Before His Murder, Ron Sanchez Sought Solace on the AT

17 May

When Ron Sanchez returned from his third tour in Iraq, he was in a self-described “dark place.” Growing up in Garden Grove, California, the 35-year-old combat engineer viewed the Army as a way to a better life. But while in Iraq, Sanchez suffered debilitating injuries to his knees and back. He witnessed casualties in his unit, including some of his close friends. Sanchez told the Oklahoman, for an October 2018 story about a VA recreational-therapy program, that he was discharged with PTSD and major depression in 2011, after 17 years in the military.

Reacclimating to life in Oklahoma City proved harder than he could imagine. Sanchez worried about interacting with other people. Unexpected noises frightened him. He began holing up in his apartment for days at a stretch. The only time he’d go out was for groceries, and he’d do so just late at night, when there was less risk of having to interact with anyone. 

“Before the VA, my health was just going downhill,” Sanchez said in 2018.  

Weeks became months. Months became a year. Sanchez remained in his apartment. He put on weight and sank deeper into a depression. He knew he was getting worse. But some part of him wanted to get better.

Eventually, Sanchez made his way to the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, where therapists helped him put a name to what was happening inside his brain. They gave him coping techniques that made it easier to leave the house. And with their encouragement, Sanchez began walking. At first, it was just a few blocks. Then a mile. Then two. Soon enough, Sanchez was logging upward of 20 miles a day around Oklahoma City. 

He began to feel better. He overhauled his diet. At the encouragement of his therapist, he found a local hiking group through the online social-networking site Meetup. Being outside had always resonated deeply with Sanchez—as a boy, he’d loved fishing and off-roading—but group hiking opened up a new world for him.

Sanchez became an enthusiastic regular, leading trips and geeking out over gear with other members on their online forum. He’d alert them when he found good deals in local discount shops. If it seemed like a campground might fill up, he’d offer to head there a couple days early and claim a space. “He was one of the most wonderful, caring, helpful people out there,” says Megan Crocker, the group’s coordinator. “He was always positive and always the sweetest person to talk to—especially on a grueling hike. Ron was the one who always cheered the rest of us on.”

In late October 2017, the group planned a long weekend of hiking and camping at Buffalo National River, in Arkansas. Brenda Kelley, another group member, got lost driving there and arrived late. By then, most everyone had turned in for the night. But Crocker and Sanchez invited her to hang out with them at the campfire. As they sat, Kelley began worrying aloud that her sleeping bag wouldn’t be warm enough for the chilly night. Without saying a word, Sanchez ducked into his tent and returned with a stack of hand warmers. “They did the trick,” Kelley says. “I was completely toasty. And I was also immediately attracted to Ron.”

The two went on their first date a couple of weeks later—a Veterans Day hike in Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains. They began seeing each other regularly. “He was the best boyfriend,” she says. “He was thoughtful and giving and patient. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that he was mine.”

As their relationship continued to develop, Sanchez became increasingly interested in the idea of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Kelley had made her own attempt in 2002, and she encouraged him. 

Sanchez began watching every YouTube video on long-distance hiking he could find. He bought a food dehydrator and started drying his own fruits and vegetables. And then he found his way to Sandy Bond at the Oklahoma VA, who helped him set short-term goals that would allow him to succeed on the trail. At her recommendation, he joined a veteran’s cycling group that Bond had formed and began crewing on an all-vet dragon-boat-racing team. At regattas, he’d show up with coolers of fruit and bottled water for his teammates. He became involved in an adaptive equestrian program and began assisting other veterans there. 

And he kept hiking.

As plans for his thru-hike came together, Sanchez shared his vision with his care providers at the VA. He agreed to participate in a neurological study tracing how long-distance hiking helped with recovery from PTSD. He looked forward to who he might be when he was finished—and who he might be able to help along the way. He told his cycling buddies he was going on a journey to find himself again.

“Ron was very clear that completing the Appalachian Trail would be a culminating point for him,” says Bond. “Like so many veterans, he saw the trail as a safe place to process his emotions and find the self-efficacy to meet internal challenges.”

Sanchez knew he wanted to take his time on the trail. He wanted solitude and space to think. And so, just after the New Year, Sanchez and Kelley packed up her aging dog and traveled the nearly 900 miles to Springer Mountain, Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. On January 19, they spent a freezing night at Amicalola Falls State Park and then hiked the approach trail leading up the snow-covered mountain. Kelley spent another night with him alone at the Springer Mountain shelter before returning to Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, Sanchez pressed up the trail. The weather was miserable for his first couple of weeks, and he’d text Kelley and Bond photos of ice-covered trees or gales so fierce he could lean into the wind with his full body weight. He told them it was hard going—that conditions were harsher than he imagined. “But that harshness was part of what he went out to seek,” says Kelley. “He was thankful that he got to experience that.”

A couple weeks into his hike, Sanchez settled on his trail name: Engineer. He thought it was a good moniker to represent him; it was unassuming, basic, and most of all, true. 

But that’s not how it works on the Appalachian Trail, where fellow hikers dub one another with symbolic names based on traits and habits they observe. Leave your gear all over the place, and you’ll get the title Yardsale. Eat jerky for breakfast and you’ll wind up with something like Beefstick. When Sanchez told a father-daughter hiking duo about his time in Iraq, they came up with their own name for him: Stronghold. He resisted it—he worried it made him seem like a braggart, like he thought he was a badass. But other hikers liked it. And so the name stuck.

In early March, about a hundred miles into his hike, Stronghold’s knees began bothering him. He got off the trail in Franklin, North Carolina, and made his way to the Gooder Grove Adventure Hostel. There, he befriended hostel owner Colin “Zen” Gooder, a former thru-hiker himself. Sanchez said he needed a break to heal up. Gooder offered free board in exchange for some work around the hostel.

Sanchez spent two weeks there, resting his knees and trying to get back on track. He was discouraged about his injuries and wondering if he could go on. Zen told him about his own challenges. He suggested that Stronghold just needed to rest for a while and then he’d be able to continue.

So Stronghold stuck around and helped Gooder turn over rooms and do laundry. He started looking after the hostel when Zen needed to shuttle other hikers around. Along the way, they became good friends.

“He was the sweetest, most compassionate hiker I have met on the trail,” says Gooder. “Rarely have I met a more genuine person. He was a good soul.”

And Sanchez was clearly dialed in as a hiker. He showed Gooder how he had made some of his own gear, how he’d employed military surplus and medical supplies to get his pack superefficient and superlight. When he left the hostel, he promised Gooder he’d return when they could spend more time together.

Sanchez made it as far as Damascus, Virginia—about 466 miles—before deciding to call it quits in mid-April. He phoned Kelley and told her he needed to come home. She made the round-trip to pick him up and bring him back to Oklahoma. He told her he thought the trail might be too much for him, that he was feeling lonely and that the time inside his own head was really hard. She listened and said there was no shame in quitting.

But after five days in Oklahoma, Sanchez told her he wanted to return. “That’s the thing about the Appalachian Trail,” says Kelley. “It has that draw. The trail always pulls you back.”

Sanchez decided that, before getting back on trail, he’d need to get grounded again. He spent time with his therapists at the VA. He went for a few hikes with the Meetup group, where he was very frank about the challenges he had been experiencing. Still, he said, he knew he wanted to finish.

Kelley drove Sanchez back to Damascus in early May. Stronghold spent a few nights at a hostel there, gearing up to get back on the trail. There he met Bob Walker, a section hiker. The two shared a bunk room alone together that first night. Walker says he was initially surprised by how candid Sanchez was about the obstacles he had overcome. “He definitely saw himself as wanting to be an example,” he says. “He thought that if he was open about the trouble he had gone through, that someone else out there who had had difficulties might see that there was a way to get past it.”

The two teamed up with a few other hikers back on trail. Sanchez, they say, was the kind of guy who would rush ahead to hold a door for you at a resupply store or who made sure you got the best spot to sleep in a shelter. They spent their last night together on May 9. Sanchez told the group he was done with shelters for a while—he wanted to start tenting on the trail.

The next day, a Friday, was gorgeous, sunny, with temperatures in the seventies. By then Stronghold had made his way to Jefferson National Forest. He texted Kelley, telling her about the birds he’d heard that morning—a thrush, he said, and one that seemed to sing “drink-your-tea, drink-your-tea.” Later he texted again to say he’d remembered the name of that bird, a towhee. As the day went on, he spammed her with photos of wildflowers, asking her to identify each one.

“He was so happy to be back on the trail,” says Kelley. “He loved how everything was so green and alive compared to the browns and grays he was used to in the first part of his hike.” He told Kelley and Bond that he was feeling more confident than ever that he could finish his thru-hike.

It’s still not entirely clear what happened later that night. What we do know is that James Jordan, who had been arrested in April in conjunction with a series of complaints from other hikers, began harassing Sanchez and the small group of backpackers with whom he had been hiking that day. We know Jordan threatened them that night after they had retired to their individual tents, screaming that he would “pour gasoline on their tents and burn them to death.”

We also know that the group decided the safest thing to do at that point was to pack and up and move elsewhere, even though by then it was after midnight. We know Jordan approached them as they were collecting their gear, this time brandishing a large knife. Sanchez managed to push out an emergency SOS call before the attack escalated.

His family and friends all agree that Sanchez would have done everything he could to have calmed Jordan. And that if attempts to de-escalate the situation didn’t work, he would have done everything he could to help the other hikers. “With all his military service, Ron had already come to grips with the idea of sacrifice,” says Gooder. “If God needed someone to step up, it would have been Ron.”

Sanchez was fatally stabbed. He died of his injuries in the early morning hours of Saturday, May 11. He was 43 years old. He leaves behind a grieving family in California, friends across the country, and a trail community that had grown to love him.

This weekend, at the annual Trail Days in Damascus, hundreds of hikers plan to honor him with a candlelit memorial and bonfire. Back in Oklahoma, Sandy Bond and the veterans in Sanchez’s cycling group are already trying to figure out how they can complete Stronghold’s thru-hike for him. It’s the least they can do, she says.

“Ron was a hero in war. He was a hero at the VA. And he died a hero on the trail,” she says.

Harassment Led to Murder on the Appalachian Trail

13 May

James L. Jordan, 30, of West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, appeared in federal court Monday, where he was charged with murder and assault with intent to commit murder after a bloody attack early Saturday morning on the Appalachian Trail left one hiker dead and another hospitalized. A judge ordered Jordan be held in custody pending a psychiatric evaluation.

According to the criminal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, the incident began when Jordan approached a group of four hikers (court filings do not indicate how the four were connected) somewhere in Jefferson National Forest in western Virginia on Friday evening. 

In the court documents, the hikers said that Jordan was “acting disturbed and unstable, and was playing his guitar and singing.” Later that night, the four set up camp a few miles from where the first encounter occured, in Wythe County, Virginia. Jordan appeared and began threatening the hikers in their shelters, saying that he was going to “pour gasoline on their tents and burn them to death.” At that point, the four hikers decided to relocate their campsites. Jordan then confronted them with a knife. Two of the hikers ran north on the trail to escape. They called 911 at 2:30 A.M., saying that they were being chased by a man with a knife.

Allegedly, Jordan eventually gave up the chase and returned to the campsite, near Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. He then reportedly began yelling at the two remaining hikers, a man and a woman. A verbal altercation occurred between Jordan and the male hiker, who the FBI identified on Tuesday as 43-year-old Richard S. Sanchez Jr., of Oklahoma. Sanchez made an emergency call from his cell phone. Jordan then began stabbing him in the upper part of his body as the female hiker, who has not been identified, looked on. 

According to the affidavit, when she saw her male companion fall to the ground, the female hiker attempted to run away. Jordan chased after her. As he caught up to her, the female hiker raised her arms in surrender. Jordan then began stabbing her. She suffered several stab wounds before falling down and playing dead. Jordan then left and returned to the campsite, according to authorities.  

After Jordan left, the female hiker got up and continued to run down the trail, eventually coming upon a duo who were camping just off the trail. These two backpackers then helped the female victim hike six more miles to a trailhead, where they called 911. The wounded hiker was transported to a nearby medical center in Bristol, Tennessee, where she is recovering from her injuries. 

Jordan, meanwhile, made his way back down the trail and approached another pair of backpackers who were asleep in their tent, shouting at them that he needed a flashlight.

“They were real reluctant to just talk to him. They thought it was a little unusual,” said Wythe County sheriff Keith Dunagan at a press briefing on Sunday. “They didn’t even see the person, and luckily they didn’t come out of the tent.”

Using pings from a nearby cell-phone tower, authorities were able to ascertain the approximate location of the first stabbing. The tactical team of the Wythe County Sheriff’s Office then began the four-mile hike to the crime scene. At 6:14 on Saturday morning, the team arrived at the campsite where the first attack occurred. There it found Sanchez's body, who died from his injuries, along with a dog which then led the team to the suspect. The deputies found blood on Jordan’s clothes and arrested him.

“We had our whole tac team up there, so he wisely surrendered himself,” said Dunagan.

According to the court documents, the tactical team also discovered a large knife, believed to be the murder weapon, in close proximity to the victim’s body.

Both the female stabbing victim and the two hikers who fled from Jordan identified him as the attacker. The sheriff’s department, working in concert with the Virginia State Police, closed approximately 16 miles of trail to complete a crime-scene investigation. That section of the trail was reopened on Sunday.

Because the Appalachian Trail is administered by the National Park Service, the FBI has the ultimate jurisdiction over crimes committed there. Dee Rybiski, a spokesperson for the FBI field office in Richmond, Virginia, confirmed by phone on Monday that that office’s Evidence Response Unit was gathering evidence on the trail.

Jordan, who gave himself the trail name “Sovereign,” has been a known nuisance on the trail for several months. In mid-April, he allegedly threatened several hikers at a shelter in Tennessee. When the hikers arrived at a hostel a day or so later, they reported the incident to Mike Hensley, sherriff of Unicoi County, Tennessee, who interviewed them late that night.

“We knew there was trouble down here with this boy,” Hensley told me by phone on Monday. “What really got my attention was that one of the hikers said he told them, ‘It’s going to be a bad day for hikers on the trail.’” Upon hearing that, Hensley says he immediately deployed deputies, but they were unable to locate Jordan. Authorities in North Carolina observed him a day or so later, but there was no warrant for his arrest, so they did not detain him.

According to Hensley, hikers observed Jordan behaving strangely at a trailhead on April 21, asking thru-hikers for the password needed to get on the trail. Then, on April 22, Jordan appeared at a road crossing where trail angels were handing out food to thru-hikers. Jordan initiated a verbal argument with some of the backpackers there, who also alerted authorities. He was apprehended with a fake ID, marijuana, and other drug paraphernalia. He was also carrying a 17-inch survival knife. That knife is being held in the evidence room at the Unicoi Sheriff’s Office. It’s unclear when or where he purchased the knife used to kill the hiker this weekend.

According to Hensley, none of the hikers who had been assaulted by Jordan in the April incident were willing to press charges or testify in court, so Jordan was arrested only for the fake ID and drug charges. He pled guilty and was ordered to stay off the trail.

“I done all I could do,” says Hensley. “The only thing I could do is go with the charges I had. I knew this guy was a serious problem.” But news of his threatening behavior made its way up the trail, as reports of “Sovereign” harassing other hikers continued.

Matthew “Odie” Norman, a well-known former AT thru-hiker and founder of the Hiker’s Yearbook (a yearly record of hikers on the trail), encountered Jordan on May 2 at a trailhead near Tennessee’s Roan Mountain State Park. Norman recognized Jordan from his arrest photo, which had been widely circulated in the trail community, and invited Jordan to dinner.

“We all knew about his violent interactions by then,” Norman told me by phone on Monday from a motel near Abingdon, Virginia, where the FBI has housed him and four other witnesses to Jordan’s crime. “My intention was to get him off the trail for his own safety and the safety of other hikers.”

Norman says that, over dinner, Jordan told him that hikers—who Jordan called “the mountain people”—were being threatened by “infiltrators who were trying to steal their instruments” and that Jordan was remaining on the trail in order to protect the “mountain people” from harm.

According to Norman, Jordan also said that he had family in Maryland. Norman offered to buy him a Greyhound bus ticket there, and Jordan accepted. The two, along with Jordan’s dog, traveled 90 miles to Johnston City, Tennessee, to put him on the bus.

“I didn’t want to put him in anywhere near a trail town,” says Norman.

After dinner, Norman says Jordan and his dog (who was wearing a service-animal harness) spent a night in a Tennessee motel. On May 3, Jordan boarded a northbound bus. But apparently he and his dog disembarked at the next stop.

On May 5, backpackers reported negative encounters with Jordan in and around Shenandoah National Park.

Unlike previous cases of hikers being attacked or killed on the Appalachian Trail, one thing that appears to distinguish this one is that it was preceded by six weeks of complaints about Jordan’s behavior. On Monday, hikers took to social-media sites, wondering why more had not been done—particularly given the number of thru-hikers in Virginia this time of year.

Brian King, the publisher at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and management of the trail), says that the ATC was well aware of the recurring complaints about Jordan and had been urging hikers to contact local authorities or call 911. The organization had also asked its ridge runners (people located along the trail to assist and answer questions) to alert hikers to possible encounters with Jordan.

“The threats that Jordan was making were very much on our radar,” says King.

Hikers I spoke with said they did not see any warnings posted or any other alerts about potential violence in the region. The National Park Service referred all questions to the FBI, which did not know if any warnings had been posted, since that would have taken place before the crime.

Norman says he and other hikers still want an answer as to why Jordan was allowed to remain on the trail.

“We’re in absolute shock and disappointed that there was nothing more that could have been done,” says Norman. 

The Ultimate Guide for Beginner Backpackers

25 Apr

Each year about 4,000 backpackers attempt thru-hikes on the nation’s big three footpaths: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails. Each is a massive commitment, with gear bills in the thousands of dollars and up to six months away from work.

But backpacking doesn’t have to be a months-long, bank-account-draining undertaking. For many people, the real appeal of backpacking is the quiet remoteness it affords, a chance to step away from the rat race and experience some real solitude. With a little bit of planning and creative preparation, you can easily have the time of your life out there, even if this is your first overnight sojourn.

Safety First

As great as backpacking is, it also comes with certain risks. It’s your job to minimize them with some basic precautions:

  • Assume that you’re not going to have cell-phone reception for at least part of your hike. That means if you get lost (and even the best hikers do), it’s going to be up to you to get yourself found. Always make sure an emergency contact is aware of your intended itinerary, when you plan to return, what vehicle you’ll be driving, and who is going with you.
  • Invest in a decent compass and topo maps of your hiking destination, and know how to use both. Many major gear outfitters and regional chapters of Orienteering USA offer map and compass courses for new users that usually cost less than $100. If you can’t get to one of these locations, check out the Appalachian Mountain Club’s introduction to navigation or this video from REI.

  • If you have the cash to spare, consider investing in a personal locator beacon (usually a few hundred dollars), which will allow you to send your exact location and/or an emergency distress call when there’s no cell reception.
  • And be sure to study this guide from the U.S. Forest Service on what to do if you do get lost or find yourself in distress: it’s chock-full of great tips on how to keep it together when all else fails.

Keep It Simple

On the Trail

State and national parks can be great places for beginners: their trails are usually well marked, and their websites offer user-friendly guidelines for new and experienced hikers alike. For first trips, Warren Doyle, director of the Appalachian Trail Institute, who has been educating hikers for over 45 years, recommends staying close to home and restricting initial outings to easily accessible and well-indicated trails. Look for routes with low mileage and little in the way of difficult terrain, like steep elevation gains and losses or tricky footing that you might find with boulders, loose rock, or even a rat’s nest of roots. “Be modest in your expectations,” Doyle advises. “This isn’t about completing mileage. It’s about simplicity and the willingness to step away from society’s cradle. You can do that as easily in five miles as you can 500.” Websites like AllTrails and Trail Finder offer databases that can be searched by zip code or geography, and regional trail conservancies are also great resources.

Searching for a Campsite

“Don’t be afraid to set up camp after just a few miles on your first day, especially if you’re already tired,” Doyle says. Also consider using this camp as the base for your weekend adventures. For weekend hikes, this might mean hiking in and establishing a base camp on Friday night, which then allows you to day-hike on Saturday with a much smaller pack and return to your tent and sleeping bag that evening. There’s also no harm in using the hostel-hut systems at places like High Sierra Camps in California or White Mountain Huts in New Hampshire. But if you want the full backpacking experience, look for loops with designated camping areas or even established shelters (which often also come with water sources nearby).

Before You Buy

Jennifer Pharr Davis, author of The Pursuit of Endurancehiking record holder, and owner of the Blue Ridge Hiking Company, in Ashville, North Carolina, recommends using loaner hiking gear before investing in your own goods. “It’s hard to know what you need without a frame of reference,” she says. “By borrowing or renting gear, you can decide what you love, like, dislike, or can’t stand about certain products.” REI rents out gear, including backpacks and camp stoves, but you should check with your local store for a complete list of available gear. Or, for $92 per day, startup CampCrate will mail you a complete setup, including a sleeping bag, tent, water filter, and headlamp. 

The Essentials

Once you’re ready to invest in your own gear, you need to determine where and how you’re going to regularly hike—different climates and trip lengths will call for different gear. Backpacks come in a variety of sizes, and most are measured in liters; you can probably get away with a backpack in the 50-to-60-liter range for a trip less than four days. Many sleeping bags are labeled by the minimum temperature an average sleeper will be comfortable; a compressible 20-degree bag will work for many people for three seasons. And while some prefer crawling into a tent at night, others prefer to sleep in a bivy sack or hammock.

Other essential items include a basic first-aid kit, activity-specific items like sunscreen, bug spray, moleskin or duct table for blisters, and a Mylar emergency heat blanket (which can also serve as a great signal for search and rescue planes in the event you get really lost). A reliable headlamp with fresh batteries is also a must, as is a whistle, a waterproof lighter or matches, and a collapsible knife or multitool.

For a comprehensive list of recommended equipment, check out the National Outdoor Leadership School’s basic gear list or Outside’s list of backpacking essentials.

Pack Right

When it comes to packing these essentials, play to the engineering of the pack itself. Modern-day backpacks are designed with waist belts that distribute the weight of a pack to your hips and lower body, where our real core strength lies. Keep heavy items, like reserve water, heating fuel, and food, low in the main pouch of the pack, and place light items, like a down coat or sleeping bag, higher in the back. The most essential items, like maps, snacks, a cell phone, and at least one water bottle, should be kept in an external pocket where they can easily be reached.

Practice Makes Perfect

At Davis’s store, mornings are by appointment only so that backpackers can receive one-on-one attention from employees trained to help customers find the right size backpack and make sure it’s properly fitted. Even if that kind of individualized treatment isn’t available where you live, find an outfitter that will take the time to show you how to use items like a water purifier, camp stove, tent, and rain fly. Practice using them long before you’ve hit the road. There’s nothing like getting stuck outside in a deluge to make you consider another hobby.

Hit the Gym Before the Trail

Even the most thoughtfully packed backpack is going to add extra weight and strain to your body. Couple that with the repetitive motion of hiking and you’re going to tax your body in new (and sometimes exhausting) ways.

To make sure that body is trail ready, personal trainer and competitive ultramarathoner Crystal Seaver recommends considering a workout strategy that leads with basic cardiovascular conditioning. “Before you even add weight to the mix, start spending some real time on your feet,” Seaver says.

After that, you’ll need to train your body for the unique demands of hiking with specific exercises. Building core strength will help keep you stabilized on variable terrain; back and upper-body strength will help you shoulder that pack. To achieve both, Seaver recommends these five exercises. Try for ten reps of each, making sure to focus on controlled movement and good form.

Step-Ups

(Emily Reed)
(Emily Reed)

Lunges

(Emily Reed)
(Emily Reed)

Single-Leg Deadlifts

(Emily Reed)
(Emily Reed)

Downward-Dog Holds

(Emily Reed)
(Emily Reed)

Push-ups—Regular or Modified

(Emily Reed)
(Emily Reed)

(Emily Reed)
(Emily Reed)

Consider Your Fuel 

Adventure
(Justin Mullet/Stocksy)

When planning meals, think first about what and how you actually like to eat, and then add a little bit to that. Backcountry cooking can be a blast and even gourmet—but only if you have the time and patience to pull it off. And although dehydrated meals are super easy, they are also expensive.

Claudia Carberry, a registered dietician and Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, recommends starting with easy enhancements to supermarket meals. For breakfast, she’ll add peanut butter or Nutella to instant oatmeal and wash it down with an instant coffee. Lunches are almost always variations on wraps—there are endless combinations to be had with hummus, a good hard cheese, and some salami. Carberry’s preferred dinners start with boxed rice or pasta (think Annie’s mac and cheese or Near East’s rice pilaf), to which she’ll add pouches of tuna or precooked chicken. Umami goes a long way to making food taste great, so consider bringing along small bags of sun-dried tomatoes, olives, or freeze-dried mushrooms for some zing. Travel-size condiments like sriracha or flavored salts can add a welcome zip of flavor to the mix as well. “It’s a way less expensive way to eat,” says Carberry, “and you’re still ultimately just boiling a pot of water.”

Carberry advises hikers putting in light to moderate effort to add an extra 500 to 1,000 calories to their daily intake. Spreading out those calories with regular snacks is a great way to keep from bonking. Energy bars are easy, as is the omnipresent trail mix. And when it comes to hydration, Carberry says she tends to skip energy drinks or hydration powders in favor of water. “If you’re drinking the recommended daily amount”—at least 64 ounces, with more for cooking—“and eating adequately, hydration shouldn’t be a problem,” she says.

Take Only Photographs, Leave Only Footprints

We take to the trail because it is wild and often pristine. But it doesn’t take much to destroy that beauty altogether. That’s one reason why backpacking is defined by Leave No Trace ethics, and it’s essential you know how to follow it. Hike only on designated paths. Whenever possible, camp only on designated sites. Light fires only in established fire rings (or even better, don’t light one at all). Clean up every campsite before you leave, even if the trash isn’t yours, and leave the rest of the ecosystem as you found it.  

The Nitty-Gritty

With few exceptions, any trail should always be considered carry in, carry out. That includes obvious stuff like wrappers and empty canisters, but it also includes leftover food, water used for cleaning, toilet paper, and (let’s just get this out there) your own poop. If the landscape allows for it, you can opt to bury your organic waste in a cathole, so long as it is at least six inches deep and 200 feet away from any water source. If that’s not an option, you’re going to need to invest in a portable toilet kitthough on more than one occasion, I’ve successfully used pet-store poo bags to surprisingly good ends. To avoid lugging excess stinky trash, many female hikers will use a dedicated pee rag (often a bandana kept in a Ziploc bag) and a menstrual cup. To further cut down on what you need to pack out, combine meal ingredients into single bags and favor bulk-food items, especially those that can be stashed in resealable pouches. Resealable freezer bags make for great garbage-disposal units on the trail.

If any of these rules feel confusing, stick to this basic mantra: the woods do not belong to me. If that doesn’t work, try this one: I will not be a jackass. Got it? Good. Now get outside. 

Last Year’s Thru-Hiking FKTs Were Out of Control

29 Jan

This past year, hikers and trail runners set 346 fastest known time records in North America alone. Some did so on the continent’s longest and most difficult footpaths, like the Appalachian and John Muir Trails; others set records on local routes just a few miles long. Each one was undeniably impressive. But only two were deemed the Fastest Known Times of the Year (FKTOY) by a jury of FKT holders and experts in the field put together by fastestknowntime.com.

For many, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Karel Sabbe would be awarded the male FKTOY for his herculean showing on the AT. The 28-year-old Belgian dentist and relative newcomer to the world of ultra-running did what many people thought was impossible: he not only bested Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy’s seemingly unbeatable 2017 record, but he did so by four full days. Sabbe’s FKT time stands at 41 days, 7 hours, and 39 minutes. He ran through some particularly awful weather in the White Mountains and was up before dawn every day, finishing his miles before sunset.

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Karel Sabbe (Joren Biebuyck)

“I don’t think anyone is surprised Karel was awarded the men’s FKTOY,” says Peter Bakwin, cofounder of fastestknowntime.com and widely considered one of the most influential voices in the sport. “The Appalachian Trail FKT has been a hotly contended record for a long time, but bringing the standing record down by ten percent took Sabbe’s accomplishment to an all new level. People still can’t believe how much time he took off. He’s changed the game forever.”

Less well known but just as badass was the record set by Alyssa Godesky on Vermont’s 273-mile Long Trail. The 33-year-old is best known as a professional triathlete. She’s competed in more than 30 Ironman competitions and won more than a few. But she got her start as an ultrarunner. Pursuing a record wasn’t on her radar until she saw the 2014 documentary Finding Traction, which narrates the FKT set on the Long Trail in 2013 by legendary runner Nikki Kimball, a multi-year recipient of the USATF’s Ultrarunner of the Year award.

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Alyssa Godesky (Emily Cocks)

That film, says Godesky, sparked a newfound obsession in her with FKTs. She began studying the leader boards, spellbound by the accumulating records.

“I was fascinated by all of them, but I kept going back to the Long Trail: season after season, no one was taking a stab at the women’s supported record there,” she told me by phone from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia.  

Meanwhile, she says, her training as a professional triathlete had started to feel a little stale. “I needed something new and different to get excited about,” she says. “The Long Trail checked all the boxes: just the right amount of distance, just the right amount of skill and punishment required.”  Figuring out how to top a seemingly unbeatable time became “the best kind of puzzle,” she says. “It was a mixture of fascination and problem solving, thinking about how I could improve upon a record set by such an established name in the sport.”

It took Godesky 5 days, 2 hours, and 37 minutes—a full five hours faster than Kimball. Godesky estimates that she slept less than 20 hours throughout the ordeal. For days afterwards, she was hobbled by swollen feet and would awake out of a dead sleep screaming from nightmares about being lost or injured on the trail.

Both Godesky and Sabbe set supported FKTs—they were assisted by crew members who helped with pacing, planning, and everything from food to medical needs. The logistics involved, says Sabbe, became a big part of the record itself.

“There’s a very big mental aspect to it, and then there’s the whole unique experience of the interaction with the crew and the length of the experience,” he told Buzz Burrell in a Fastest Known Time podcast late last year.

Burrell, who cofounded fastestknowntime.com with Bakwin, created the FKTOY awards three years ago as a way to bring more attention to the sport and to acknowledge the incredible effort that goes into setting one. Each year, a jury of about 20 past FKT holders and experts in the FKT world are assembled to rank that year’s records. The panel spans gender, generations, and geographic location, and its members are asked to rank an FKT based on criteria, including difficulty of a route, the amount of time by which a record is reduced, and the length of time a record had stood previously. Five male and female finalists make the official end-of-year list, along with some honorable mentions.

Winners receive no prize—not even a certificate—but that, contends Burrell, is by design. “What this is really about is the respect of one’s peers,” he says.

That, say Godesky and Sabbe, is what makes the award invaluable.

“A record on the AT doesn’t come from nothing,” Sabbe says. “It’s a year of training a hell of a lot and finding a way to make it happen. There’s a lot of time and effort going into it. To realize that the people from the FKT community realize that means a lot.”

Godesky agrees: “It’s really great to have that kind of validation. Receiving an FKTOY is like having the people you respect the most tell you that you’re legit. And if that gets other people outside and on some of these amazing historic trails, then we’re pretty much all winning.”

The CDT Is Changing the Face of This Western Town

19 Dec

No one can say for certain how many people live in Atlantic City, Wyoming. The weathered wooden sign on the edge of the unincorporated town reads “Population: About 57.” The 2010 federal census puts that number at 37, but then again, Atlantic City residents aren’t the kind of people who like to be counted. This gulch community, which sits in the shadow of the Continental Divide, has been a loose confederacy of outlaws since its founding in 1867, at the height of the western gold rush.

Once upon a time, Atlantic City boasted the region’s only brewery and dance hall, along with a string of blacksmith shops, saloons, and livery stables. But then the gold veins dried up and the barons shuttered their mines. Businesses were next, with owners boarding up their storefronts and moving to more lucrative regions. Their employees and customers soon followed.

By 1900, the population of Atlantic City had dropped to just a handful. In the decades that followed, it sputtered upward, gradually attracting migrants in search of privacy and personal liberty.

Today, those values continue to unite the few dozen full-time residents. Make your way down the one gravel road running in and out of town, and you’ll find dusty lawns festooned with handmade signs condemning elected officials. Grannies at Atlantic City Mercantile proudly display sidearms and sleeve tattoos. Ranchers ride their four-wheelers in Stetsons and spurs. They drink red beer—half tomato juice, half Budweiser—and nosh on cooked bull testicles, all without an ounce of irony.

These residents are proud of their lack of cell service and absence of public officials. They delight in the fact that the nearest amenities or law enforcement are an hour away in the town of Lander, that most guidebooks list their little hamlet as one of Wyoming’s famed ghost towns.

But now Atlantic City is having something of a resurgence as it’s becoming a hub for hikers and cyclists on the Continental Divide Trail. This past season, close to 400 thru-hikers made their way up and down the 3,100-mile path, along with mountain bikers, equestrians, and even a few unicyclists. That pales in comparison to the thousands of backpackers on more populated National Scenic Trails like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest. Still, it’s a huge increase for the third—and longest—prong in hiking’s Triple Crown. (In 1978, three individuals completed the trail; five years ago, that number had grown to just 35.) The surge means both big and unexpected business for otherwise forgotten communities like Atlantic City.

Take the Miner’s Grubstake and Dredge Saloon, for instance, one of only two bars and restaurants in town. Laurel Nelson and her husband, Dale Anderson, purchased the spot, whose motto is “suck ’em up and get the fuck out,” in 2009. Neither Nelson nor Anderson had a background in food service—he worked as a prison electrician; she was a Harley-riding hospice nurse from Columbia, California. But they took a beverage management course and carved out a successful routine for themselves, with the taciturn Dale slinging crab cakes and beef chimichangas in the kitchen and Laurel holding court at the bar, a pack of Marlboros usually nearby, as she chats up locals and the occasional snowmobiler.

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Laurel Nelson, co-owner of Miner's Grubstake and Dredge Saloon, with two thru-hikers. (Kathryn Miles)

Back then, hikers were what Nelson calls “a real curiosity,” with their ultralight packs and stanky polypro. Atlantic City residents were hesitant to give them hitches into town, and they’d come up short when asked for weird hiking supplies like baby wipes and squeezable chia pouches.

As the CDT presence began to increase, Nelson—who also serves as the town’s unofficial mayor—saw an opportunity. She began encouraging hikers to ship drop boxes to themselves at the Grubstake, offered up beds for rent in a bunkhouse ($20 off if you’re willing to do your own sheets), and erected a teepee for folks who wanted to sleep outside. She carved out one corner of the saloon to serve as a resupply shop and called it the Crazy Lady Cantina. She began making weekly trips to the nearest Walmart, where she’d buy everything from tampons and bug spray to powdered coconut milk and ramen (lots and lots of ramen), which she’d sell to hikers at a small markup. Meanwhile, she and Dale learned to anticipate the food whims of hungry hikers and cyclists, replacing a couple of Bud taps with IPAs from local microbreweries. After watching one hiker inhale a dozen corn dogs and a stick of butter in a single setting, Dale began keeping a crate of both in stock. Ditto for pints of ice cream and avocados and all the other luxuries not to be had on the trail.

It’s a hard balance to master in terms of timing. The hiking bubble lasts only about six weeks a year, from early July to mid-August. On one day, ten hikers may pass through. Another day, not one. Late-season stragglers continue to make their way through sometimes into October for as long as the snow allows.

Anticipating what they’re going to want when they arrive is even trickier. Still incomplete, the CDT remains one of the most rustic and wild of our nation’s scenic trails. There’s still no official guidebook, no list of helpful hostels or reviews of restaurants. News travels the old-fashioned way: through a game of telephone between hikers. Serve a chef’s salad special on a Wednesday, say, and hikers will be devastated if it’s not available a week later. So Dale started catering his menu accordingly and listened as tired backpackers fantasized about dream food. Instead of brined salmon and crab cakes, he started cooking half-pound burgers stuffed with bacon, cheese, and jalapeños and breakfast burritos bigger than a steer’s head.

When news began to spread that you could also have a hot foot soak with your meal, Nelson had to begin keeping huge bags of Epsom salt and peppermint oil in stock as well. She became an expert at lancing blisters and applying Betadine.

“They come in starving and beat up,” she says. “And some of these hikers don’t look like they’re really equipped to do this. My job is to patch them up and get them back on the trail.”

Sometimes that means loaning a hiker her personal four-wheeler so they can make the six-mile trip to the nearest post office. Other times it’s taking a pregnant hiker to Lander for blood work or wrapping up a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at midnight. Nelson says she kind of loves that, too.

“I’ve always been in medicine, which means I’ve always taken care of people,” Nelson says. “And it only take a couple of hours before these hikers start to feel like family. Their arrival is the highlight of the year for me.”

On the other side of town, Bill Moore and his wife, Carmela, have carved out their own niche. Moore owns Wild Bill’s Gun and Ammo. Located in the basement of his two-story log home, the shop offers everything from antique camel guns to handmade knives, along with big canisters of gas and kerosene. On most days, a few locals can be found there, leaning against their pickup trucks, talking about coon hunting and coyote traps. A few years ago, hikers started approaching them to ask if anyone had a room for rent. So the Moores opened Wild Bill’s Bed and Breakfast, a series of small cabins with double occupancy. Bill oversaw construction; Carmela handled decorations. “I always tell Bill, the key word has got to be cute,” Carmela told me inside a cabin tricked out in bear-themed flannel. He installed an electric-powered shower house along with a coin-operated laundry and started selling foil packs of tuna and Gatorade along with shotgun shells and silencers. Carmela learned to make vegan breakfast sausage and pancakes by the truckload.

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Carmela and Bill Moore on the porch of a cabin at Wild Bill's Bed and Breakfast. (Kathryn Miles)

“We’re one-half entertainers and one-half professional accommodaters,” Bill says. “If you want breakfast at 4 a.m., that’s what we’re going to do.”

Other residents have taken hikers fly-fishing or on tours of the mines. They’ve hosted family meals and stashed free supplies in beat-up coolers. The tiny one-room Episcopal church installed Wi-Fi and posted a laminated note informing hikers how to find a key to the building, day or night. Most Atlantic City residents I spoke with said they like keeping an eye on the hikers and bikers who now pass through.

Last season, a hiker broke his femur two days after leaving Atlantic City. When his father noticed his GPS tracker hadn’t moved for a day, he knew his son must be in trouble. So he called Wild Bill, who drove out in the middle of the night. He found the kid 30 miles down the trail and hauled him to a hospital in the back seat of his pickup truck. That, Moore says, is just what people do in Atlantic City.

“We’re a different breed here,” he says. “People want to do their own thing. You’re not going to see us sitting on each other’s decks drinking sweet tea. But when you need help, we’re sure as hell going to do it.”

That’s part of what Jill and Joel Kavanaugh, two thru-hikers from Ocean Springs, Mississippi, say they love most about Atlantic City: the authenticity and it’s-all-good vibe.

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Thru-hikers Jill and Joel Kavanaugh on the CDT. (Joel Kavanaugh)

“When we walk around towns like Steamboat Springs, the people there will cross the street to get away from us, thinking we’re homeless,” Joel says. “Here, they know us. The ranchers and the trappers are the ones who see us out there. They get what we’re doing, and they’re the first to ask if we need anything.”

On the afternoon the Kavanaughs arrived at the Grubstake, a handful of cattlemen sat at one end of the bar, dressed in western shirts with embroidery and mother-of-pearl snaps. At the other end were two thru-hikers, taking a zero day in Chacos and hipster T-shirts. When Joel began opening his awaiting drop box, they all clustered around the table, laughing about his extensive resupply of Snickers and swapping shop talk over the best headlamps.

“I feel embraced,” Jill told me. “It really restores your faith in humanity. People here care enough to listen to what you have to say.”

It goes both ways, Nelson says. After meeting some of the CDT hikers a few years ago, her son Jake planned on attempting his own thru-hike. But a 2012 accident left him paralyzed. When news of his injury got out, hikers that season rallied together, sending get-well cards to Jake and offering to wait tables so Laurel could spend more time at the hospital.

Now 33, Jake is planning to do the trail on a handcycle bike in 2020. Laurel says she thinks that sounds like a nightmare of a bad time, but she gets that he wants to go through with it. She’s heartened by the fact that her son won’t be out there alone.

“He’s already had offers of support from hikers who have passed through Atlantic City,” she says. “It’s really cool knowing there’s an influx of people on the trail willing to come back and help Jake. That kind of thing puts wind in your sails for sure.”

Couple Found Dead on Grand Canyon Trail

26 Oct

On October 1, two hikers traversed a cliff about 100 feet below the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. They were on what’s known as a social trail, a path that is not maintained or recognized by the National Park Service but is created over time by visitors as they step off established routes. This particular social trail runs below the Trailview 2 Overlook, one of the park’s most popular destinations. On a clear day, you can see the full expanse of the canyon from the overlook, including the legendary Bright Angel Trail, which stitches its way six miles from the rim down to the Colorado River.

As the two hikers made their way around the base of the cliff, they came across the bodies of a couple in what park spokesperson Kari Cobb calls “close proximity” to one another. Neither of the deceased carried any identification with them, nor was there any evidence that they had brought a backpack, water, or other supplies. It wasn’t clear how long they had been dead or how they had died.

In the days that followed, a few of those questions would be answered. The deceased individuals were identified as Garret Bonkowski, 25, and Jessica Bartz, 22, both from Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix. The couple had been recorded entering the park at approximately 3:30 p.m. on September 18, presumably as part of an extended road trip they were taking as they relocated to Bartz’s native Iowa. Her car was found parked in a designated lot near the overlook.

Everything else about what brought Bonkowski and Bartz to the Grand Canyon—and more importantly, how it is that they died on this trail—remains a mystery. And that’s proving intensely frustrating for their friends, family, and park officials.


Each year approximately six million people visit the Grand Canyon. That’s about 20,000 a day. The overwhelming majority of them—about 90 percent, Cobb estimates—visit the South Rim. From sunrise to sunset, tour and shuttle buses disgorge passengers at the Trailview Overlook every 15 minutes. The overlook is also an easy walk from the park’s visitor center and main village. If any of the thousands of people who visited the overlook that day saw Bonkowski and Bartz, they haven’t yet spoken up, despite repeated calls for information from the National Park Service.

“We have no idea what happened to them,” says Cobb.

Presumably, she says, the couple fell to their deaths. The Trailview Overlook is part of a paved network of walkways. There’s a sturdy metal guardrail intended to keep people from falling. Although it’s prohibited, visitors sometimes hop over the rail to get better views or scramble down to the top of the cliff to sit or pose for pictures.

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Bartz and Bonkowski hiking in Sedona, Arizona in 2017 (Courtesy Gary Bonkowski/Facebook)

Could Bonkowksi and Bartz have tried to do the same? Did she begin to tumble and he made a fatal attempt to save her? Or was it something more tragic or sinister? The Park Service hasn’t ruled out foul play or that a crime may have occurred.

Certainly, accidents happen in the park. Of the 19 fatalities last year, eight were ruled accidental. One included a teenager who lost his footing on some snow and ice near the South Kaibab Trailhead. Another included a middle-aged man who presumably tried to retrieve his hat as it blew toward a precipice. In July, visitors at the South Rim’s Mather Point watched with horror as a 24-year-old nurse from Illinois climbed over the rail, intent on landing just on the other side; instead he fell 500 feet to his death. (And this week in Yosemite, another national park with high overlooks, a couple plunged to their deaths from Taft Point. The Park Service hasn’t released their names and is investigating the cause of the fall.)

Each death is undeniably tragic. But prior deaths in the Grand Canyon had witnesses able to recount what had happened. And that offered at least a little closure for family and friends.

Brian Bartz, Jessica’s father, is seeking some of that for himself. What details are known of her death, and Bonkowski’s, he says, just don’t add up. “We don’t believe this is a simple case of two people falling off a cliff,” he says.

He says that his daughter would regularly wake up before dawn to set out for a day in the mountains. She was a responsible hiker, and he’d taken her on wilderness trips. She was a motivated young woman excited about life. “She had a lot of dreams and plans for the future,” he says. “She wanted to go places.”

Sally Liddicoat, Jessica’s friend and former employer, agrees. Two year ago, Bartz attended Liddicoat’s real estate school in Phoenix and became like a daughter to Liddicoat. She describes Bartz as “always happy, always upbeat,” even when she was working two jobs and taking courses. On an employee-orientation form, Bartz listed Reese’s Pieces, tennis, and the color purple as some of her favorite things.

Jennifer Follis and Gary Bonkowski, Garret’s parents, say they want answers as well. They agree on the character of their son. He was a visionary thinker, they say: self-taught in art and metaphysics, he read deeply about artificial intelligence, spirituality, and existentialism. For Garret, they say, the canyons and mountains of Arizona were a leveling place to head when he needed renewal.

Bartz and Bonkowski began dating two years ago and moved in together shortly thereafter. Bartz waited tables and worked at a department store while she studied for her real estate license; Bonkowski was teaching himself computer programming. Last spring, when money got tight, they moved in with Follis. But everyone agreed it was temporary. Bonkowski had been talking about moving somewhere different. He first thought about the Bay Area, and then said he had a job prospect in Florida. In May, Liddicoat began helping Bartz figure out how she could work in Florida in real estate. But in July, Bartz stopped returning her employer’s texts and calls. Liddicoat imagined that she was lying on a beach somewhere in the Sunshine State, doing what happy 22-year-olds do. She reluctantly removed Bartz from her staff roster.

Meanwhile, Bartz and Bonkowski both told their parents that his job offer in Florida had fallen through. After that the couple made plans to move to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, together, but those plans became unclear, as both Follis and Brian Bartz cite that Jessica and Garret’s relationship had become rocky. What is clear is that the couple left Follis’s house the evening of September 17. That was the last time any of their parents heard from them. That wasn’t uncommon, they all agree. According to his father, Garret had always been a bit of a wanderer—the kind of guy who let you know he was taking a backpacking trip after he had finished.

“He was an adventurer,” says Gary Bonkowski. “He was always going to do his thing and follow his heart, and you’d maybe get a text a few days later.”

Bartz was the same way. She moved to Arizona after high school, excited about starting a new life. She wasn’t always great about staying in touch with folks back home. Neither she nor Bonkowski was the type to consistently log the details of their lives on social media.

But they were both undeniably well loved. On October 13, more than 60 people attended a memorial service for Bonkowski at the Church of Latter Day Saints in Glendale, Arizona. This week, Bartz’s friends and former coworkers got together in Arizona for a commemorative dinner near the restaurant where she worked part-time. On November 3, her family will host a memorial service for her in Iowa.

In the meantime, the National Park Service Investigative Service Branch (ISB) is working to solve the case. Brian Bartz is hopeful that the medical examiner’s report, due to be released next month, will shed light on what happened. It could offer important clues about how and why the couple fell. It will include a full toxicology analysis and details about the injuries sustained by Bartz and Bonkowski and could help flesh out the narrative of their deaths and indicate whether a crime was committed.

The ISB will issue its own report, says Cobb. Its aim is to determine the nature of Bartz and Bonkowski’s death. While it’s rare for two people to die together of accidental causes in the park, it does happen. Last year a grandmother and grandson were both swept away after losing their footing while crossing a creek there. Of the remaining 17 deaths last year, six were ruled suicides. A murder-suicide hasn’t been recorded in the park since 2011.

To make headway on the case of Bartz and Bonkowski, Cobb says, the park needs witnesses to come forward. “Right now we literally have nothing to go on,” she says.

Anyone with information that could help investigators is being asked to call or text 888-653-0009. Information can also be submitted online at nps.gov/ISB or by e-mail at nps_isb@nps.gov.

Karel Sabbe Made Smashing the AT Speed Record Look Easy

29 Aug

On Wednesday, Belgian ultrarunner Karel Sabbe wolfed down a plate of bacon and eggs, along with some toast and yogurt. A few hours later, he and his friend Joe Biebuyck stepped into the only pizza joint in Millinocket, Maine, a gritty mill town that’s also home to Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Sabbe had spent the previous 41 days running the AT, with Biebuyck as his primary source of support. They were both famished. Places like Angelo’s Pizza Grill see their fair share of big eaters, so nobody noticed when Sabbe and Biebuyck ordered the biggest pie on the menu. But the pair stopped traffic when they began eating.

That may sound like hyperbole. But it’s not.

“We were literally inhaling the food,” Sabbe says. “Everybody else stopped eating and watched. Finally, one of the workers there was like, ‘Whoa, guys, take it easy.’ And that’s when it hit me: I don’t have to go fast anymore.”

Turns out, that’s a hard transition to make. And probably for good reason.

On Tuesday, Sabbe did what many thought was impossible: He beat Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy’s fastest known time for a supported northbound run on the Appalachian Trail. Sabbe finished in 41 days, 7 hours, and 39 minutes, smashing the old record by four days. Doing so makes Sabbe an instant legend in the ultra world. And it’s also made more than a few insiders wonder what the future holds for other FKT attempts.

That’s not hyperbole, either.

Earlier today, I asked previous FKT holders about Sabbe’s accomplishment. I got answers like “holy cow” and “slack-jawed amazement” and “whoa!!!” They couldn’t get over Sabbe’s breakneck pace—he averaged 52.9 miles a day and completed the final 100 miles by running 40 hours straight. Equally impressive, they said, was his meteoric rise in the ultra world.

Five years ago, Sabbe pretty much didn’t run at all. In high school and college​​, Sabbe had been a competitive soccer player, but as he finished up his schooling, he realized that, at his skill level, he was about to age out of the sport. “I was at a decision point,” Sabbe says. “I could keep playing and get injured, or I could go for a change and really make something of it.”

Sabbe toyed with the idea of training for an Ironman, but then he remembered an adventure race he had seen in New Zealand: the Coast-to-Coast, a two-day, 151-mile trek across the South Island by foot, bike, and kayak. Sabbe remembered liking the scenery of the place from a previous trip, so on a whim, he registered. Problem was, he’d never been in a kayak before. And while the race took place at the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere, that meant training in the depths of winter in Sabbe’s native Belgium. That, in turn, meant paddling up and down the same 550-yard stretch of canal while dodging ice. Sabbe nevertheless managed to finish the Coast-to-Coast in the top quarter of race participants. He managed the paddle just fine, but the running portion of the event really captivated him. In 2016, he completed Morocco’s Marathon des Sables, a grueling 151-mile race through the desert, where temperatures regularly top 120 degrees. He thought about doing a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail next but soon realized he’d never be able to take off six months of work as a dentist to do it.

Instead, in 2017, Sabbe decided to run it. Along the way, he set an FKT on the Pacific Crest Trail, beating McConaughy’s overall record. (McConaughy still holds the record for self-supported hikes on both the AT and PCT.) Like his predecessor, Sabbe flew under the radar for pretty much all of his attempt, and few people outside the FKT world even noticed when Sabbe tore down the record. Nor did they notice when he announced his intention to break McConaughy’s record on the Appalachian Trail earlier this year.

Sabbe’s approach was a far cry from highly publicized attempts like those of Scott Jurek and Karl Meltzer, both of which included film crews, fans waiting at trailheads, and big-time corporate sponsorship. By comparison, Sabbe’s budget was paltry—about $10,000, which included plane tickets, the support-van rental, and food for Sabbe and his crew—and most of his time on the trail was alone. Sabbe’s style harkens back to the early days of FKT attempts. Andrew Thompson, for instance, set a supported Appalachian Trail FKT in 2005 with just his good friend and fellow ultrarunner Jonathan Basham for support. The latter drove a souped-up pickup truck and met Thompson at every road crossing he could access.

In 2008, Jennifer Pharr Davis set the women’s record for the AT in a similar style. Although a series of friends came out to pace Pharr Davis here and there, only her husband, Brew, ran support for the full 57 days it took her to clinch the title. The two returned in 2011 and set the overall record in much the same fashion.

Pharr Davis’ record stood until to 2015, when Jurek beat it by three hours. The next year, Meltzer shaved off an additional ten hours. Last year, when McConaughy managed to beat Meltzer by another ten hours with his self-supported attempt, both the hiking and ultra worlds were blown away. Here was an FKT, surely, that would withstand the test of time. That assumption was reinforced earlier this year, when ultrarunner Harvey Lewis failed to best McConaughy’s time. As Lewis returned to his native Ohio, insiders continued to speculate that McConaughy’s record was unbeatable.

That is, until Sabbe flew from his home in Waregem, Belgium, and landed in the United States last month.

From the start, Sabbe didn’t waver. He kept a steady pace of about 50 miles a day, and as conditions on the trail became increasingly challenging, he shrugged them off. When Sabbe hit the peaks of the Smokies and the notorious rocks of Pennsylvania, he contented himself with the notion that he’d seen worse on the PCT. When unusually powerful thunderstorms rendered Vermont’s section of the trail a giant mud hole, he told himself the gunk had been much deeper in New Zealand. “I kept thinking it was pretty fine,” Sabbe says. “I had an antecedent for everything—at least until I got to the White Mountains. There’s no comparison for that.”

New Hampshire’s Presidential Range slowed him down, but not by much. By Monday, when Sabbe began his last 100-mile leg, Biebuyck barely had time to catch up. The two summited Maine’s Mount Katahdin that afternoon. By the time they managed to park the SUV and make their way up the summit, Sabbe’s wife, Emma, and another friend were two hours behind.

“We were kind of all alone up there,” Sabbe laughs. “Joe had to explain to the few other people up there why I was hugging the sign.”

And that, says Jennifer Pharr Davis, is a big reason why this new record is so extraordinary.

“Joe and Karel have proven that you don’t need a large sponsorship or stout ultrarunning résumé to claim the FKT on the Appalachian Trail. They raised the bar to a place deemed unthinkable. I doubt anybody will surpass either one of their records for years to come.”

Thompson agrees.

“If you’re going to beat Karel, it’s not going to be by throwing money at an attempt,” he says. “You’re going to have to tighten up everything across the board just to eke out another half-mile a day—every day. That’s going to be fucking hard to do.”

As for Sabbe, he has his own miles to log in the coming days—mostly in that rented SUV, and probably on Maine’s coast, and far away from any foot trail. “We had planned on doing the trail in 44 days, not 41,” he says. “So now we have an unexpected holiday this week. We will relearn to go slow.”

Karel Sabbe Is About to Make FKT History on the AT

24 Aug

Early Monday morning, a rental SUV with Georgia plates pulled up along a lonely stretch of road near Etna, New Hampshire. Out of the passenger seat slipped Karel Sabbe, a 28-year-old Belgian dentist, cinnamon roll in one hand and a small metal cup of water in the other.

It was not yet 4 a.m., and the damp morning was still as dark as dark can be. Sabbe’s best friend and crew member, Jorne “Joe” Biebuyck, opened the rear door of the SUV and readied Sabbe’s hydration pack. The two spoke a few words, alternating between Dutch and English, and then Biebuyck, clad in cargo shorts and flip-flops, accompanied his friend a hundred yards or so down the trail. A few minutes later, not even Sabbe’s headlamp was visible through the trees.

Sabbe was on day 34 of his attempt to break the fastest known time record for the Appalachian Trail, which stands at 45 days and some change, set last year by Joe McConaughy, a Seattle native now based in Boston. Both runners have been in a friendly competition since 2014, when McConaughy set the FKT for the Pacific Crest Trail. Two years later, Sabbe tore down that record by almost a full day, and his time still stands. He is currently on track to best McConaughy by a similar margin on the AT, too. If Sabbe is successful, he will become the first man to hold the FKT for the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail simultaneously. (Heather “Annish” Anderson currently holds both records for women on the trails.) It’s still early, but insiders say there’s a very good chance Sabbe will join Anderson in the record books.

“Karel has definitely got the trail cred,” says Peter Bakwin, who maintains FastestKnownTime.com and is widely considered the adjudicator of all things FKT. “He knows how to do this kind of long, multiday attempt in a supported style, and that kind of experience is invaluable on the trail.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Sabbe has taken tracking and transparency to a whole new level, Bakwin says. Prior to McConaughy’s record on the AT last year, a series of controversial FKT claims opened conversations about how to appropriately document and prove a record. Sabbe took note. And so, for this attempt, he is using a combination of data, including Strava and a GPS tracker that livestreams on his website. He and his crew are also asking at least two people a day to sign a Guinness World Records witness statement indicating where and when they observed Sabbe.

“We didn’t want to take any chances, and we didn’t want there to be any questions,” Sabbe told me on the trail. “We wanted everything to be public.”

That has endeared him to both the ultrarunning and hiking communities. So too has his approach to the supported hike: low-key and low-impact. Aside from some gear provided by sponsors, Sabbe has funded this attempt almost entirely out of his own pocket. In addition to Biebuyck, Karel’s only other constant crew support has been his wife, Emma, who sprained her ankle on the trail in Massachusetts last week.

On the day I met up with Sabbe, however, his small team was joined by Emma’s parents, who also reside in Belgium. The older couple had planned to rent a camper van or small RV for the trek but couldn’t find one that was handicap accessible (Emma’s mom uses a wheelchair), so instead the foursome drove as a convoy, meeting Sabbe at a few trailheads each day. At the first rendezvous, Sabbe was 16 miles into his 50-mile day. He paused just long enough to down two sodas and a bowl of noodles before heading out again. As he ate, his mother-in-law prepared mashed potatoes made with half a tub of margarine for the next stop. Emma handed him marshmallows and stashed chocolate bars in his pack. “We just have to keep stuffing him,” she explained.

Early on in his attempt, Sabbe dropped about eight pounds as he powered through challenging terrain in places like Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. Meanwhile, Emma and Biebuyck struggled to figure out how best to keep him fed. (They estimate he’s eating about 10,000 calories a day.) In the end, the answer was right in front of them, Emma said. “Real American food—that’s pretty much all it takes.”

Pizza has been a favorite of Sabbe’s. So are cheese balls. And cheeseburgers—particularly Burger King Double Whoppers, which at 940 calories are close to twice that of a Big Mac. Sabbe also likes to eat Nutella straight out of the jar. “I am Belgian, after all,” he joked.

This week, Sabbe will tackle the White Mountains, including Mount Washington, notorious for its capricious weather and steep trails. From there, he’ll enter Maine, where the trail is no less challenging. His pace will slow, but that’s part of the plan. “I wanted my big days to be in the south, while I was fresh,” he told me. “This week and next, I can just be tired and speed-hike.”

He’ll still need to pull down super-high mileage—at least 30 miles a day—if he wants to beat McConaughy’s record and arrive at Mount Katahdin, the AT’s northernmost terminus, by September 1. As of now, that doesn’t seem like a problem. Sabbe thus far has kept to a schedule so regular that it has blown away even experts like Bakwin—on the trail each day by 4 a.m., run the equivalent of two marathons, knock off in time for dinner, and get to sleep at about 7 p.m.

In 34 days, Sabbe has yet to waver from that tempo.

“He may be Belgian,” Bakwin says, “but he runs like a Swiss watch.”

Will the Nation’s Longest Trail Ever Be Completed?

16 May

Late last month, the House Committee on Natural Resources unanimously approved a bill to revise the route of the North Country Trail. Under most circumstances, this kind of legislative action would hardly seem noteworthy. But for the long-suffering national scenic trail and its supporters, this committee approval represents a major victory in a 50-year battle to make North Country a reality.

“We’re super excited,” Andrea Ketchmark, executive director of the North Country Trail Association (NCTA), told me over the phone. “We’ve never made it this far in Congress before.”

If that statement doesn’t give you pause, it should. The North Country Trail was first proposed in 1966 and received federal approval as a scenic trail nearly 40 years ago. It is nowhere near finished today. Why? Turns out there are many reasons.

First are the financial considerations: If completed, the North Country Trail would be twice the length of the Appalachian Trail, but with only half the AT’s budget. Staffing is also an issue: Its National Park Service office has only three rangers, all of whom were gone when I called.

But historically, the biggest hurdle of all has been figuring out where the trail itself should lie. In its original iteration, the North Country Trail was envisioned as a 3,170-mile multiuse trail connecting the Appalachian Trail in Vermont to the Lewis and Clark Trail in North Dakota. Yet legislators in Vermont balked at the idea of locating another major trail in that state, presumably because supporting another major footpath would prove onerous for the already stretched trail clubs and an equally encumbered state budget. So the plan was revised to locate the eastern terminus in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The location of the rest of the trail was limited to a ten-mile-wide possible corridor, an idea on a map that stretched through seven states.

north-country-trail-map_h.jpg
(National Park Service)

As construction of the trail began, one thing became obvious: The path they chose was lousy. Of particular concern was a 100-mile stretch through Minnesota composed entirely of swamp. Situating the trail there would require elaborate boardwalks that were expensive to build and difficult to maintain. The NCTA looked for a work-around and found what they thought was a no-brainer: They’d use existing trails instead. Meanwhile, Vermont’s legislators got on board with having the trail in their state and the additional recreational revenue it would generate.

By the turn of this century, the North Country Trail had—at least on paper—grown to about 4,600 miles. It would be far easier to maintain, but as it turns out, rerouting a proposed route for a National Scenic Trail isn’t as easy as just saying you want to do it. Instead, doing so requires a byzantine process that begins at the committee level in both the House and the Senate and must end with presidential approval.

The NCTA tried to get that in 2009 but was shut down at the committee level. The group tried again a year later, and every year after that. Each time, the trail was blocked by Republicans who feared the trail would be an excuse for the federal government to acquire private land and that it would block energy projects. (National Scenic Trails come with specific requirements for locating infrastructure projects in a way that does not hamper the aesthetics or ecology of the trail.) Construction of the trail languished.

Then, last week, Republicans on the house committee changed their tune when they approved the new route. “This bill helps get more Americans outside and is a win for recreation, public access, and the enjoyment of our nation’s beautiful scenic trails,” Rob Bishop, the Republican committee chairman from Utah, said in a written statement to Outside. “This legislation demonstrates our commitment to working in a bipartisan fashion to enhance public access to public lands.”

Ketchmark, the trail association director, says that kind of endorsement is a very big deal. “It shows that we’ve been successful in changing minds and hearts on a committee with very strong Republican leadership,” he says. “This has never been about a big federal land grab. We’re finally being understood.”

Enthusiasm for the trail extends beyond the NCTA. Michael DeBonis, executive director of the Green Mountain Club, which maintains Vermont’s Long Trail System, says his group is ready to participate in any way it can, whether it’s helping to plan and build the trail or assisting in its maintenance once complete. “The GMC is poised to help provide its staff and volunteer capacity to support this effort,” DeBonis says. “It will help make the mountains of Vermont play a larger role in the life of the people.”

Whether they get the opportunity remains to be seen. The full House and Senate still need to approve the relocation of the North Country Scenic Trail.

And then, of course, there’s the question of whether President Donald Trump will sign it. As for the trail itself, Ketchmark says there are still about 1,500 miles left to be completed—regardless of where it’s routed. She can’t even estimate a finish date, but she’d like to see a commitment to one soon.

“We’ve been at this for over 20 years, and there is a good amount of local support,” Ketchmark told me. “Everybody is ready to finish this trail.”

The Forest Service Is Arresting Protestors Along the AT

26 Apr

For two months, protesters have sat in platforms perched among the trees near Peters Mountain, located in Jefferson National Forest. Their goal is to block logging in the area that will prepare the way for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile operation that will feed natural gas through the forest and cross the Appalachian Trail. And for two months the protests were peaceful, until last Sunday.

The protesters built their tree stands in February, and another protester erected a monopod—a freestanding perch atop a tall pole—at a separate site in late March. Since then, Forest Service officers and private security contractors paid by the pipeline owners have upped security at the sites. They restricted public access to the forest road that leads to the monopod. They issued an emergency closure within 150 feet of the structure, a move that has deprived the monopod-sitter, who goes by the trail name Nutty, of additional food and water supplies for at least three weeks now. On the other side of the mountain, the tree-sitters say private security contractors have harassed them with spotlights and loud noise throughout the night, preventing them from sleeping. The weather has been abysmal. They’re cold and tired.

And so on Sunday—Earth Day—about two dozen people made the hike up Peters Mountain to support the protesters. They brought musical instruments and food for a potluck. They staged political puppet shows and read poetry to the tree-sitters.

Doug Chancey, a 66-year-old retired addiction counselor who lives near the proposed pipeline, sat in the small support camp. He and others watched as several Forest Service officers left the area to check on the rally, and, recognizing the opportunity, Chancey and three others grabbed daypacks containing water, toilet paper, and food. They ducked the caution tape and walked as quickly as they could towards the monopod. And that, according to rally attendees and support-camp occupants, is when all hell broke loose.

Chancey says he and the other two individuals with backpacks were ordered to the ground by Forest Service officers. Chancey was handcuffed and put in leg shackles. Meanwhile, according to those on the scene, at least ten law-enforcement vehicles and over a dozen officers from multiple agencies arrived with assault rifles. (Law-enforcement agencies, including the Forest Service, did not respond to calls or e-mails. A spokesperson for the Virginia state police said that its officers did not arrive until after the arrests were made and that no officers drew their weapons at any time.)

Emily Satterwhite is associate professor of Appalachian studies at Virginia Tech University, where she has been studying the pipeline and those protesting it. She was on the scene of that weekend’s rally, and although she was not arrested, she was issued a $125 citation for violating the emergency closure—a claim she contests. What worries Satterwhite most is what such an aggressive response from law enforcement means for those hoping to take a stand against the pipeline.

“I don't expect to go to my national forest in support of a protector of the Appalachian Trail and be treated as if I don’t belong there,” Satterwhite says. “The Forest Service has turned into a private security detail for a pipeline corporation, and some of them seem to be relishing the exercise of power over peaceful campers.”


In some very real ways, the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is business as usual for the Forest Service and the National Park Service, which oversees the Appalachian Trail. About 60 pipelines currently cross the 2,200-mile National Scenic Trail. Management plans for protected areas like those around the AT allow for these projects, as long as they adhere to a forest’s “scenic integrity objectives, which require the Forest Service to protect and restore any degradation to the land.

Those objectives are where problems with the MVP began. In order to approve construction for the pipeline, the Forest Service had to modify its forest protection plan for the Jefferson National Forest and the AT. Prior to this weekend’s protests, I contacted JoBeth Brown, a spokesperson for the Forest Service, who said that following the Jefferson National Forest’s management plan was not feasible for the construction of the pipeline, so the federal government decided to alter them. These modifications allowed the agency to relax restrictions on a variety of issues, ranging from riparian damage to the clearing of old-growth trees to the impact of the pipeline on the AT.

“The decision to amend the forest plan was developed through extensive public involvement, Brown wrote to me in an e-mail. “The mitigation measures are required and would minimize the environmental impacts to the extent practical.”

Land owners, concerned individuals, and conservation groups have taken issue with both this decision and the Forest Service’s process to change the management plan. Andrew Downs, the central and southwest Virginia regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, says, “We’ve worked with the Forest Service and developers to put all sorts of infrastructure across the AT—power lines, pipelines, even roads. We’ve never had to amend the scenic integrity objectives in the forest plan. Until MVP.”

Last January, a coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club filed a suit in federal court to block the pipeline, arguing that its construction and operation would cause irreversible damage to surrounding lands and streams, as well as to the animals and plants nearby. It was the latest in a series of similar lawsuits that have been filed by NGOs and local residents whose land was seized by the private utility consortium that owns the pipeline project. These landowners are concerned with the safety of the project, which requires MVP to bore through fragile rock known as karst, which is very porous and can be unstable. They worry about the pipeline itself: at 42 inches in diameter and following a zigzagging route, it’s one of the nation’s most ambitious projects to date, both because of the size of the pipeline (most natural gas pipelines are no more than 36 inches in diameter) and the challenging terrain it crosses.

Maury Johnson, 58, is one such resident. He currently raises organic cattle on a farm that has been in his family since the early 1800s. MVP seized a wide swath of his pasture land through a provision of the 1938 Natural Gas Act, which allows utility companies to take private lands for infrastructure projects. Johnson says he is not only frustrated with having his family’s land taken, but also by the fact that the loss of land could have an impact on his business. For similar reasons, lots of locals have come out in strong support of the protestors. “I’ve told some of them if I were thirty years younger, I’d be with them,” Johnson says.


Late Sunday night, Chancey was released from custody with two tickets: one for entering a closed area and one for interfering with a forest officer. He was worried about Nutty’s condition and didn’t get much sleep that night, but he figures she didn’t either: her supplies must be getting low, and he says the Forest Service officers have set floodlights on the whole area.

Brown, the Forest Service spokesperson, says the agency isn’t allowed to comment on any ongoing litigation. But she did say that under federal regulation, her agency’s law-enforcement officers will continue to keep the area closed to anyone attempting to resupply the protesters in the tree platforms or on the monopod.

There’s no indication that Nutty plans to come down anytime soon. And the movement is catching on. Recently at least three other tree-sit protests have begun at other points on the proposed pipeline. Local residents are hopeful that the start of the hiking season will mean hikers on the AT will lend a hand. But they know opposition to their protests is increasing as well.

The pipeline project’s spokesperson, Natalie Cox, said it will continue to seek additional relief under federal injunction orders that allow MVP to prevent interference with construction. 

“We have been patient in our attempts to consistently work with the handful of landowners that continue to impede MVP’s progress,” Cox wrote in an e-mail. “The most important message we want to send to landowners and residents in the region is that we’re going to do this the right way. We value the safety of our employees, contractors, and every single person that lives in these communities, and one of our primary goals remains the preservation and protection of the environment, as well as the protection of sensitive species and cultural and historic resources.”

Chancey says he isn’t buying it. Already his neighbors are complaining about their wells dirtied with sediment from the construction. He points to several endangered species in the area, including bats and plants. And from the vantage of the AT, there’s now a wide swath of missing trees on what is supposed to be a remote hike through wilderness.

“We’ve been at this for four years now,” Chancey says. “The real fight is just beginning. I have grandchildren. I want to be able to tell them that I tried to stop this environmental insanity.”