Last summer, Wichita native David Severson’s bed was the cool ground of the Appalachian Trail, down among the bugs and mice. When he awoke in the mornings, he always checked to make sure his food supply had not been eaten by bears. Throughout the 112 days of his 1,254-mile hike up the trail, he said that he learned many survival tips and tricks, in addition to learning about himself.
“I didn’t desire to have a fight with a bear,” Severson said. “That wasn’t really on my list of things to do.”
His list of things to do was a long one, because along the way he decided to read 11 works of literature, philosophy and history. Severson, 21, said that he consulted with a former high school teacher to find books relating to the wilderness and walking, including Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” George Washington biographies, Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and Rory Stewart’s “The Places in Between.”
“Reading gives you a really deep connection to place,” Severson said. “It helped me to explore the world around me in a way I never had before.”
Severson began his hike at Springer Mountain in Georgia, eventually hiking all the way up to Andover, Maine, skipping a few sections. The trail is approximately 2,100 miles long, which makes for a lot of walking. On the hike, Severson met many fellow hikers who made the trip less lonely. He said that everyone has a trail name that they are known by, and his was “Frosty.”
“I was a little heavier back then, I was pale, and I had a little corncob pipe that I would smoke tobacco in,” Severson said. “It was mostly because of that corncob pipe.”
Severson said that he made many friends on the trail, his best friend being a German hiker nicknamed the Hamburglar. When he started to miss his family, he could find comfort in his fellow hikers.
“Everyone starts talking about gear, but it always ends up being about beer,” Severson said. “Everyone’s so hungry and tired that they just want to eat.”
Severson ate a variety of foods on the trail. For meals, he would typically heat up a pack of ramen noodles or stew on a Jetboil heater. For snacks, he would eat doughnuts, Snickers, Oreos, peanut butter by the spoonful and about a pound and a half of cheese daily.
“I was taking in about six to seven thousand calories a day and I still lost 68 pounds,” Severson said.
When in the wilderness, one finds it easy to answer nature’s call; however, Severson remembers a time on July 4th, when a porcupine prevented him from using the bathroom.
“I heard this scratching sound and I turned around and saw this huge, wild porcupine just gnawing at the door of the privy,” Severson said. “I had never seen one in my life before and here it is, blocking the bathroom.”
Severson tried to scare it away, but succeeded in attracting it to him instead. He said that throughout the night, he was paranoid that the porcupine would follow him to his camp.
“I was afraid that I would wake up, roll over on him and get quilled,” Severson said.
Every three days or so, Severson would go into a trail town to take a shower and do his laundry.
“You just want a bed, some beer, a pizza with all the meat and some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream,” Severson said. “I slept in hostels or hotels about 17 of the nights.”
Severson said that being on the trail gave him a new appreciation for food and civilized life in general.
“A salad with fresh veggies is just amazing; it is a luxury,” Severson said. “You really learn a lot about food.”
In addition to learning about food, Severson learned a lot about himself and developed as a person.
“I was extremely shy before I went on the trail, but now I’m more confident in my ability to meet people,” Severson said. “The lessons you learn stay with you for life.”
A 2008 graduate of Wichita East High School, he received a Johnson Opportunity Grant from Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va., to help fund this trip. Severson, who plans to graduate in May with a double major in biochemistry and mathematics, said that walking the trail was something he always wanted to do.
First inspired by a freshman orientation session where students hiked a short part of the trail, Severson said he wanted to have a significant outdoor experience. One of Severson’s closest acquaintances on the Washington and Lee faculty, chemistry professor Matt Tuchler, had high praise for Severson.
“He’s a very positive, happy, ambitious, intelligent and friendly individual,” Tuchler said.
Tuchler said that he was impressed when Severson told him about his plans for the trail.
“It was not just about being physically fit or intellectual development – he became a much richer person on the trail,” Tuchler said. “You could see there was a positive transformation in life and a clarity about who he is when he came back to Washington and Lee.”
Severson’s journey would not have been possible without the Johnson Opportunity Grant. The university awards between 20 and 30 grants each year, ranging from $1,000 to $4,500. Students select a spring or summer project that will help them grow outside a classroom setting. The goal of the grants is to develop leadership skills.
“It’s very competitive,” Tuchler said. “It’s really pretty phenomenal; he has a chance to make an impact on our society and our world.”
Severson recently returned home for the winter break, and he said he is excited to be able to spend time with his family.
“I appreciate my family and my friends a lot,” Severson said. “We have a nice Christmas dinner and I really appreciate it because it’s not doughnuts and ramen.”
Severson said he plans on returning to New Hampshire and Vermont to hike through some of the parts that he skipped last summer.
“It’s something that no one can ever take away from me,” Severson said. “It was very life-changing and awesome to be able to do something like that.”