Many folks celebrate retirement by relaxing with a cool drink and a comfortable sunset, or perhaps a round of golf on their favorite course.
Bill Alspaugh, at the age of 66, hiked the Appalachian Trail, more than 2,100 miles. Already a long-time hiker, it was then and still is, at age 70, the longest distance he has ever hiked.
“It was the most difficult and challenging thing I have ever done in my life. It was also the most rewarding thing I have accomplished,” he recalled. “It is not just a physically challenging trip, but an even harder mental challenge. In the first three states (Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee) it is a physical challenge. This is where you get your “mountain legs’ – you learn how to deal with blisters, bug bites, and all your muscles hurting at one time.
“But it is all new and exciting. You are away from the rest of the world and its problems and hassles. Life is simple: you eat, sleep, hike, and repeat. You meet new people with the same goals and problems – pain. Best way to put it is – it is fun. You keep seeing the same people who you would never get to know in the real world because of age differences, political and other issues that separate people. On the trail you all experience in the joys and hardships as one.”
Why do it? As Edmund Hilary once replied when asked why he wanted to climb Mount
Everest, “because it is there.” But Bill said it’s so much more than that.
“You get out in nature, you have broken the bonds that hold you in the maze, the rat race, the walls we all put up. They say you go through a mental change when you attempt something like the long trail, and I have seen it in myself. I cannot explain it, but it is there.”
Among the interesting notes connected to hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bill said no one goes by their given name. You either bring an alias with you or someone will give you one.
“Mine was Ski Poles. I used cross country skis poles. My sister’s was Meatball, as that was what my father called her when she was a baby,” Bill said.
Sadly, Bill’s adventure with his sister, who was 69 at the time, became a solo trek as she came down with pneumonia and had to leave the trail.
“Like I said, early on it’s the physical things that take you off the trail, a lot of foot and knee issues but also illness,” he said. “By the time you get to Virginia, you are fairly confident that you can make it to Maine. But Virginia is very deceptive. There are no really high mountains. I remember young hikers in Tennessee saying they were sure they can do 20 miles a day in Virginia. Well, that didn’t happen.”
The Appalachian Trail goes along the ridge line of the mountains and is very rocky. Pointed rocks at that, which make it hard to put your foot down flat.
“I would say Virginia may be the hardest state because here you have physical pain, but also mental pain because Virginia is 570 miles of the trail. That is one fourth of the hike and it seems to go on forever,” Bill continued. “By this time all the people you started with back in Georgia are getting spread out and you are not seeing them as often. When you do see them, the first thing you talk about is who fell off the trail (gave up).
“I remember one young girl left because it wasn’t fun anymore. I know I had to keep telling myself: ‘Don’t quit out here in nowhere – at least get to Harper’s Ferry.’”
Harper’s Ferry is considered the halfway point. That is also where his youngest daughter lived, so Bill stopped and stayed there for a few days to catch his breath, replace his backpack and refresh himself after having been on the trail for 86 days and 1,025 miles.
Bill finished the hike on Sept 19, 2017 at Mount Katahdin at the 2,193-mile mark. It took him 78 days to hike the last 1,168 miles. In all, he was on the trail for 164 days, carrying enough food for three or four days at a time, stopping in towns to replenish supplies along the way. He also arranged with his wife and two daughters to send packages that he would pick up in towns.
“My oldest daughter who lived in North Carolina covered the southern half of the trail and my daughter in Maryland covered the northern half. I would figure out how many miles I would cover over a week’s time and which town would be the easiest to get to and have them ship a box of food ahead using the general delivery post office or the closest hostel,” he said. “The hostels were best because, in addition to the resupply you could get a shower, wash your clothes, and sleep in an actual bed at a cost of around $30.
“At 66 years old that was a real blessing. Some hostels also gave you a free breakfast, or a pizza and pop and a ride from the trailhead to the hostel and back. These little things meant a lot! I was also able to exchange cold weather gear and summer gear.”
As for being in danger, Bill said he never felt he was even though he saw many snakes, mostly rattlers and copperheads. Bears along the trail were also constant, but he said they were easy to scare away.
“I worried more about the skunks and porcupines getting into my pack and food,” he said.
“As I look back, I remember almost every night when I was setting up camp and my entire body was hurting I’d think, ‘Why am I killing myself?’ But every morning I’d wake up with the birds ready to hit the trail.”
His wife, Marie, used to join Bill on hikes when she was younger. Now, though she is physically unable to keep up with the long distances he hikes, she remains his biggest source of inspiration, even as Bill fights through his degenerative discs from years of construction work and chores on his farm in Pennsylvania.
“I enjoy and encourage Bill to go and do all the adventures he is able to with the physical limits he has,” Marie said. “I live vicariously through him on all of his adventures.”
In addition to hiking, Bill surfs, paddle boards, kayaks, and canoes to the degree his body enables him.
Bill refers to long distance as being abstract. What might be a long distance to some may not be to others, such as himself.
“For example, I’ll go to the Eagle Mountain Park and do 10 miles in less than four hours, which is nothing to the younger crowd, but for many of my age it would be impossible,” he said.
Most recently he was down in the Big Bend area taking on the trails there, and he then hiked the Guadalupe Mountains. He and his son-in-law hiked to the peak at 8,749 feet at the summit, which is about 2,000 feet taller than anything on the Appalachian Trail.
This was to prepare for July, when he is planning to hike a 32-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail that encompasses six mountains with eight peaks ranging in the 3,000 to 4,000-foot elevation.
“That is this year’s goal,” he said with a smile. “Would I try to do a through hike (hiking the complete trail in one season) again? You bet, in a heartbeat!”