The thru-hikers

Giggles is from Switzerland, while Spartan splits his time between Naples, Florida, and Petoskey, Michigan. But for now, they both call the Appalachian Trail home.

They’re thru-hikers, two of the more than 2,000 people who each year step off from Springer Mountain in Georgia with the goal of walking 2,192 miles to Mount Katahdin in Maine. 

“We’ll see,” said Giggles — a 38-year-old woman whose off-trail name is Julia Dimmler — when asked if she thinks she’ll make it. “I don’t know. Two weeks ago I would have said no, because I’m too slow. My foot, it hurts. And now today my legs were like machines.”

“I could barely keep up,” laughed Spartan, also known as Brian DeForest, 54. 

Evening was falling on the one-month anniversary of Giggles’ April 9 hike start as she and Spartan settled down to camp at Roaring Fork Shelter. They’d been hiking together since Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and were planning to cover the entire 18 miles to Hot Springs the next day, their highest mileage yet. 

Spartan is a retired Army veteran, and Giggles works in customer relationship management for a Swiss culinary company. They’re different people, from different backgrounds, with different reasons for doing the trail, but they’re united by a common desire to reach Mount Katahdin. 

 

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Brian “Spartan” DeForest and Julia “Giggles” Dimmler prepare for their 18-mile walk to Hot Springs.

 

For Spartan, hiking the A.T. has been a dream ever since he retired from the Army in 2014. The timing just hasn’t been right until now — his wife is a traveling nurse, so the logistics involved in moving their fifth-wheel trailer about the country have made it difficult to block out five or six months for hiking. Now, finally, he’s on the trail. 

“There’s always that little segment of time in your mind that you’re like, ‘What am I doing here? What was I thinking?’” he admitted. “But I think for the most part, it’s good.”

The time was right for Giggles, too.

“I broke up from my boyfriend last year, and this was the same time I heard about it,” she said. “I was like, OK, I always wanted to do a longer hike.”

Her main reservations were not having someone to do it with and not being in good enough physical shape, but as she researched the trail she realized that doing it alone wouldn’t be a problem, and that she’d get into shape as she hiked. So, she flew to America and became hiker number 2,158 to register as starting the trail from Georgia.

“I have no apartment, I have nothing at the moment, only my insurance to pay,” said Giggles. “Which is perfect. The perfect moment in life to do it.”

 

The roommates

Living in Boston, Dylan Welch and Mat Todtenkoph, both 26, do a lot of A.T. hiking in the nearby White Mountains. But when they decided to tackle a weeklong section of the trail, they chose the Smokies. 

“The Smokies just looked to be the prettiest section,” said Welch. 

Packing up for their last day of hiking before reaching the end of their hike in Hot Springs, the roommates dedicated some time to doctoring their blistered feet, reflecting that the 110-mile section they chose starting at Fontana Dam may have been a bit ambitious for the time allotted. The trail gains and loses more than 30,000 feet in elevation along that route through the Smokies. 

Their trip didn’t include any resupply stops — Welch and Todtenkoph packed in all the food they ate over the past week, and with one night left to go they were running low, sadly anticipating a morning without breakfast and a dismaying shortage of toilet paper for their last 24 hours on the trail.

Todtenkoph did, however, have three mini Snickers bars left to snack on, which he lined up on the shelter picnic table as a miser counting his gold. Snickers bars aren’t a luxury item, he said: “No, that’s a necessity.”

Despite the hurting feet and overwhelming desire for pizza, Welch and Todtenkoph said they enjoyed their hike, and are hoping to become thru-hikers themselves in a couple years. 

“The thing you miss with day hikes and things like that is the trail culture,” said Welch. “It’s fun to jump in and be part off that for a little bit, even if you don’t do the whole A.T. Every night you meet interesting people, hear interesting stories.”

 

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Calories are a priority for breakfast on the A.T.

 

The flip-flopper

With an ever-increasing number of people hiking the A.T. each year, the trail is often more of a social experience than a solitary one. But that hasn’t been the case for Trigger, a 63-year-old-hiker whose off-trail name is John Dupras. 

“Super solitary,” he said. “Just me, myself and I for the beginning.”

Trigger’s doing what’s known as a flip-flop hike — he started March 1 at the trail’s midpoint in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and is hiking south to Springer Mountain. When he finishes, he’ll go home to northern Virginia for a few days and then return to Harpers Ferry, where he’ll become a northbound hiker headed to Mount Katahdin. 

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has been encouraging flip-flop hikes in recent years to alleviate crowding at the trail southern end. And for Trigger, a flip-flop made sense — his wife has an event in Savannah the weekend of May 31, and he needs to be there. 

“If all goes well and I keep on my schedule, I should get there right about when she can pluck me off the trail,” he said. 

Trigger, a native of the south shore of Boston, speaks with a thick New England accent despite having lived in northern Virginia for the past 16 years. He’s a retired Marine who then went to work for the Transportation Security Administration, based first out of the Pentagon and then out of Dulles. 

“I had a horrific commute that was just eating me alive,” he said. “I was going to work until I was 65, but I said at 63 I’m retiring and then I’m going to focus on doing the trail, and here I am.”

There have been nights of frigid cold and days of unrelenting rain, but Trigger did his research before starting the trail. He knew what he was getting into. And he’s not nostalgic for the commute he left behind. 

“I don’t miss that,” he said. “I like life at the mile-and-a-half, 2 miles an hour that I have now.”

 

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A patch of pink lady slippers, an orchid native to the Appalachians, grows near the trail.

 

The overnighter

It was 6:30 p.m. before I made it to the trailhead, but I almost didn’t get there at all. The workday, as it tends to do, been longer than anticipated, I’d woken up feeling distinctly less than 100 percent, and the sky had remained a demotivating gray all day long. The thought of Netflix and wine in place of hiking and camping was definitely tempting. 

But I had a plan, and I stuck to it, with some modification — Chick-fil-A on the go rather than Mountain House on the trail, and a campsite arrival of 8 p.m. rather than 5 p.m.

I walked the A.T. toward Roaring Fork Shelter under a sky that seemed to have forgotten it had until 8 p.m. to let go of the light, keeping a uniform dimness throughout the hours until the actual setting of the sun. But I was glad I’d come. My dog ran in joyful circles around me, and as I went through the motions of picking out a campsite, setting up a tent and filtering water, the stresses of the world down below slowly drained away. 

By the morning, when the rising sun prompted a latent chorus of birds to come to life in the canopy above my tent, the clouds were gone from both my psyche and the sky. I lay there for a while, listening, before finally unzipping the tent and joining my fellow shelter inhabitants for breakfast. 

For them, the day ahead would be marked in miles of trail, deadlines mandated by sunrises and sunsets rather than by minutes and hours. But for me, it would too soon be time to leave the woods, switch on my phone and get back to civilization. 

Maybe someday I’ll make it to Maine. For now, though, I’ll celebrate the renewed joy that only a night on the trail can impart. 





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