The Ins and Outs of the Appalachian Trail. Photos by Jeff Alt.
By Andy Christian Castillo
A Walk For Sunshine. Each year, thousands of ambitious hikers set off on one of North America’s most famous outdoor landmarks, the Appalachian Trail, but only about 25% make it to the end and earn the title of “thru-hiker.”
Jeff Alt is a “thru-hiker.”
On March 1, 1998 he took his first of more than 1,000,000 steps on a 147-day journey across 2,160 miles. He describes the experience as life changing in his book, A Walk For Sunshine, which documents his trek from Georgia to Maine.
Today, Jeff is an author of five books, a hiking expert, and a public speaker. GoNOMAD spoke with Jeff to talk about his experiences and the challenges of becoming a thru-hiker.
Is there any advice you would give to college students?
Jeff Alt: “There’s no better time in life (to go on adventures) than when you’re young. Because as we get older, we just keep piling on responsibilities, and come up with excuses not to get out there. If you have an adventure on your bucket list, you need to get out there, read up on what you have to do to prepare, overcome any obstacles that might be there, and then go after it; so you’re not laying there as a person who physically can’t, wondering why you didn’t do it when you could. I call them dream killers.”
What are the most harrowing experiences you’ve had on the trail?
JA: “The most frightening experience I’ve ever had was while I was leading my wife on the High Sierra trail. Above the trail — just showed up unannounced, bolts of lightening were just zapping everywhere; you could hear the sizzle in the air. We left our packs right there, grabbed our pack covers, and literally ran down the trail and sat on our pack covers under some trees.
In Maine, I hadn’t seen a moose yet — so as I’m walking around through the morning dew, there’s still cobwebs on the trail, the birds are chirping, and then all of a sudden there’s this loud thunder crash coming through; I think it must be the moose! I grab my camera and I’m looking around, and out through the trees comes this huge bear, and she’s coming right at me!
It was a full charge right at me. I didn’t even have time to raise my hands or anything, but she didn’t see me, she was just charging over the mountain. And then she saw me and she sort of stopped about 10 feet from me, so I took out my camera and was about to take a picture when two cubs come walking out of the forest.
After, I was walking a little bit later, and I heard another crashing and I figured it was the bear coming back, but out came a moose! So I saw my moose. It just goes to show that you never know what’s around the next bend.
In the Stecoah Mountains, there was a winter weather advisory posted, but I was with my friend who’s a former Marine and we thought we’d be fine. So we get on the top of this ridge, and it’s snowing and snowing; it’s a blizzard. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face it was snowing so hard. My water was frozen solid. So I melted snow to cook with and set up my tent — this is like 11-12 p.m., midday. I lay in the tent 16 hours thinking ‘this is it man.’ And I had a zero degree sleeping bag and everything, hat, gloves, jacket, and I was still cold.”
If you could travel back in time, what would you tell your 21 year old self?
JA: “It’s so easy to get sucked into the party, but what you’ll really truly remember isn’t the party, but the experiences. While it would be easier to go into the pub, what you’ll remember are the woods and the sea and travel.
And that’s so true, even with hikers, who get sucked into the towns; it’s like social pressure, even on the trail. You have to decide early on what kind of experience you want to have.”
Why is adventure so important to you?
JA: “It’s my lifeblood; it keeps me living. It adds sizzle to my life; we all need a change from our routine, and adventure is the perfect self-prescribed medicine for me. It helps you learn about yourself; every adventure, there’s something new to acquire. It’s a way to discover yourself, and the world around you.”
For people who want to get into hiking, but don’t know where to start, what advice could you give them?
JA: “First, read up as much as you can, then find someone who has experience; you should never hike alone, even if you’re experience. Then, hit the trail with them before you go out and buy gear. Universities and school can usually rent gear. Go to the talk of someone who just finished a trail. And read memoirs, make sure you know what you’re doing.”
An Excerpt from A Walk For Sunshine
Not far from the shelter, I heard the brush move off to my left. For 600 miles, I had followed moose poop but had yet to encounter the animal. The sounds of tree branches snapping could only be from this large animal. Assuming that a moose was just beyond the trees, I quietly unzipped my hip pouch and pulled out my camera.
With my camera at the ready, I stood waiting for the moose. Then, without warning, a very large black bear charged out of the brush, running full force straight for me. With nowhere to run and shock coursing through me, I froze in my tracks. I could hear my heart stampeding. The bear came within 10 feet of me and stopped. We both stared at each other, wondering what the other’s intentions were. Then, as I began to raise my camera to my eye for a picture, I heard the bushes move and twigs snap from were the bear had burst onto the trail. Two little cubs poked out their fuzzy heads, watching their mom staring me down. Oh, no!
Mama bear had charged in order to protect her cubs. Thank goodness I wasn’t out West in grizzly country where mama bears demonstrate how to eat human flesh. I nervously tried to control my trembling fingers and put the camera away, fearing the flash might provoke her to attack. For what seemed like eternity — but was actually only a minute or two — the bear and I stood staring at each other. Finally, she turned and ambled off into the forest with her cubs.
Still a little shaken, I proceeded. About 100 yards north, I head the trees move again. Oh, no! This time the bear was coming back for my food. Quickly, I unfastened my pack straps. If the bear came at me, I planned to drop my pack and back away. As I stood there feeling like a pizza at a Super Bowl party, a huge female moose emerged. In awe, I unzipped my pouch, pulled out my camera, and snapped several shots. Thinking back, I felt way out of control. A force more powerful than I had enjoyed the hour in hiding all of the moose from me — until now. Then, before finally letting me see a moose, He threw in a bear, just for kicks.
About the Author
Jeff Alt is a talented speaker, hiking expert, and the award-winning author of A Walk for Sunshine, Four Boots One Journey and Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep it Fun. Alt’s adventures have been featured in media nationwide includ
ing: Discoverychannel.com, ESPN’s Inside America’s National Parks, Hallmark Channel, CNN-Radio, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, LA Times, USA Today, USA Radio Network, the AP, the Chicago Sun Times, Scholastic Parent & Child, and many more. Alt is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA).
He has shared his Appalachian Trail adventures with guests in the Shenandoah National Park for over ten years as well as several other outdoor venues along the Appalachian Trail. Alt holds a master’s degree from Miami University in Ohio and a degree from the University of Toledo. Alt continues to host the annual Sunshine Walk, 5k Run and Roll inspired from his Appalachian Trail journey. Alt has been hiking since his youth. He has walked the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail, the 218-mile John Muir Trail with his wife, and carried his 21-month old daughter along the coast of Ireland on a family hike. His son was on the Appalachian Trail at 6 weeks of age.
Buy A Walk For Sunshine on Amazon
Andy has traveled far and wide. He connected with GoNOMAD Travel about five years ago as an editorial intern and has worked as a travel writer for the publication ever since. When he isn’t on the road, Andy works as a newspaper reporter in Massachusetts. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University.