Scott McKenzie (Provided photo)
Every spring thousands of hopeful thru-hikers start lacing up for a 2,000-miler in America’s woods on the Appalachian Trail. Only about one in four actually survive, but 50-year-old Scott McKenzie of Frenchville is one of them.
McKenzie’s thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail was instigated by Bill Bryson, the author of the book, “A Walk in the Woods.” In his entertaining 1998 book, Bryson shares his curiosity and desire to try to hike the Appalachian Trail in its entirety. Bryson’s trail adventure was adapted into a movie that was recently released nationwide.
Before beginning the roughly 2,180-mile journey that passes through 14 states and that only has more than 15,000 hiker-reported historical completions, McKenzie trained by climbing up the steepest hills he could find in the Quehanna Wild area. He also researched the newest backpacking gear.
On March 3 McKenzie laced up his first pair of hiking sneakers and pulled on his backpack to set out on his own Appalachian Trail 2,000-miler. Like most thru-hikers, he began in the springtime at Springer Mountain in Georgia to journey north toward Mount Katahdin in Maine, the state’s highest peak.
The Appalachian Trail is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world. It takes hikers through small towns and farmlands, as well as into the valleys and atop the mountains of the American wilderness in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
McKenzie originally planned on the traditional, northbound thru-hike. Unfortunately, he had to pull out in Pennsylvania in early June for his feet to heal up when he began to have severe stomach problems, and he returned home for a medical evaluation. McKenzie’s trail partner, Franziska from Germany, continued her journey onward.
After consulting with his doctor, McKenzie decided that he wanted to finish the Appalachian Trail. However, he would have to follow a bland diet and limit his daily journey. On June 11 he reunited on the trail with Franziska in Hanover, NH, and together they eyed the summit of Mount Katahdin.
On Facebook after his first day back on the trail, McKenzie shared that he and Franziska had hiked just over eight miles with plans of keeping the next day’s journey comparable in length. “Franzi will keep me in line and make sure I don’t overdo it,” he posted.
In mid- to late-June, McKenzie and Franziska survived Mount Moosilauke, one of the most dangerous parts of the entire trail; the South and North Kinsman Mountains, where they took a “tumble” that left them sore; and the snow-capped Mount Washington.
On June 22 McKenzie posted on Facebook, “The first six miles we did today took us six hours. That’s how tough and dangerous the terrain is.” While taking time off and staying at the White Mountains Hostel, McKenzie was reading the book, “Hiking Through,” about a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
In the book, he posted on Facebook, the author writes: “I’d heard of thru-hikers quitting their trek in the White Mountains, and I’d always been puzzled. How could anyone quit so close to the goal? Now I understood. This was no longer hiking; this was difficult rock climbing, made even more difficult by wet and slippery rocks. Three times during my week in the White Mountains, hikers fell, broke bones, and had to be rescued.”
In his post, McKenzie said the author summed up the White Mountains perfectly. He continued his post, saying he and Franziska had fallen but thankfully didn’t suffer any serious injuries. McKenzie finished that day’s post by noting steep, inclining and declining mountains and the most difficult miles of the trail were ahead of them in Maine.
In another post the same day, McKenzie described that difficult and dangerous terrain. “When we do get to Maine … the first mile is the Mahoosuc Notch, which is one mile of crawling under, around and over boulders that are as large as cars and houses with no direct path.
“…Then a two-mile climb up Mahoosuc Arm [is] an almost vertical upward climb, where you’re grabbing for tree roots, searching for toe holds and clawing for finger holds in the rocks to pull yourself up. Wow, I can’t wait until we get done with those three miles. But Franziska and I will make it!!!”
On June 30 McKenzie and Franziska reached the brutal part of the trail in Maine. While traversing Mahoosuc Notch, he fell through the boulders and initially thought he “snapped” his leg. In the end, McKenzie said it was only bruised, but his shoulder was badly hurt on top of injuries to both elbows and forearms.
Due to injuries from his fall, McKenzie pulled out to let his body heal. When he and Franziska continued their journey they decided to enter the “100 Miles of Wilderness” along the Appalachian Trail on July 4. He posted to family and friends on Facebook, “[There’s] no towns, paved roads, no nothing. Don’t know about cell coverage, so don’t worry if you don’t hear from Franziska and I.”
McKenzie said while in the “100 Miles of Wilderness,” hikers only have what they take in with them. He said it is suggested that hikers take food and supplies for 10 days, and he and Franziska packed enough for seven days, which is exactly how long it took for them to finish this part of the trail.
On July 11 McKenzie and Franziska reached the summit of Mount Katahdin. However, to finish his own thru-hike, McKenzie returned to Hanover, NH on July 16 to hike 530 miles south through Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the part he skipped to reunite with Franziska after he pulled out the first time.
On Aug. 17 McKenzie escaped the rocky terrain of Pennsylvania without any injuries. Days later he traveled 13 hours to Maine to climb his final 170 miles in the mountains that he’d skipped after pulling out the second time due to injuries from his fall. On Aug. 28 McKenzie survived the “tough but beautiful views” to complete all 2,180-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail.
“Maine was the toughest state, the first part with all of those boulders,” said McKenzie. He ranked New Hampshire in second with the “up and down” rock climbing in the White Mountains, which are very slick and dangerous while wet, and then Georgia in third with the rugged mountains that “just keep going up and up.”
He added, “In the White Mountains, sometimes we were getting one mile in per hour. The rocks and inclines are unbelievable. It really puts the mountains around here to shame.
“But the majority of all thru-hikers quit before even making it to the Georgia/North Carolina line. I can understand why; those mountains are just brutal.”
Although stomach problems, injuries and the diverse and often mountainous terrain certainly made for a trying journey, McKenzie had to overcome other adversity, such as the weather, maintaining a food supply, limited water sources and finding shelter while also surviving a run-in with a bear and not getting bitten by rattlesnakes.
On the trail, he sometimes stayed at hostels and owners shared with him that the weather – snow, freezing rain and cold temperatures – was the worst they’d seen in more than 20 years. He said hikers typically have two sets of clothes, one for hiking and another for sleeping in.
“When you get wet, you’re wet for a couple of days before you get dried out,” he said. “You’re soaked and shivering. You sleep in dry clothes but when you get up, you’re putting wet clothes back on.”
During the summer months, McKenzie said there were only a few real hot days. Still he faced drought conditions while hiking in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania. Oftentimes he said the length of a daily journey depended upon where he would find a water source. Thankfully, he said “trail angels” would leave 15-20 jugs of water along the way for hikers.
“When I got up, I’d drink like a camel every morning to completely hydrate myself and then take two, 32-ounce bottles of water with me. I’d re-fill anytime I could and go until I got to my next water source. When I got there, I’d drink like a camel again,” said McKenzie.
Additionally, he said hikers are always facing a calorie deficit due to burning around 6,000 calories daily. He said they survive on a lot of dehydrated meals and sweets and carry two pounds of food for each day until they next plan to re-supply. Any time hikers pass through a town with a buffet-style restaurant, he said they try to load up with about 10,000 calories.
According to him, from March 1 on, 50 to 100 hikers start the Appalachian Trail every day. He said they share three-sided shelters along the trail that sleep six to eight hikers; larger ones with two levels can sleep as many as 20 hikers. “They get you out of the rain and weather, but it is still cold,” he said.
When the weather forecast permitted him, McKenzie would set up his hammock or pitch his tent. In “trail towns,” he said residents were accustomed to hikers passing through and permitted them to sleep on their porch or to camp out in their yard.
Along the trail or at shelters, McKenzie said he became acquainted with other hikers from college kids to the elderly “and everything in between.” Mostly he said trail talk consisted of places they’d passed through, the next closest town, shelter or water source and of course the weather forecast.
However, he only ever knew fellow hikers by their trail names. Among his trail acquaintances were “Bruin,” a hiker who wore a Boston Bruins hat; “Mogley,” which he wasn’t even sure of the correct spelling; and “Croc Rocket,” a hiker who wore Crocs.
McKenzie said some hikers, such as him, have a self-given trail name before they start. Others, he said, acquire one from other hikers once out on the trail. McKenzie said he was known as “Cookie Monster,” as he was eating cookies every day until that trail streak ended after more than two months.
When his thru-hike was still in its infancy, McKenzie met Franziska at a shelter in Georgia. McKenzie, who had been stationed in Germany while in the military, chatted with her in his German that was 27 years old. The next day, McKenzie and Franziska hiked separately but met again.
McKenzie said they shared similar goals for completing the trail and decided to journey the rest of the way to Maine’s highest peak together. He enjoyed learning from his trail partner about rock climbing at the Dragon’s Tooth in Virginia.
He also enjoyed snapping pictures of McAfee Knob and both petting and feeding the wild horses in the Grayson Highlands. However, he described Mount Katahdin, Maine, as the most picturesque part of the Appalachian Trail.
“We went up on an absolutely beautiful day. You could see the jagged and rugged rocks for probably 15 miles,” said McKenzie. The final day, Aug. 28, offered beautiful scenery and a sense of accomplishment. “It had been a long, painful journey.
“I probably fell 20 times the entire hike … When I fell through the boulders in Maine, I thought it would be the end, that I’d be done. I thank my friends and family for supporting me on Facebook, and God for allowing me to finish.”
McKenzie said when he set out on his Appalachian Trail thru-hike, it was to “Walk Off the War,” just as the first thru-hiker, Earl V. Shaffer, did in 1948. But when he finished he re-titled his thru-hike as “A Lesson in Perseverance.”
“Everyone – other hikers – came up to me at the end, saying ‘you really persevered,’” he said. “I thought several times out there that I’d end up quitting and going home. My friends and family back home kept encouraging me to ‘take time, heal and then get back on the trail.’”
McKenzie said he has future plans to hike with Franziska, including around her hometown in Germany next summer. He said they have other hiking trips planned in the United States and abroad.