they reached roughly the half-way point at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, they sat around the campfire. "We looked at each other and said, 'We've got a shot,'?" Letvinchuk said.
"You're constantly thinking about the next meal you can have once you're in civilization. I have had countless dreams that solely revolve around food."
They would pack up camp and start hiking around 7 a.m., aiming for 18 to 22 miles a day. Sometimes, they could cover 2 or 3 miles in an hour, depending on the topography.
They hiked until around 7 p.m., set up camp and ate dinner around 7:30 or 8. Dinner often featured Ramen noodles, a bag of pasta, a pocket of tuna and more granola bars. Then off to sleep at nightfall.
The pair typically averaged five to seven days in between showers. Letvinchuk on his blog wrote that someone asked, " 'why does it smell like old peanut butter and jelly sandwiches over here?' That would be me."
"I don't feel like a twenty-three year old anymore. Everyday is a struggle to leave my tent. Every hill sucks the dwindling energy from my body. This is no longer a physical battle, but then again, was it ever?"
"It was just a matter of can you ignore the pain and just keep going? You know everyone's going to hurt," Letvinchuk said. "Anyone can physically do it. It's just walking. It's just how long it's going to take you."
"You can always slow down to kind of rest your body, but you're not leaving the trail. You're never escaping it," he said. "Even when you go into town, it's never a rest. You've got to go in, resupply your food, do your laundry. You're always thinking about it. You're always surrounded by trail thoughts. Your body hurts and you could end it all now. You could end all the pain -"
But they pressed on, two full weeks through Pennsylvania, with its trail filled with jagged rocks that made it difficult to take solid steps at times.
Then they spent a little more than a week getting through New Jersey and New York State before arriving in New England the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, which featured cold and rainy weather.
"It will continue to be stories of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, a story of pain and perseverance. These next 600 miles will be harder than any other we've hiked, but with every conflict comes the glory of completing the greatest story of my life."
Five friends met them at different parts of the New Hampshire trail to offer the use of a shower, laundry machine and/or a place to sleep, acts hikers call "trail magic."
"When you get to New Hampshire, it's a lot more mountainous," Letvinchuk said. "You're above the tree line pretty much for the first time. The views in New Hampshire are just breath-taking."
"To get a clear day on top of it must have been a good treat for him, a good birthday present," Letvinchuk said.
"That was one of my low points on the trail, just getting mentally beat by the mountains and the weather. You know you're so close, but especially in southern Maine, you still have 281 miles to go," Letvinchuck said.
"The bridge broke and I lost my cup and pot in the river, so I basically went without food for that night," he said. "I ate one of those packs of Ramen (noodles) raw. There were just so many mosquitoes everywhere. I kept thinking how miserable I was."
"I was staring up at the trees, and I was really kind of sad I was going to step away from this lifestyle, how comfortable I had gotten," he said.
The next morning, a little before 9:30 a.m. on July 7, they reached the finish line at a sign on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. Letvinchuk's dad, Peter, hiked up to meet the pair. Hopkins made it, too.
After a six-hour drive back to Manchester, Letvinchuk texted his hiking buddy around 2:30 a.m., telling him about new tents he had just found on the Internet.
Cardin said he might go on a day hike this fall. Letvinchuk is looking for something bigger.
"You just appreciate all the small conveniences more. Everything being at your fingertips," Cardin said.
Letvinchuk said he had missed driving a car. Cardin said he appreciated being inside a car during a recent rain storm, deploying defrost or air conditioning at will.
The four-plus month trip gave the men time to contemplate life and human nature.
"I look at everything quite differently now. I think problems I will face going forward won't be as monumental," he said. "Knowing there are worse things out in life. You could be stuck in a snowstorm. Even in a bad situation, just keeping a sense of level-headedness is real important. When I was having a bad day, I would tell myself at least it's not snowing right now."
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