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Hiking the Appalachian Trail a ‘life-changing experience’ for Wichitan

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 8, 2013, at 6:28 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Sep. 8, 2013, at 6:46 a.m.

The Appalachian Trail

A conference was held in 1925 by people interested in a trail down the spine of the mountains that cross the eastern U.S. from north to south.

By 1937, a trail was completed through 14 states. It’s been improving with each passing decade, said Laurie Potteiger of the West Virginia-based Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Currently, Potteiger said, about 99.5 percent of the trail is in public ownership, with much of it owned and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. About 80 other organizations and agencies contribute land, funding or manpower to the trail.

“It’s like a patchwork quilt that’s been stitched together,” Potteiger said. “It’s been considered the biggest, and most complex, land acquisition project ever for the park service.”

She said about 6,000 volunteers dedicate time, and often their own money, to help maintain and improve the trail, which has 2,186 miles of foot paths through an area that averages about 1,000 yards wide.

Most years, she said, 2 million to 3 million people set foot on the trail. This year about 2,700 will try to hike the trail end-to-end, with about one in four completing the trek, which averages about six months from spring to late summer or early fall.

To learn more about the Appalachian Trail, go to www.appalachiantrail.org.

Many college students hope to do a little hiking over their summer break.

Wichita native Megan Taylor did little else, trekking about 1,200 miles from Pennsylvania to Georgia between May 21 and Aug. 30. It was her second and final leg in completing the 14-state, 2,186-mile Appalachian Trail.

“It was really a life-changing experience,” Taylor said. “It really makes you look at the world differently.

“It takes a lot, but it’s worth every day and every step.”

She now hopes to help others better enjoy the outdoors as she works toward a career goal of becoming a university professor in outdoors recreation.

Neither the climbing nor academia was a childhood dream. It was late in a six-year hitch in the Kansas Air National Guard that she confided to a friend that she would like to try something challenging, like maybe running a marathon.

“He said I should go climb a mountain, and I liked the idea,” Taylor, 28, said. “At the time the only mountain I’d heard of was Pike’s Peak so I packed my bags, went and climbed it. That weekend totally changed my life.”

Her desire to learn more about mountaineering in 2008 sent her researching colleges where it could be incorporated into a career. She now has a bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation from Southern Utah University and is set to graduate from Minnesota State University in Mankato in December with a master’s in experiential education, which she describes as “learning by doing, not sitting in a classroom.”

Next year she will begin doctorate work at the University of Utah, in outdoors recreation.

Through all of her studies, she has found plenty of time for hiking. Taylor eventually conquered several of Colorado’s famous, or infamous, “fourteeners,” which are mountains with peaks at least 14,000 feet above sea level. She has also been to the highest points in most states.

The fact that most took just a day or two to climb left Taylor looking for more.

“I liked it so much I wanted to try my hand at long-distance hiking,” Taylor said. “The only long-distance trail I knew of was the Appalachian Trail, so I researched it.”

She also learned she could include such a trek in her educational progress.

“In our program (at Minnesota State) you can do a thesis or a project for your master’s,” she said. “Hiking the Appalachian Trail is certainly a project.”

From Maine to Pennsylvania

Most hikers travel from south to north on the trail, but Taylor wanted to do things a bit differently.

In early September 2011, she started at the trail’s northern end, the summit of 5,268-foot Mount Katahdin in Maine.

“I knew the hardest, steepest part of the trail is up north, in Maine, so I wanted to get the hardest part out of the way first,” Taylor said. “Also, 90 percent of the hikers start in Georgia and head north. I didn’t want to travel with hundreds of hikers.”

She also knew that beginning in September, she would surely be hiking into winter weather, and she wanted to be as far south as as possible when it came.

The September start was so she could hike with a friend who spent her summers fighting fires in Utah. Their partnership on the trail only lasted about 45 days.

“We’re good friends, but it had a lot to do about different paces and itineraries,” Taylor said.

“She’s 6-1 and I’m 5-4 so paces are a big deal. I loved going into towns and seeing all of the things, and she really didn’t, so…”

That meant Taylor did about the last two months of her first hike down the trail by herself, which she said kind of added to the feeling of accomplishment, though it did bring some loneliness.

“If I wanted companionship, I would hike into a town, solely to sit in a diner, have a cup of coffee and just listen to people for a couple of hours,” she said.

Along the trail she encountered 14 black bears, four rattlesnakes and thousands of other hikers and never felt afraid. It was Mother Nature who smacked her the hardest physically and emotionally.

“When I was in Connecticut they had the worst snowstorm they’d had since the Civil War,” Taylor said. “I was going through about two feet of snow, maybe going one-half mile per hour.

“I had tears freezing on my face, my fingers hurt, my toes hurt…”

Yet from that day of discomfort eventually came some of Taylor’s best memories from the trail.

She spent that night in one of the many simple shelters built about every eight to 10 miles along the trail, making a fire in the small fireplace and eating marshmallows her mother had stored in her pack. The next morning the temperatures had warmed, the clouds were gone and she hiked through snow that sparkled like miles of diamonds.

That day a local woman stopped when she saw Taylor beside the road, gave her a ride to town and treated her to lunch.

“They call them Trail Angels,” Taylor said. “They’re the locals that do good deeds for hikers.”

Though she had originally planned on hiking through to Georgia, Taylor said she eventually elected to fly home in mid-December and return to finish the trail another time.

Pennsylvania to Georgia

That time was this summer, when she returned to where she had stopped in Pennsylvania and headed south. A partner joined her for the middle 800 miles of the roughly 1,200 miles she hiked this summer.

Taylor said she never really felt unsafe as a single woman hiking alone.

“If there was someone at a shelter I didn’t feel comfortable around, I just kept hiking on,” she said. “But that only happened a time or two.”

While the first half of her hike had her handling the rough and wild terrain of Maine, the high alpine climbs of New Hampshire and the deep snows, this summer Taylor hiked through some monsoon-like rains that set records in several Eastern states. Those were some of her most pleasant days, too.

“Insects are the only wildlife that bothered me,” she said. “I didn’t have to deal with them when it was raining.”

She figures she averaged about 15 miles a day, with a best of 23 miles in a day. When it was cold or the weather turned bad, she often slept in a tent. She used a hammock when conditions were pleasant.

About once a week she would rent a bed at a hostel in a town near the trail, stock up on food and other supplies, take a shower and do her laundry.

“I didn’t want to stay more than about a day per week in any of the towns,” she said. “If you do, you end up spending a lot of money and you end up craving town more than the wilderness, and the whole reason you’re out there is for that wilderness.”

Taylor figures she hiked the trail for an average of about $2 per mile, which mostly went to food from local grocery stores and the occasional restaurant.

Off the trail now for about a week, Taylor is spending this weekend in the Wichita area visiting family and friends and picking up Lily, her Pomeranian, so she can take the dog back to college. Looking back, she said the little 6-pound dog may be her greatest regret concerning the Appalachian Trail.

“I wish I’d brought her along on the trail,” Taylor said. “I think it would have been a great bonding experience, and being outside on the trail 24/7 would just be paradise for a dog.”

Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

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