Local hikers tell Appalachian Trail tales

Posted on 19 September 2012

News Writer

The Appalachian Trail (AT) will mark its 75th anniversary in August. The 2,180-mile trail that runs from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mt. Katahdin, Maine, took more than 15 years to build and was completed in August 1937.

Three Bainbridge residents, Garrett Gossett, Larry Peiper and Ashley Long, have each completed the thru-hike. They recently shared some tales of the trail.

Gossett, now a resident of Charlotte, N.C., did his hike in 2005 from March 18 to Sept. 2, following his graduation from college.

Peiper did his in 2008, leaving the southern terminus on Feb. 17, and finishing Sept. 8, and Long completed his hike in 2011, beginning March 27, and reaching the peak the end of September.

Each had different motivations for taking on the challenge.

“The first time it was all about the journey. I was very emotional and moved by the creation I saw in nature,” said Peiper.

He first began hiking as a Boy Scout leader. He made three trips with the scouts to Philmont in New Mexico, and had hiked several portions of the AT on scouting expeditions, but hiking it from one end to the other had been on his “bucket list” for 15 years before he seized the opportunity to fulfill his dream.

Gossett was probably inspired by Peiper when he was in scouting. As a young scout he hiked portions of the AT on camping and hiking trips, and had also hiked in Idaho, the Grand Canyon and New Mexico before tackling the AT. He said the timing was right for him to do the long hike after college, as he had the time to devote to it before becoming employed.

Long, on the other hand, had never hiked before. After watching many national park shows and reading about the Appalachian Trail, he was attracted by the adventure of it and doing something different. As his interest developed, he contacted Peiper.

“The first time I went to see him we talked for four hours,” he said.

Long expressed a special interest in the history he saw along the way. “You hike through a lot of battlefields and historic places from the Civil War, and then as you get father North there are Revolutionary War sites,” he explained.

Each of them started the journey alone. Asked if the loneliness of the hike concerned or bothered them, they all replied “No.”

Peiper said, “I met a lot of hikers who had iPods in their ears listening to their music; but I spent most of my time just looking around at the scenery and nature. It gave me a thrill just seeing flowers popping up and watching butterflies and squirrels.”

Peiper and Long acknowledged that there were days when there would be no sound at all out on the trail — they just experienced the “sound of silence” and took in the scent of the pines. Long admitted to many times just “zoning out” and paying attention to the trail. He said you have destinations and travel goals each day, and you would think you have time to think and plan your life, but you don’t.

Gossett said he knew he would meet people on the trail, and they all did meet fellow hikers along the way, mostly at the shelters. There, they prepared meals and slept. All have tended to stay in touch with the friends they made, as they now have a common bond — a fraternity of adventurers.

Peiper recalls a trail friend he met and how the friend fell on the trail, receiving a deep laceration on his arm. Peiper agreed to stay on in the town of Gorham, N.H., for a few days to help his friend clean and care for the wound. It was there, on Aug. 8, when Peiper was walking from the library, talking on the cell phone with his daughter Larissa, that he noticed a woman down the road taking pictures. He idly wondered what she was photographing. As he came closer he realized it was his wife, Laura, who had flown up to surprise him for his 61st birthday.

He acknowledges that being away from family for 6-1/2 months was the hardest part, even though he had daily contact via phone and several family members visited him along the way.

Asked if his wife ever considered going on the hike with him, his immediate response was, “No. You have to be okay with only getting a bath once a week.”

The men say they traveled lightly, taking one change of clothing, one change of underwear and one change of socks in their backpacks. They would stop at laundramats in the towns they visited along the way and check into a motel occasionally for a bath and good night sleep in a real bed.

They have high praise for the “trail angels” — the area citizens who perform random acts of kindness, such as leaving snacks and water at stations along the trail, or give rides from town back to the trail.

Peiper became seriously ill toward the end of his trip. In mid-June, while in New York state, he was bitten by a deer tick. By the first week in July, he was having shoulder pain and noticed a large rash on his shoulder. Some nurses he met on the trail thought it could be poison ivy, but he advised he didn’t get poison ivy. He took photos with his cell phone and sent them to his physician back home, who said it looked bacterial and sent a prescription for antibiotics.

Peiper said the medicine would work at first, then he would get worse again; but through it all he kept moving. He developed aches, pains and extreme exhaustion, which he likened to the symptoms of fibromyalgia. At some point he told his doctor he believed he had contracted Lyme disease. He was put on the 30-day treatment of Doxycycline, the regimen for Lyme disease. He made it home, but it took him a while to regain his strength and the 50-55 pounds he had lost along the way.

So the question becomes, “Knowing what you now know, would you do it all again?”

Gossett said “Absolutely not.” He described the trip as torturous to the body and a mind game to keep motivated to get to the next stop. However, he said he would like to do it again in segments, which he thought would take a commitment over years. The benefit would be to do the segments you liked at the time of year best suited for them.

Peiper said the first anniversary of when he started his hike, February 2009, he actually felt symptoms of withdrawal.

“I guess you get ‘hooked’ on it. It’s something that becomes a part of you and you miss it,” he said.

He has since walked back out on smaller (100-mile) sections of the AT and recently walked an additional 400-mile stretch of it.

“I will walk the entire trail again, but I will do it in sections,” he added.

Long said he went back in May of this year and walked the last 150 miles again with a friend he met last year who didn’t get to finish.

All agreed that the trail really teaches you that you “don’t need a lot of stuff.”

Peiper is giving serious consideration to attending the 75th anniversary celebration, planned for Aug. 11-12 at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Long said he just might go with him.

To learn more of the history of the Appalachian Trail go to www.appalachiantrail.org. To see more photos and a blog kept by Peiper, go to www.piperhiker.com.

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