The Appalachian Trail’s (Only) Official River Guide

8 Oct

It’s just past 8 A.M. in Caratunk, a tiny town in western Maine. Already half a dozen thru-hikers have lined up on the west bank of the Kennebec River. Three hundred feet across, on the opposing bank, two more backpackers wait quietly, their thin legs and gear draped over a fallen log.

At exactly ten minutes to nine, Greg Caruso ambles down a short gravel trail. Caruso, 49, looks exactly like Hollywood’s version of a Maine guide: fit, clean-shaven, wearing Carhartts, water shoes, and a fleece vest. He carries with him a beaten paperback and a dog bowl. Maggie, his two-year-old golden retriever, trots behind. Once they reach the two hikers, Maggie knows the drill. She gives them a quick hi and then gets busy gnawing on a stick. Caruso, meanwhile, turns upright a battle-scarred canoe.

He unlocks the bike chain that keeps the boat tethered to a slender maple tree, then pulls out a couple of ripe PFDs and a clipboard filled with unsigned waivers.

The taller of the two hikers helps him schlep the 17-foot canoe down to the water’s edge. From there we can see that the queue on the other bank is growing—about a dozen hikers now, all standing obediently single file, as if waiting for a carnival ride or an overpriced cup of coffee.

The AT ferryman
(Photo: Scott Martin)

Caruso surveys the crowd on the opposite bank with a grin. This time of year, it’s the same scene pretty much every morning.

“Rush-hour traffic,” he says.

Thru-hikers on the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail cross plenty of streams and rivers (Maine alone has over 20 that are 30 feet or wider). Some the hikers must ford, while others are spanned by everything from boardwalks to elaborate suspension bridges. Only one demands you get in a canoe. For the past four years, Caruso has been the ferryman for that canoe. And that makes him the only official AT river driver and the only one you’ll meet on any of the 11 national scenic trails.


The Kennebec has always been an imposing, capricious river. In 1775, it fouled up Benedict Arnold’s notorious march on Quebec. When tourists began visiting the area in the late 19th century, an enterprising hotel owner soon realized that the only way to get guests was to ferry them across the river himself—which he did for decades, using a flat-bottomed boat. He was still at it when the Appalachian Trail Conference began siting the nascent trail. An existing ferryman was a lot cheaper than a bridge, so those at the conference decided to route the trail at this particular crossing.

By World War II, the ferry had fallen out of favor with paying hotel guests, so the innkeeper discontinued the service. The few hikers who attempted this section of trail were left to their own devices when it came to crossing, an endeavor that became even more perilous after the 1955 installation of a massive hydroelectric dam: at 175 feet high and 270 feet across, Harris Station Dam is the largest in the state of Maine. Each day it releases a wall of water—sometimes as much as 8,000 cubic feet per second. That release creates some of the best whitewater paddling in the East. It also makes it some of the most dangerous.

Throughout the AT’s history, there have been at least a few drowning near misses, as hikers made bad choices crossing the river. Then, in 1985, Alice and George Ference, two experienced section hikers, attempted to ford the river. Alice, who did so wearing her full pack, was swept away and drowned. With an increasing number of hikers on the trail, safety at the Kennebec had already become an issue. Ference’s death made it an imperative, says Hawk Metheny, Northeast regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).

The only precedent the group could find anywhere in the country was the Pacific Northwest Scenic Trail, which requires a 30-minute ride on a car ferry across Puget Sound. But that was a different scale entirely. So it commissioned a study to consider options.

“We reviewed everything,” says Metheny. “We considered a suspension bridge. We looked at rerouting the trail, installing a zip-line cable car. We wanted to do our due diligence, so everything was on the table.”

A bridge, it was soon determined, would not just be prohibitively expensive but would also require clearing trees and building roads for construction vehicles. And given the massive ice jams that flow down the river each spring, it just wasn’t viable, unless it made the span and supporting towers ginormous. A cable car might have been fun, but it hardly fit the rugged character of the AT.

Rerouting the trail to an existing road bridge was definitely the most feasible alternative, says Metheny. It has been done before, at big AT river crossings like the Hudson in New York and the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania. But the whole point of the trail is to get off roads and away from the hustle and bustle of civilization.

And so in 1987, the ATC decided to return to the Kennebec’s roots and reestablish the ferry system. A local rafting company donated the canoe and some other gear. The ATC hung special warnings urging hikers not to cross on their own (however, each year about a dozen do anyway). Knowing that hikers are a superstitious lot, the group also painted a blaze in the bottom of the canoe—just to make it official.

“Purists want to walk every inch of the trail,” says Metheny. “So we designated the canoe as an official part of the AT.”

Ferryman and dog
(Photo: Scott Martin)

Today, Caruso’s boat is the only approved way to cross the river—and to complete a thru-hike. It’s an expensive proposition for the ATC, which doesn’t charge hikers for the trip across the waterway. The service is underwritten in part by the dam’s operator, Brookfield Renewable; like many hydroelectric dams in the U.S., Harris’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license includes a provision for safe recreational opportunities on the river. Usually, that means planned dam releases for the rafting industry. In this case, it also includes getting hikers across.

At the height of the annual hiking bubble, Caruso works five hours a day, seven days a week (compared to just two days per week during the shoulder seasons). That’s presented some scheduling challenges, like when ultramarathoner Scott Jurek blew through the area in his 2015 fastest-known-time attempt. He hit the Kennebec at night, long after the ferry was locked up for the day. It took an enterprising local race organizer willing to track down a canoe on social media and drive it across the state to get Jurek across. Had he failed to come through, it could have cost Jurek over ten hours and possibly the FKT title.

Caruso is the fourth guide to ferry hikers across the river. He grew up in Millinocket, Maine, which sits in the shadow of Mount Katahdin, the AT’s northernmost terminus. Both of his grandparents worked in the former mill there. His uncles and dad did, too. The mill closed its doors before Caruso took his turn. Wilderness guiding, he says, was pretty much the only industry left. He took his first raft-guiding job after a couple years of college. Twenty-seven years later, he was still guiding hunting, fishing, and rafting trips on the Kennebec and other rivers in the area when the former ferryman retired. His job, says Caruso, seemed like a pretty good alternative to pushing 2,000 pounds of rubber and people through Class IV rapids every day, so he applied. 

“I mean, where else is an old raft guide going to go?” he likes to joke.

On a busy day, he’ll shuttle 50 hikers back and forth, through the currents and rising water levels. Other days he’ll sit for hours waiting for a single passenger.

He’s learned to make adjustments for both. When things get hectic, he deputizes his two sons to get waivers signed and hand out life jackets. When things are slow, he’ll fly-fish or dip into a paperback, like Kenneth Roberts’s Arundel, a lightly fictionalized account of Benedict Arnold’s attempt up that same river. Caruso has read it cover to cover each of the four seasons he’s been working here.

“Not much has changed in this spot,” he says. “Reading that book, it’s easy to imagine what things were like here in the 1700s.”

Except, of course, for the boats themselves. His is a fiberglass Old Town canoe with more patches than original glass. It’s got a few other choice modifications as well. A couple of years ago, Caruso replaced the boat’s center thwart with a cane seat so that he could take two hikers and their gear at a time. He figured most hikers were an emaciated lot and that the cane would more than support them. He was surprised, then, to see a range of body types on the trail. One particularly husky hiker snapped the seat in half. Today it’s jury-rigged with enforcements made out of a piece of driftwood, a broken tent pole, and a whole lot of white athletic tape.

The AT Ferry
(Photo: Scott Martin)

He’s gotten used to the hiker funk, which lingers in the canoe and on the PFDs long after he’s taken his last customer of the day. And he says he’s grown to really value the two minutes or so that he shares with each passenger. Southbound hikers are just 150 miles into their journey when they meet Caruso—still wide-eyed about the trail and sorting out their gear. Most northbounders are just ten days from finishing and getting that last, euphoric second wind. He says he’s surprised by how many international hikers there are and how many generations are represented. He’s taken some of them fishing; others just want to hang out with Maggie for a while. Along the way, he’s memorized where every boulder is on the stretch of water, and he can get even the most uncoordinated hiker in and out of the canoe without dampening the bottom of their shoe.

The current Brookfield energy license and its allowance for the ferry expires in 2036. Metheny hopes a canoe will be moving hikers across the river until then—and well into the future.

“Part of what makes the Appalachian Trail so special is its diversity and unique situations. The ferry has become a part of the cultural experience here,” says Metheny. “We’re not just interested in the tangible and the practical. We also want to preserve the experiential.”

Last year, Caruso ferried over 2,500 hikers across the river, along with 41 dogs and untold pounds of gear.

“If I get many more, I’m going to need a party boat. Or at least a second canoe,” says Caruso. “But I’m definitely not complaining. Every day is a good day at the office here.”

Will ‘Akuna’ Robinson’s Triple Crown Was Only the Start

1 Oct

When Will “Akuna” Robinson reached the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail in Glacier National Park on Sunday, September 15, he wasn’t thinking about race and gender or PTSD or ceiling-shattering accomplishments. Instead, his first thought was one of mild terror: What if he was dreaming the completion of this 3,100-mile trail? Already there’d been high water to ford and nearly unprecedented snowpack. He’d strained his Achilles tendon, further complicating old injuries to his hips and knees. Maybe this moment, hugging the marker designating the U.S. border with Canada, was just a cruel figment of his imagination.

“I was literally thinking, God, what if this is a dream and I’m actually sleeping in a flooded tent back in Colorado?he told me.

It took Robinson, who is 38 and a combat veteran, a few minutes to persuade himself he’d actually made it. And then, like any thru-hiker, his thoughts immediately turned to all the food he intended to eat: boiled shrimp, po’boys, sausage—real Louisiana fare.

When I caught up with him via cell phone, he was actually sitting in the parking lot of one of his favorite New Orleans take-out places, ready to make up for months of living on energy bars and instant noodles. He’d have gotten there sooner, he said, but he needed to finish doing some filming for a new documentary about his experience and a couple of TV appearances, along with an appointment at a Veterans Administration hospital.

And while all of this was preventing him from digging into classic Big Easy cuisine, it’s also what makes the completion of his hike so extraordinary. Robinson is the first recorded African American male to complete hiking’s triple crown—the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Scenic Trails (we say recorded because the American Long Distance Hiking Association, which maintains records of triple-crown recipients “on the honor system,” does not maintain records regarding race, gender, or other demographics). Fewer than 400 people have logged their completed triple crown on the ALDHA web page. Last year, Elyse “Chardonnay” Walker became the first recorded African American woman to complete the same feat.

“It’s pretty wild that it took until 2019 for this record to happen,” Robinson says. “But when you get out on the trail, you kind of understand why.”

Will
(Photo: Courtesy Merrell/Myah McNeill)

Growing up in coastal Louisiana, Robinson saw his fair share of racism and discrimination. When he began his first long-distance hike, in 2016, he was hyperaware that he was a minority on the trail. And he was also more than a little wary of the prejudice he might experience there.

“I didn’t know if I’d be accepted on the trail,” he says. “So I tended to isolate myself—I’d camp alone, I never shared rooms with anyone. I was definitely on guard.”

Still, he knew he had to be there.

After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Army. In 2003, he was deployed to Iraq, where he was tasked with repairing the electronic systems on Apache helicopters. He spent his downtime thumbing through boxes of books sent by well-meaning civilians. In one he found a discarded guide to the Pacific Crest Trail. He’d never heard of the PCT, but thumbing through that guidebook became his escape from the ugliness of war.

During his deployment, Robinson developed PTSD. He returned home physically wounded as well: a shattered right wrist required six surgeries to partially reconstruct, mostly out of metal. He walks with knee braces and a constant limp on account of a hip injury. And throughout all the surgeries and rehabilitation for his injuries, Robinson’s PTSD became worse. It was further complicated by intensifying anxiety and depression.

“I came back broken. I didn’t think I had a future at that point,” he says in a short biopic documentary produced by Merrell, which sponsors Robinson.

Therapy wasn’t working, he says. Neither were medications prescribed for the mental trauma. Over the next decade, he began to isolate himself more and more, sometimes staying in his room for days on end. He says he self-medicated with alcohol and painkillers.

“Nothing made sense anymore,” says Robinson. “If I didn’t do something drastic, it wasn’t going to go much further.”

Then, one night in 2016, he was channel surfing on his TV and stumbled upon a rebroadcast of Wild, the film based on Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir. There was Reese Witherspoon, shouldering an oversize backpack as she struggled down the trail. And as she passed a mile marker, Robinson had one thought, I bet she’s on the PCT. He grabbed his phone and Googled the movie and the book. And sure enough: here was the trail that had kept him occupied in Iraq, now in living color in his bedroom.

“I had tried so many things by that point,” he says now. “I had gotten really good at hiding things, but I still hadn’t solved anything. And so I thought, Maybe this is what it’s going to take.”

Robinson admits he didn’t know a thing about hiking. He’d never heard of Earl Shaffer, a World War II vet and the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, who famously said he did so to “walk the Army out of my system.” Nor did he know about initiatives like Warrior Expeditions, a nonprofit organization that helps other veterans complete the big three scenic trails, along with other endurance opportunities (though he did contact the group later for tips on gear that veterans could afford).

But he did know this was the only option left. And so he spent that entire night and much of the next morning ordering gear online and reading about how to be a thru-hiker.

In the spring of 2016, three weeks after seeing the movie, Robinson was at the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. His only experience with having a pack on his back were ruck marches in basic training.

“I literally had no idea what I was doing,” he says.

But as soon as he was on trail, he fell in love with the experience. A fellow hiker quickly dubbed him “Akuna,” a nod to the Swahili phrase Hakuna Matata meaning “no worries,” popularized by a song in The Lion King.

Still, the physical demands of the trail caught up with him. Recurring knee problems sabotaged that first PCT attempt, in 2016, but he returned and completed the trail the trail the following year. Before he had even returned to Louisiana, he had committed to doing the other big two. Last year he tackled the AT. About 40 miles in, he ran into Dawn “Undecided” Potts, another thru-hiker. They’d met for about five minutes on the PCT in 2017, and both remembered the encounter. They spent the rest of their hikes together and became romantic partners along the way (they also hiked the Continental Divide Trail together this year.)

Some 7,000 miles later, Robinson says he’s become accustomed to the stares and even eye rolls prompted by his being a hiker of color. And he thinks the lack of diversity still seen on our national trails can make being there a heavy burden for racial and ethnic minorities.

“I still encounter so many people who say they’ve never hiked with a person of color,” says Robinson. “And so I feel like I have to be an ambassador for my race. That can making hiking tough. In addition to all the hiker logistics, I’m also always trying to make sure I’m on my very best behavior so that things are easier for the next African American on the trail. That can be super stressful.”

Will
(Photo: Courtesy Merrell/Myah McNeill)

He says he’s heartened by some of the diversity initiatives launched by Merrell and other outdoor brands.

“If more people of color, more LGBTQ people, more veterans start seeing themselves represented outside, they’ll feel safer there. And then they’ll be more likely to get involved.”

Back in coastal Louisiana, Robinson has begun volunteering with LOOP NOLA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the lack of outdoor opportunities for kids in New Orleans. He’s been sharing his own trail experience in schools there, hoping he can inspire the next generation of hikers of color.

“Growing up, a lot of kids don’t get that experience. We’re told that we don’t belong outside or that’s not what we do. And so we decide that it’s altogether off limits for us.”

More than ever, Robinson wants to change that. He says there’s no doubt in his mind that hiking saved his life.

As he and Potts neared the end of the CDT last week, he decided to forego the fast-food-restaurant paper crowns that a lot of people wear when they complete their third big thru-hike. He wanted one that really reflected who he was—a legit crown, with some real bling, and a fleur-de-lis to pay tribute to his beloved New Orleans. He found the perfect one online and had it shipped to a resupply stop just outside Glacier National Park.

Donning it near then northern terminus, Robinson says he knew that crown was made for him. “I put it on, and all I could think was, I’m somebody in this moment. I’m actually, truly somebody.”

Shenandoah National Park Is Confronting Its History

23 Sep

Four hundred years ago in August, two British pirate ships arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, carrying dozens of enslaved Africans, who they sold to colonists, precipitating more than 200 years of government-sanctioned slavery in America. As the nation reflects on that solemn anniversary, it’s also struggling with a history of racism and exclusion in its national parks and wilderness spaces. 

Increased attention to this history by scholars, activists, and the parks themselves seeks to ameliorate many of the practices that excluded people of color from our wilderness spaces. At Shenandoah National Park, the effort to reconcile with its past begin several years ago, with an interpretive exhibit focused on the history of segregation there, one of the country’s first parks to confront this painful legacy. Continuing that work, Shenandoah and four other national parks in Virginia are now involved in a unique, comprehensive historical study that will provide a more complete picture of segregation in those places through archival research and oral histories of those who experienced it. Once it’s finished, the project can be used to develop more installations and resources that tell the stories of African Americans in the parks.

But it’s a difficult process, and for Shenandoah and the outdoor industry at large it's one that has many asking how our nation’s parks can ever truly feel welcoming to all. 


Accessibility to our national parks has been fraught from the start. Despite being designated as federal lands, individual parks’ superintendents deferred to local or state laws and customs when crafting park policies. When Shenandoah National Park opened in 1934, there was a general sense of confusion about who was allowed where—particularly where people of color were concerned.

“Basically, the park was segregated on an ad hoc basis,” says Erin Devlin, associate professor of history and American studies at the University of Mary Washington, who is leading the study of the five national parks in Virginia. African American visitors wrote letters of complaint both to the park and the Department of the Interior, reporting that rangers told them certain areas of the park were off-limits to them. Some white visitors also wrote letters to the National Park Service, arguing that this kind of race-based practice was un-American. But the policies continued.

National Parks
(Photo: Courtesy National Park Service)

In the summer of 1937, J. Ralph Lassiter, Shenandoah’s first superintendent, received a distraught letter from a staff member at the Department of the Interior. “There is a growing demand for picnic areas for colored people,” wrote the Interior staff member. “Two bus loads are going up tomorrow and they have to be fitted into camping places for white people. This is not a good condition.”

Park employees agreed. And so the Park Service settled upon a controversial plan: It would create Lewis Mountain, an area with campsites, cabins, and concession facilities, for African Americans. It would simultaneously designate Pinnacles, a popular picnic area, as an officially integrated facility. While never officially stated, it was nonetheless understood that the rest of the park would remain the sole purview of white visitors.

“By creating duplicative facilities in the national parks, the NPS was doing more than state governments were doing at the time but also accommodating local laws and customs regarding segregation,” says Devlin. 

Lewis Mountain thrived as a destination after opening in 1939. Thanks largely to the vision of its longtime manager, Lloyd Tutt, the lodge there quickly became known for its outstanding food and big-band music. Meanwhile, white visitors began begging admission to the facilities, and Tutt accommodated them in the facility’s dining room and lodge. But many African American park-goers still felt contained.

Devlin interviewed dozens of the earliest visitors to Shenandoah for her study. “Their experience was that integration was a one-way street,” says Devlin. “White people wanted to enjoy what Lewis Mountain had to offer, but they also didn’t want African Americans coming into areas designated for white use.”

Further complicating the problem was the matter of how such areas should be marked. Early maps to Shenandoah labeled Lewis Mountain as a segregated facility, but that designation was soon removed from official literature—some officials didn’t want African Americans visiting the area, while others worried that official designations would codify the practice of segregation and make it harder to repeal. 

Some rangers at entrance stations began drawing an arrow to mark Lewis Mountain when African American visitors asked for a map of the area. As far as Devlin can tell, they didn’t mark the integrated facilities at Pinnacles. And some may not have marked any areas at all. “You can see how that decentralized strategy put a lot of power in the hands of the park and allowed them to dictate their vision of how they thought people should move through the park,” she says.

Shenandoah began a more formal practice of integration in 1947, which it completed at least nominally in 1950, but substantial barriers still existed for would-be visitors who were black, says Camille T. Dungy, professor of English at Colorado State University and editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry.

While Shenandoah experimented with desegregation, segregated gas stations, restaurants, and hotels made it difficult to get to the parks, says Dungy. The history of antagonism in wilderness spaces made it so that African American visitors had no way to know if they would be safe once they got there. 

Separate comfort stations for white and black women (Courtesy National Park Service)
Separate comfort stations for white and black women (Courtesy National Park Service)

For many African Americans, says Dungy, the message was clear: parks and wild spaces were off-limits. And that, she says, has been passed down in some families. “There are a lot of people who, for very valid reasons, can’t walk into a grove of trees without feeling terrified.”

But that is only one experience of being black in the wilderness, Dungy says. “There is also long tradition in African American writing of people who really loved the land, who hiked and hunted and camped. It’s a tradition going back to the 19th century, when black people would self-emancipate by turning to bayous and swamps,” she says. “And it’s largely ignored in contemporary conversations about nature.”

The trick is how to acknowledge that both realities are equally true, she says.


Creating an atmosphere of inclusion in the national parks has remained challenging. In 1994, after National Parks magazine ran a story about the importance of diversity within our parks, it was besieged with letters condemning such efforts.

“Many of us look to the parks as an escape from the problems ethnic minorities create. Please don’t modify our parks to destroy our oasis,” wrote one white reader

In 2013, the National Park Service created the Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion. That office did not respond to my repeated requests for an interview, but its website defines its mission as working “to integrate the principles and practices of relevancy, diversity, and inclusion throughout the National Park Service.” Find Your Park, a campaign intended to help all Americans connect to National Park Service sites, was launched in 2016 as part of the Park Service’s centenary celebration. It includes interviews with African American park rangers Shelton Johnson, who works at Yosemite, and Ahmad Toure, who serves at Great Falls Park in Virgina. 

Around that same time, Shenandoah created an interpretive installation that guides visitors through the park’s history of segregation and recounts the story of places like Lewis Mountain and the African Americans who made it possible—one of the first such exhibits to acknowledge the history of racial segregation in our national parks. 

But a recent study published by the George Wright Society found that, in the national parks surveyed, less than 2 percent of recent visitors were African American. (A 2017 article in National Geographic put the number higher, stating that 7 percent of all visitors were black, still a disproportionately small number.)

The authors of the George Wright Society study pointed to a variety of factors, ranging from harassment by white visitors, a generational sense of exclusion, and inconsistencies in national parks feeling relevant to the experiences of some African Americans.

Scholar Myron Floyd has made a career of studying that experience and how it translates into park usage. He points to all of the benefits—physical, psychological, emotional—that come from time spent in these places. And he worries what a continued gap in usage might mean, especially for our youngest generations. “Not having access to all those benefits because of income, race, or ethnicity is a huge equity issue,” he says.

He’d like to see parks dedicate more resources to installations like the one at Shenandoah. “People want to see themselves. They want to hear their stories,” he says. “Even in large-scale landscapes, like wilderness parks, they want to know that they have a place there.”

That kind of inclusion is important because it also makes it harder for white people to believe that wilderness belongs exclusively to them, Floyd says.

Claire Comer, the interpretive specialist at Shenandoah National Park, says that they’ve contracted with Devlin to create a comprehensive history of race at the park. And she’d like to see more experiential installations, like the cooperative project Devlin and her students recently helped to complete at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, also in Virginia, which shows visitors firsthand the systematic inequities in basic aspects of the park, like restrooms.

The first task of this study, she says, is to excavate as much of the history of inequality as they can and make sure it’s located in a national context of segregation and discrimination. With that, they can create materials like an interactive curriculum and interpretive panels. (But they’re not quite sure where those resources will come from yet.)

In the meantime, Floyd and Dungy say it’s important to take a holistic approach to inclusion. That means diversifying Park Service employees (at last count, more than 83 percent of Park Service employees were white, according to agency data) and creating a safe working environment (according to a recent study, at least 39 percent of Park Service employees reported they had experienced harassment while on the job). It also includes expanding partnerships with groups like Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit organization with a dedicated mission of cultivating and inspiring African American experiences in the natural world.

“I still hear too many stories that are exclusionary—of African Americans being treated like aberrations in our parks,” says Dungy. “It’s like people truly cannot understand what a black body is doing there because no representations of wilderness suggest that they should be there.”

It’s a challenging proposition, warns Floyd, but one that benefits all of us if we can pull it off. “Our parks tell the stories of our nation,” he says. “They are a place where we can demonstrate what makes us the United States—the place where out of many came one. And that means they should also be a place that truly invites all American people to come.”

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.

fkt
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.

fkt
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.”