He produced several keepsakes from his journey, showing off pages of notes, passes and punch cards, a tattered flip-book with names scribbled throughout, a small wooden tasting spoon and a red plastic tag with “1779” scrawled onto it, among other small artifacts.
“These are things I carried with me the whole way,” Jeff Colvin said, removing some of the items from the safety of a resealable plastic bag. Along with the collectables, he revealed and flipped through a green paperback trail guide. “This book, I probably should have used more,” he said.
“This book” was the David “AWOL” Miller’s “A.T. Guide: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail,” a 2019 guide for the great trail’s northbound hikers.
Mr. Colvin, 61, had completed 2,146.4 continuous miles of the Appalachian Trail by mid-August in 2019, returning to hometown Chagrin Falls Aug. 12 with plans to complete his remaining 45.6 miles before the end of the year. And he did just that in September, taking just five days – three of which were actually spent hiking – to become a “thru-hiker” to complete the trail.
Mr. Colvin, who moved to Colorado in early December after living in Chagrin Falls for 30 years, started his northbound hike of the Appalachian Trail on April 2, 2019 at the Springer Mountain entrance in northern Georgia, after making the 8-mile approach hike, which is not part of the official trail. He made it to Whitehouse Landing Camps in Millinocket, Maine by Aug. 7.
His decision to start the trail began about four years ago. After losing his 34-year job in 2015, Mr. Colvin used the few weeks before finding another job to walk to the Bainbridge Branch of the Geauga County Public Library, where he found the book “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, an autobiography about the author’s hike of the Appalachian Trail. He said the book piqued his interest in the trail.
“I’ve always been a day hiker since I joined this timeshare in Colorado back in the ’90s, so I always liked to hike. But I never camped out in my life,” he said. “So that intrigued me.”
He was hired into a new job just five weeks after his previous job, however, and pushed the idea to the side.
“Unfortunately, after three and a half years later with [the new job], things went bad again,” he said, explaining how he lost his second job in October of 2018.
“At that point, I decided I was 60, and I just wasn’t ready to go find a job again,” he said. “So, I started planning for the Appalachian Trail in November 2018.” He added that he has always been in shape, having completed one marathon and 20 half-marathons, numerous 5K races and being part of hiking groups among other active hobbies.
For the next few months, he trained by hiking Geauga Park District trails, hiking during a vacation to Palm Desert and even spending hours at a time going up and down the stairs of his home when the weather was bad.
In addition to hardships in work, he explained briefly that his marriage was not doing well. One of the biggest reasons he chose to hike the trail was for growth in marriage and that he was following his faith in doing so, which he had also shared on social media.
“I know God is leading me to follow this path – that is certain,” he shared.
Learning the trail
“The trail is all about numbers,” Mr. Colvin said.
On his start date, Mr. Colvin was No. 1,779, meaning he was the 1,779th northbound hiker to start the trail in 2019. In less than two months, he hit Harpers Ferry, West Virginia at 1,025 miles and bumped up to No. 388.
“That doesn’t mean all these people quit,” he said. “That just means I passed them somewhere along the line.” He was on pace to finish in a little more than four months. It normally takes a hiker five to seven months to complete the trail.
“A lot of people asked me, ‘Why are you pushing so much?’” he said. “I was always pushing because I wanted to make it for my son’s ceremony.” His son graduated from the Kent State Police Academy in August, and he needed to finish the trail in time to experience this moment in his son’s life.
There are several types of hikers, Mr. Colvin explained. There are NOBOs and SOBOs (northbound and southbound hikers), flip-floppers (those who hike one direction until they reach the halfway point, then restart from the opposite direction to make their way back to the halfway point), section hikers (those who hike sections of the trails, sometimes completing the trail over the course of years or not at all) and thru-hikers (those who complete the trail in one direction in 12 months or less).
Thousands of hikers attempt a thru-hike, but only a quarter of them actually make it all the way, according to Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
In addition to numbers, Mr. Colvin explained that the trail has its own culture and way of life.
Probably the most well-known custom of the Appalachian Trail are trail names taken by hikers.
“Everybody gets these trail names,” Mr. Colvin said. “Normally, when you start the trail, you don’t have a trail name. Most people are named by someone else. You don’t name yourself.” He explained that people get their trail names based on their characteristics, mannerisms or events that happen on the trail or in life. He sifted through the pages of a flip book full of trail names. The little notebook contained pages, some crinkled and falling out, of people he met along the trail.
He wrote down names like the Golden Walker (a hiker with a golden retriever), Ginger Beard (pretty self-explanatory) and 18 (a man whose marriage ended after 18 years), among many others.
“People don’t like to go by their real name on the trail,” he shrugged. “It’s too much information, maybe.”
Mr. Colvin said he cheated when it came to his trail name by naming himself; however, “cheating” is actually not uncommon, he said.
“My trail name is Jabez,” he said. “There’s a verse in the Bible in the Old Testament; it’s 1 Chronicles 4:10.”
The verse in the Bible is: “Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.”
“That’s a verse I’ve been praying for 15 years,” Mr. Colvin said, explaining the verse has been important to him, noting that his wife had given him the book “The Prayer of Jabez” by Bruce Wilkinson early in their marriage. “That to me was meaningful.” He said he shared the verse with as many people as he could along the trail.
Between a rock and a hard place
In an email upon his return, Mr. Colvin said coming home from the trail was a hard decision to make. “I was not in a good place physically-mentally-spiritually to finish the trail safely,” he wrote.
In an interview, he explained that after several falls – one leading to a case of cellulitis that required a detour to a nearby hospital for treatment, and another that resulted in a broken toe on which he continued to hike – and becoming weary from walking more than 2,000 miles, the trail was taking its toll. Mr. Colvin said ascensions and descensions became dangerous and physically taxing due to his injuries and pain in his right leg.
He added that amid growing tension in his marriage, he discovered that his wife had left him a letter and moved out as he was just about to enter the 100-Mile Wilderness, the toughest section of the trail that starts in southwestern Maine for northbound hikers.
Nevertheless, he made his way through at least 69 miles of the 100-Mile Wilderness before heading home.
On July 21, he hiked through Mahoosuc Notch in southwestern Maine, a large gap in the Mahoosuc Range.
“That was very difficult to go through,” he said, explaining that the section of the trail is like climbing through a cave. He said he had to take his backpack off three times just to fit through some of the caverns in the notch and that he had to leave his backpack off and pull it behind him twice because the paths were so narrow and rugged. At this point, he said, he was on mile 1,917. “It was only 0.8 miles, but it probably took me three hours to do it,” he said of the notch.
After this, he trudged forward to hit the 2000-mile mark on July 28. At this point he described pain in his right knee, shin and ankle to be getting worse. He said the descents were hard on his knees, and the ascents were “grueling.”
On July 30, he reached mile 2,020.4 and hit Avery Peak of Mount Bigelow. On Aug. 2, he was in Monson, Maine with 2,077.5 miles under his belt.
On Aug. 7, he reached Whitehouse Landing and decided that evening to come home with 2,146.4 miles of the trail completed, confident, however, that he would finish the trail.
Not all bad
Mr. Colvin said he was very happy with what he had accomplished before he stopped, and while the trail was tough, he had many positive experiences to share.
Some of the more resonating experiences include perfect weather when he peaked at Mount Washington in New Hampshire on July 16, which holds a record wind speed of 231 mph from back in 1934. According to MountWashington.org, the annual average speed is about 35 mph with recent records reaching as high as 171 mph in February of 2019. When Mr. Colvin peaked, he said the air was still and the sun was shining, providing the perfect view. He finished the day at 1,872.6 miles.
He recounted experiences with “trail magic.” His first trail magic was April 3, but one he found most memorable was at the Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia.
He explained that trail magic is what hikers call people who have completed the trail before and return with vehicles loaded with food, supplies and sometimes alcohol.
He said he saw “beautiful things there” when remembering the highlands, noting wild ponies and the vast green fields. It rained later while he was there, however, which made the trail magic so much better.
“It was tough. You’re hiking through all those puddles, mud, everything,” Mr. Colvin said. “Then I came across this trail magic. So many times, they came when you were tired or you’re hungry, and many times it could bring a tear to my eye because that’s how helpful it was. And these people are out in this bad weather too.”
He also recounted his experience with the Half-Gallon Challenge at the Pine Grove Furnace General Store in Gardners, Pennsylvania – the official half-way mark of the Appalachian Trail.
He pulled out a small sample spoon to show off his reward for completing the Half Gallon Challenge. “Member of Half Gal. Club” was crookedly stamped across the chip of wood. Some of the inked letters cut off due to their proximity to the edges.
But the flat spoon served as more than just a memento for eating half of a gallon of ice cream; it meant he was halfway through the trail and well on his way.
He said eating half of a gallon of ice cream was no difficult task and that he also has a soda and a burger to go with it thanks to hiker’s hunger.
He explained that he was a stoveless hiker, which meant his meals usually consisted of SPAM packets, Pop Tarts, oatmeal packs, tortilla bread, granola and cereal among other mostly dry foods. He explained that the only opportunities he had for a real hearty meal would be at hostels throughout the trail where he could also restock his supplies. He said he would carry about 10 pounds of food on him with his backpack, which weighed in total between 35 and 40 pounds.
Return to the wilderness
Being home proved to be beneficial to Mr. Colvin, as he was able to attend his son’s graduation ceremony, take much-needed time to recover from injuries and nail down the details of his plan to return.
Despite challenges of returning to Whitehouse Landing with a 900-plus-mile commute from Ohio, including 10 miles of logging road leading up to the camp, Mr. Colvin made it back.
He had to have a plan before April rolled around again if he wanted to be a thru-hiker.
“You have to do it in a 12-month period. So I have to finish by April 2,” Mr. Colvin said reflecting on his reasoning at the time. By being northbound, however, his deadline would have to be much sooner to account for the cold weather, with some state parks closing in October before the weather worsens.
He left Sept. 18, driving two days to get to the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket, Maine. He returned to the 100-Mile Wilderness and summited Katahdin on Sept. 20 – an elevation of 5,267 feet. He said it took him 8 hours to score the mountain before reaching its peak, hiking more than 10 miles up and down the mountain, describing the trek as “intense.”
“Eventually, you hit a point where it’s almost straight up,” he said, noting that there were large iron staples on the side to use for climbing. “It was rough going up.”
After summiting at Katahdin, he completed the remainder of the trail, hiking almost 23 miles to Rainbow Lake in Rainbow Township, Maine the following day and concluded his journey with another 17.7 miles to Katahdin Stream.
With the trail completed, Mr. Colvin returned home.
By December, Mr. Colvin moved to Avon, Colorado in pursuit of new opportunities after finalizing his divorce. While the separation was not what he wanted, he said it was time to move on.
While he still has hardships to bear, Mr. Colvin said his experience summiting Katahdin was a blessing.
“Maine is just beautiful with the lakes, the trees,” he said. “It was a gift. It was just unbelievable.”