Fletcher Garrison takes a hike
The Appalachian Trail is roughly 2,180 miles long and passes through 14 states, from Maine to Georgia, and Fletcher Garrison has hiked nearly all of it.
The 24-year old Indian River High School graduate, who also graduated from the University of Delaware in 2010 with a degree in communications, had been kicking around the idea of hiking the trail for a number of years and finally decided to go for it this past March.
“In 2007, I hiked a section with my father and then a section with my best friend. Pop and I did Maryland, which is about 40 miles, and then Hunter and I did Pennsylvania, which is about 220 miles,” recalled Garrison. “I really enjoyed it and put it in the back of my mind that this is something that I wanted to do as soon as I could.”
The experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail has become a modern American badge of honor, the stuff of bucket lists and personal challenges amidst the remaining wild places of the U.S.
“I got a great deal else from the experience,” wrote Bill Bryson in “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.” “I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for the wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn’t know I had. I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists. I made a friend. I came home.”
Garrison started his through-hike of the trail in March 2012, in Springer Mountain, Ga., by himself, along with 50 pounds of gear packed in a borrowed pack.
“I did absolutely nothing,” he said of preparations for his hiking adventure. “I borrowed some gear from my sister Ginger and packed most of it up in the pack she’s letting me use the night before.”
After hiking for some time, Garrison quickly lightened his pack by nearly 20 pounds.
“The more you hike the lighter you want it to be,” he emphasized. “With food, it weighs around 38, and without food it probably weighs around 30,” he said. “It was crap I was carrying — stuff I thought that might be nice to have but then I found out was a redundancy. I had way too many clothes, probably four pairs of everything. Now I think I have two shirts, two shorts and single pair of underwear.”
Garrison also carries a sleeping tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and a whisper light, used to cook food.
“Because you have to stop and cook, which is a time-consuming process, a lot of people opt to eat one real meal a day. People generally snack on honey buns and Oreos, anything with a lot of calories,” he said, noting that he mostly eats Ramen noodles, Pasta Sides, and sealed packets of tuna and salmon. “Calories are the most crucial determining factor for people on the trail. When we’re at full snacking and eating well, we do about three to four thousand calories a day.”
Even with eating so much, within his first two months on the trail Garrison lost around 35 pounds.
“It’s very much a different world. Even if you’re playing games and practicing every day, that’s two to three hours max. If you want to go 15 miles in a day, you still need to be walking for a minimum of six hours. If you’re taking it easy, or taking breaks, if you’re not rushing… some days we’ll hike for 12 hours.
“It’s such a staggering volume of activity that you know it’s going to affect you unless you work a very physical job,” he said. “Your body does adapt pretty well. I’d say the first three weeks were grueling, bordering torturous. It’s all just how hard you want to push yourself after that.”
“Very quickly you fall into the natural rhythm of the day,” he explained. “You sleep outside, so when it’s dark, you go to bed. You’ll fall asleep at 9 o’clock — that’s referred to as ‘hiker midnight’ — and frequently people wake up at 5 a.m.,” he said.
Within 10 days of his solo through-hike, Garrison met another through-hiker, New Yorker Sarah Floyd, at a shelter along the trail.
“My brother was, coincidentally, driving down to Tennessee to drive Skyline Drive,” Garrison explained. “He called me to see if I can be there by this day. I had pushed for my biggest day at the time — 17 miles. This is maybe 10 days in. I came to a shelter with two people. One was older man who was retired, and one was Sarah.
“We started talking about whatever, talked for an hour or two, and decided to hike the four miles to meet my brother together. We parted our separate ways and then the next day I got in late again, coincidentally at the shelter where she was, with about 25 to 30 people. We just decided to keep the company, and it’s been very nice.”
Along the way, Garrison and Floyd have been able to take in the beauties and sometimes-scary moments in nature.
“We had stopped at this swimming hole. It was a creek right off the road that was cool and lovely. It was a terribly hot day. We decided to stop hiking early that day and camped there. That night, a windstorm came through, and I went to grab a few things we had left to dry on the beach.
“And as I was running up the beach, it got so violent that the tree immediately next to our tent got uprooted and pulled dirt out from under our camping spot. Then, three to six other large trees fell while we were running 30 yards out to the road, as we were carrying our tent and packs. It was pretty nuts. We ended up spending the night under the bridge right next to it, for safety purposes.
“It was definitely an experience to be out in it, not in a permanent structure as opposed to sitting at home thinking, ‘I know I’m safe but I hope a tree doesn’t hit our house,’” he added. “If a tree had hit our ‘house’ then, we would have died. You gain that appreciation for permanent structures and shelter.”
Garrison said that being in the wilderness offers many “intense experiences” that allow people to appreciate nature and the world.
“The trail is pretty tame, with instances of wilderness,” he said. “The first time we saw black bears was very cool. We had just passed by this monument that was dedicated to a hermit, and we looked to the left and saw this mama bear with three cubs, just kind of standing up to look at us and making sure we weren’t doing anything. It was nice... We had been debating whether or not to push on farther that night, and we did and we ended up seeing that. It was just very cool.”
About a month ago, Garrison was able to reach the 1,000-mile mark, which he was extremely excited about.
“Just before coming home, I completed the four-state challenge, where you can start in Virginia, hike through West Virginia in about an hour or so, and 40 miles of Maryland, to do within the remaining 23 hours or so. Once you step foot in Pennsylvania, you’ve hiked through four states in 24 hours. I did 44 miles in just under 19 hours.”
He noted that celebrations along the trail hold a whole new meaning when compared with those at home.
“In Glasgow, Va., we kind of sat around on the Fourth of July and casually drank beers with some other hikers and talked about freedom and how we were all out here having this really cool experience and how nice it was that we could do that. That was probably one of the best Fourth of Julys I’ve ever had, despite being so simple and with minimal fireworks.”
Garrison said he has spent approximately $2,000 so far on his journey along the trail, and he said the cost varies from person to person.
“Some indulgences, like occasionally getting a hotel in town if it’s really terrible weather, or if you’re just so completely gross that you need a shower and a bed and 10 hours of air conditioning before you walk another mile,” he offered.
“It’s hard to say what’s luxurious when you’re sleeping on wooden floors. People can spend upwards of $10,000. It all depends on the experience you want. It’s so common, to the point of being obnoxious — the phrase, ‘Hike your own hike’ — it being your own personal experience. You should be hiking your own hike, because that’s what it’s all about.”
One such indulgence is showering, which Garrison said happens fairly infrequently for him — about once a week.
“You get dirty, for sure. You take it whenever you can get it. It wasn’t so bad when it was cold, because you sweat less and you were more covered, so there was less dirt on your body. But now that it’s very warm every day, there’s nothing you can do,” he said with a laugh.
“Some people bring baby wipes. I met one kid who would use his cooking pot and shower himself next to rivers in that way. We shower whenever it’s available, for sure, and sometimes multiple times when it’s available — generally once a week.
“Occasionally you do go into town, and some towns are very hiker-friendly,” he noted. “Sometimes hostels or campgrounds are there, and they’ll let you shower for $2 or $3, and it’s always worth it. Sometimes you’ll meet people who will invite you into their home, and that’s really cool.”
Many people are keen to give hikers a boost, Garrison said, including some who perform “trail magic” for those hikers who are making their way along the trail.
“There’s also a phenomenon called ‘trail magic,’” he explained, “where ‘trail angels’ or ‘trail magicians’ will come out… You’ll come to a road crossing where there’s a parking lot, and someone will be grilling burgers and hot dogs there, with a cooler full of sodas. Generally, they’re people who hike the trail themselves and know what a big boost it can be. Sometimes they’re not even there. They’ll just leave a cooler a little bit on the trail with a note, ‘Help yourself!’”
According to Garrison, another fun “phenomenon” of the trail is the appropriation of a “trail name.”
“It is a pseudonym you go by, or an alias, while you’re out on the trail,” he explained. “Generally, they are given to you, rather than you choosing them, often with a story or event of something that happened to you on the trail. One guy had a lot of really bad secondhand stuff that it looked like he had gotten at a yard sale. He would always dump it all out, so it was scattered everywhere. And his trail name, accordingly, was ‘Yard Sale.’
“One guy we met who was very keen on these wild onions called ramps, and he would talk your ear off for 30 minutes about how cool they were and how they had this garlicky taste, so he became ‘Rampage.’”
Garrison said that he quickly received his trail name after introducing himself to other hikers.
“At the beginning, I was hiking faster than most people. I was going so quickly that I wasn’t seeing people for more than a day, and they would ask my name, and I would say, ‘I’m from Delaware.’ And, eventually, that just got shortened to ‘Delaware.’ I’m trying to represent the First State.”
As September arrives, Garrison has less than 900 miles to complete and hopes to finish the trail by Oct. 3.
“It’s simple, and at the end of the day you always know what you’re going to do the next day. And there’s always some accomplishment with walking. ‘I’m 15 miles farther than I was.’ You can be really satisfied,” he said. “I originally went in for the physical challenge, and there has been some of that, but now I’m looking at it as an opportunity to decide what I’d like to do next with my life. I’m considering the Navy. When you’re walking all day with little else to do, there’s lots of free time to think.”
Garrison said he would recommend the trail to everyone, whether they are doing a day hike or through-hike, to experience nature in their own way.
“Eat a lot, go at your own pace, and pack light if you can. Most importantly, remember it’s more of a mental challenge than a physical one. It’s more of a marathon, not a sprint. That’s the most important thing — be committed to doing it,” he said.
“It’s a very natural way to live,” he added. “There are a lot distractions in the everyday world, and a lot of those distractions are nice, but on the trail it’s literally sleep, wake up, eat, walk until you need to eat again, and eventually you go back to sleep. You enjoy it, and you see the serenity of nature and enjoy the quiet and the very basic level that you’re operating on. It’s awesome. I’m enjoying it.”