In the Spring of 2016, Joe Deitzer and his father, Dave, set out to thru hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It had been their dream to do it together and the stars aligned, giving them both the time and flexibility to go for it. After 5 months and 2,190 miles, they crested Katahdin and achieved what many of us dream of. Their time in the woods was truly special. Memories of the people, places and experiences permanently etched in their minds. I met with them on their return, anxious to hear the details and Joe was kind enough to grant Gear Cloud an interview to talk about the trip.
Joe has also become a contributing writer for Gear Cloud where his experience and insight into hiking and camping gear can be shared with our readers. I hope you enjoy the interview…
Hiking the AT is a big commitment of time, how did the trip become a reality for you guys?
I had actually just moved to Colorado and was cooking for a living and getting settled into my new life. My father had spent his whole career as an accountant and owned his own business for the past ten years. One morning he and his business partner were putting together a five year business plan and listed their personal goals along with their business goals. Hiking the AT was at the top of my dads list. At 51 years old he feared his window to do the trip was getting smaller. You can imagine how surprised I was when he called a few months later to tell me he sold his business and asked if I was willing to do the trip with him. In the end, we both looked over that cliff of uncertainty, and jumped.
What kind of preparation did you do to get ready?
The short answer is not much! I actually didn’t do any physical prep before the trip. My dad went on a couple of short hikes and tested boots. In the past, we had only done a few multi-day hiking trips. The longest was three days, so we had some idea of what it was like to be in the woods and deal with discomfort.
I came back to my hometown in Pennsylvania two weeks before the trip in order to plan and prepare. We had some gear which we had accumulated overtime and took two trips to REI in New Jersey to supplement. We didn’t start the trail with all of the best gear, but we had what we needed. Thinking about living outdoors for as long as we did was the hardest thing to grasp. We decided to live in the moment and take it a day at a time. In long run, this was our best weapon to use against the hardship of the trail.
For someone not familiar with the AT, can you give us an idea of the route, mileage, states you passed through? What were the extremes as far as terrain and weather you encountered?
The trail itself extends from Georgia to Maine, following a foot-traffic-only path of 2,190 miles. We passed through fourteen different states, with three different states (West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania) being in a 40 mile reach of each other. The highest elevation we reached was Clingman’s Dome in the Smoky Mountains, where it was a temperate rainforest with damp moss sagging on old pine trees. The Dome itself was 6,644 feet above sea level.
Our lowest elevation was in New York at 124 feet where we experienced oppressive heat and drought. The only water sources were gallons of water placed by the roadside. These “trail angels” probably saved our lives on more than one occasion. The most beautiful section of the trail we would both agree was the White Mountains, where stunning views and unique terrain made everything worth it. The ugliest part of the trail was an EPA Superfund Site in Pennsylvania that extends twenty miles.
We experienced snow, rain, wind, and ice. We hiked up mountains, climbed rocks, and forded streams. There was no telling what mother nature would through at us, but we were prepared for it.
Give us an idea of what your best and worst day on the trail would look like?
My soccer coach once told me that life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent what you make of it. I have never found this truer than while on the trail. My dad and I encountered a three-inch snowfall overnight while camping on top of Roan Mountain in Tennessee. We were cold and our feet were wet, but we found the heavy snowfall on the giant pine trees intoxicatingly beautiful. Some days we suffered heat indexes of one hundred degrees or more, coupled with severe humidity. When it rained, there was no escaping being wet no matter how good our rain gear, and soggy shoes tortured our feet into the following day. These were all things we had to accept and keep from effecting our mood.
My dad said that there were three emotional swings in any given day of hiking. Some days start out terrible and end well, and vice versa. You never really have a day that’s all good or all bad.
We spent a long day hiking in a miserable, oppressive New York heat that sapped our energy. We stopped around four o’clock at a private farm where a man owns a small cabin for hiker’s use. He had an outdoor shower that we both used and changed into clean clothes. Later that night another pair of hikers showed up; two girls with amazing voices that decided to serenade us. Later, another hiker with a Ukulele came through and the three of them played and sang for hours. At some point, two friendly donkeys walked through and let us pet them. We fell asleep that night clean and happy. I will never forget that day.
Probably the worst day I remember was when we split up for the first time on the trail. We had never hiked apart, which is uncommon for hiking partners, so the separation was especially hard. My father battled with shin splints along the trail, and there was a point when he didn’t know if he could go on. He told me to go on ahead of him. While I walked on ahead, it was difficult to imagine finishing the trail without him. Camping by myself for the first time on the trail that night was especially lonely. It turned out well in the end, because in a couple of weeks my father’s shins had healed and he caught up with me.
Did you run into any memorable people along the way?
We met so many characters on the trail. Everyone has a “trail name” which can be assigned to them in multiple ways. We actually never learned the real names of many hikers we grew close to, even Old Timer and Thunder Sharf who we hiked with for an extended period of time. These trail names allow you to be whoever you want to be on the trail and a lot of hikers make the most of it. It can be quite entertaining.
Old Timer was a Vietnam vet in his late sixties, retired from the coal industry. He had a slower pace than us but never failed to catch up by the end of the day. We had many memorable conversations with him and still keep in contact today. Thunder Snarf was a pathologist in his late forties from Vietnam who weighed about one hundred pounds. He was one of the best hikers we met. It was a sight to see him hauling up mountains with a pack on his back that looked bigger than he was. His stories always made me laugh, no matter where we were or what we were doing.
How about wildlife? Any interesting encounters?
By far, the most wildlife we saw was during our time was in Shenandoah National Park. Hunting is off limits within park boundaries, so animals find asylum within the parks borders. Bear encounters are very common here. Sometimes I would see three in a day either rooting through logs, eating leaves up in a tree, or just lying in the sun. They never bothered us but those sightings could make the days a little tense.
The deer were shy, but not always. One morning I was packing up my hammock, turned around, and was surprised by a deer sniffing my back. I could have pet it but it made me uncomfortable, so I told it to shoo instead. We saw the occasional snake, the most dangerous being a copperhead which we got a little too close to in this picture.
Were there any campsites or towns that were especially memorable?
There was a campsite in Northern Maine that my dad and I would agree was particularly special. With so many people thru-hiking it’s uncommon to have a campsite to yourself. We were hiking late on this particular day and the sun was setting as the trail exited the woods onto the gravel beach of a lake. We were planning to continue to the next shelter, but when we witnessed the sun setting over this pristine lake, we had to stop.
My dad pitched his tarp while I made a small fire, and we made dinner while watching the day turn to night under the open sky. When the stars came out, it was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We were in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, so there were no towns for miles. It seemed that there were more stars than sky. My dad and I still look back on that campsite as the most memorable.
Many of the towns were similar; some having a bit more rural charm than others. I think my favorite was Hot Springs, North Carolina. We were stuck there for four days while my father was nursing a shin splint. We stayed at the Sunnybank Inn where there was no wifi and no phone service (gasp). Elmer Hall, the keeper of the Inn, served us delicious vegetarian meals for breakfast and dinner. There was a forest fire in the area, and walking around town at night, it was visible in the mountains. It cast an eerie feeling and was a bit scary.
A person can learn a lot about themselves on a trip like this. Anything you would be willing to share?
I think I re-learned the lesson that if I put my mind to something, I can follow through and accomplish it. Previous to the trail, I had lost direction in life. I think having a vision and working towards it everyday has given me so much confidence to accomplish my goals in everyday life.
You know I must ask some gear related questions. Was there one piece of gear that really shined on your trip? And on the other side, was there a piece that proved to be unnecessary?
There were only a few pieces of gear that lasted the whole trip, one of them being our Jetboil stove. This thing never broke or gave us problems, and we used it A LOT. With many hikers having problems with their PocketRockets and other light-weight options, I thought this piece of gear really stood out.
One of the first pieces of gear I decided to toss was bear mace: not that meetings with bear were altogether uncommon, but the half-pound canister was the easiest thing for me to get rid of. With black bears being a non-aggressive species, as long as I hung my food in a tree at night, I felt safe. I haven’t heard of any hiker carrying mace for more than a couple weeks.
Any gear tips for anyone contemplating hiking the AT?
Do your homework and buy only what you need. Unless you’re planning on going ultralight, it’s not necessary to buy the most expensive options. Always leave some wiggle room in your budget to make changes along the way. A thru-hike is a lengthy endeavor and you don’t want to be stuck with gear that isn’t working for you or that has broken down.
Lastly, what did it feel like to crest Katahdin and kiss that sign after 5 months?
With the experience of the trail behind me, I find this question to be the hardest to explain. I think first it was the relief that once I got off the mountain I didn’t have to hike anymore. Then I was sad because I didn’t have to hike anymore. Then I was scared at the idea of returning home. What would life look like for me now? All these thoughts swirled through my brain while I hiked to the top in the early morning hours of that late September day.
When I got to the sign, it wasn’t some crazy whirlwind of emotion that swept over me. I was proud of myself and my dad, but finishing wasn’t the trip. It was the 2,190 miles, the experiences, the people, the place, the hardships and achievements. Never was the adage more true; it’s not the destination, but the journey. My memories of the AT, and the effect it had on me, will only be measured in my life afterwards.
But, still, I climbed that sign and screamed at the top of my lungs in victory. We had done what we had come to do, and it felt great.