On April 1st this year, 39 year old George O’Brien from Nobleboro, set out to fulfill a lifelong dream. He took his backpack began a hike that would take him 2,189.9 miles along the Appalachian Trail and back to Maine’s MT Katahdin on September 23rd.
When he was “10 or 12” years old he saw a sign for the trail while visiting his Grandfather in Great Barrington, Mass. “It was the Appalachian Trail overpass on Route 90. From that day on, he wanted to hike the trail.
The Appalachian Trail may be the best long-distance hiking route in the entire world. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy describes on its website how a Harvard-educated conservationist named Benton MacKaye proposed “a series of work, study and farming camps along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains.” The trail is 80 years old this year.
For some people it’s a rite of passage, for some it’s an escape. For George, it was just something he wanted to do to: simply be in nature, see the country on foot, and meet new people. Only about 25% of thru-hikers, those who set out to complete the trail in one hike, end up finishing the trail according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Every year there is a thru-hiker with the trail name ‘Wrong-way’ because they headed out on more than one morning in the wrong direction; thankfully George was not that hiker this year.
Along the way, in the nearly six months that George was walking, he met up with people from all over. He found people from Lincoln County that he’d never met at home, chatted up strangers , sometimes hiked for days with a new friend. The beginning of the hike was more populated, by the end there were not nearly as many people along the way.
Post Offices where the AT came near have special stations set up. Hikers would guestimate before leaving when they would be near and care packages with dry socks, sometimes money, and food would be waiting for them. Damascus, Virginia makes a celebration each year, one of the highlights and big helps that hikers find along the way. For “Trail Days,” Damascus sets up a Tent City which provides a night or two of shelter, and they even take the boots from the hikers, give them a loaner pair for a day and clean and waterproof theirs so they can start out with dry feet again. George dyed his “wild mountain man beard” purple while in Damascus and ate. A lot.
Often nights were spent in huts that served as shelters and strangers slept shoulder to shoulder. While hiking the trail a person can burn up to 6,000 calories a day. This meant that food became something that was treasured. “I ate oatmeal every morning, “ said George, “ and a snack an hour or so later, and then another snack and then lunch and then a snack and so on all day long.”
George found himself appreciating the fragility of nature. One unplanned pause in the trail was a fire on a mountain. The Appalachian Trail was on fire. When it was safe to continue, the hikers passed through the devastation left by a forest fire. He saw wild ponies at play in fields, talked with fawns in the woods, and became enamored of the patterns in fallen trees and mosaics created by moss.
For nearly six months, he took photographs with his Samsung phone, shared them on Facebook and kept walking. He paused for an emergency room visit when tick bites became an issue and had to add antibiotics to 21 days of his adventure.
On Sept 23rd, 2017 George O’Brien stood on top of Mount Katahdin, in Baxter State Park. He had walked 2, 189.9 miles and conquered the Appalachian Trail.