By Nora Bollinger | Photos by Robert Boag

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Only those who trek for six months, more than 2,000 miles and through 14 states can earn a spot in the 2,000-Miler Club, a group that honors the thousands of hikers who conquer the Appalachian Trail. Some JMU students hope to someday do the same.

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Junior Michelle Sunda knows hiking. She has visited, and revisited, Norway to hike the challenging Bessegan Mountain and conquered her first mountain hike when she was only in grade school. She has come across hikers from all over the world, but will particularly remember two she passed on Maine’s tallest peak, Katahdin Mountain.

They were tired and sore. Their legs looked strong with clearly defined muscles. And they were excited — excited to be so close to the end. Not just the end of the more than 5,000-foot tall mountain but of the 2,168-mile trek through 14 states: the Appalachian Trail.

“It’s like the mountain of the Appalachian Trail. It’s the last one,” Sunda said. “And no one [who hikes the entire rail] starts at the mountain and goes south on the trail, so you see a lot of people just finishing.”

It can be really frustrating, and it can be something you really hate, and it can take a lot out of you. But at the same time, it can be really rewarding. And it’s a very pure kind of reward feeling.
Mat Cloak

“Thru-hiking” the Appalachian Trail is a trend on the rise, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the official nonprofit corporation dedicated to its preservation. This type of hiking involves taking on the trail in one fell swoop with no prolonged stops other than to sleep or eat. The ATC also notes that out of the thousands who attempt a thru-hike of the trail every year, only about one in four finish.

Despite the odds, hikers still accept the challenge. And those who succeed, earn a spot in the ATC’s 2,000-Miler Club, a group created to recognize the thousands of passionate hikers who conquer every inch of the trail from Georgia to Maine. Hikers from every state in the United States and from countries overseas, including New Zealand, The Netherlands and Germany, are members of the group.

Keith Trevvett, owner of the local Sole Source shoe store, thru-hiked the trail eight years ago.

“I started the first week of April 1994 and finished in Maine on October 7,” Trevvett said. “We would get up fairly early [each day] and hike most of the day. In the hottest months, we might take a longer break in the middle of the day. Our average miles a day were around 15 and sometimes 20.”

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Trevvett prepared for the six-month journey by taking weekend hikes to build stamina and maintain good form. He also stocked up on the proper hiking gear, although there were many towns to stop in along the trail.

“I think most thru-hikers will tell you any town offering something fun to do or good to eat was going to get a visit,” Trevvett said. “Most towns close to the trail would get a lot of visitors. One of the most memorable would be Damascus, Virginia.”

Trevvett said Damascus is one of the “most thru-hiker friendly” and hosts the annual Trail Days Festival in mid-May. The festival honors hikers by offering free showers, food, music and a hiker parade near the end of the celebration.

“The [Appalachain Trail] runs down Main Street, and just about everything in the small mountain town is set up to accommodate thru-hikers, day hikers, bike tourists and outdoor enthusiasts,” Trevvett said. “They also have one of the nicest hostels along the 2,000-mile trail called ‘The Place,’ and I think most thru-hikers would say they took a day or more off to enjoy some rest and the local mountain culture.”

But the trail isn’t always so accommodating. One section, right before the final miles of Katahdin Mountain, is called The Hundred Mile Wilderness  The section is 100 miles of pure nature, isolated from any towns. A wooden caution sign at the start of the trail  warns,  “Do not attempt this section unless you have a minimum of 10 days supplies and are fully equipped. This is the longest wilderness section of the entire [Appalachian Trail] and its difficulty should not be underestimated.”

For Trevvett, though, the most challenging parts were in New Hampshire and Maine, where there was a rocky section that took an hour to complete. But this was also Trevvett’s favorite part of the trail.

“To me, the most enjoyable part just happened to be the hardest part,” Trevvett said. “I fell in love with the White Mountains in New Hampshire. So much that I have been back to hike, climb, ice climb and ski over the years probably 10 or more times.”

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Senior Mat Cloak was another enthusiast of the Appalachian Trail. Although he hasn’t hiked the whole trail, he was inspired to add a thru-hike to his bucket list after taking a JMU course taught by Kate Kessler in 2009. The Maymester course had students hike about 50 to 75 miles of the Appalachian Trail within a 15-day period and present on the experience at the end of the three-week session.

“Since the class, I’ve hiked maybe about 75 percent of the trail in Virginia,” Cloak said. “And I actually plan on hiking the whole thing.”

One of Cloak’s favorite spots from the section he hiked was The Priest, a 4,000-foot tall mountain in the Blue Ridge range. The view from the top was one of his favorites, though getting there was a challenge.

“In just about four miles, you gain 2,000 feet, and you’re walking at about a 45-degree angle,” Cloak said.

At times, Cloak said the trail almost beat him. During one hike, he fell in a creek,  got attacked by a hive of hornets and locked his keys in his car.

“It can be really frustrating, and it can be something you really hate, and it can take a lot out of you but at the same time, it can be really rewarding,” Cloak said. “And it’s a very pure kind of reward feeling.”

Trevvett agreed. In the beginning he struggled with homesickness but made it through with some encouraging words from his then girlfriend.

“In the early days of the trail … it was sometimes hard to keep pushing through,” Trevvett said. “Once I even called my girlfriend, now my wife, and debated getting her to pick me up. She gave me a pep talk, and I kept on hiking. I never had another moment of doubt the rest of the trail.”