“Well, I didn’t find a burger or a grape snow cone, but the views made up for it, and it was awesome,” 26-year-old Mantachie resident Hunter Pearce wrote on Facebook as he was passing through the Chattahoochee National Forest in Neels Gap, Georgia. That was May 22, and he was just four days into his dream to thru-hike the entire 2,190 miles of mountainous terrain on the Appalachian Trail.
To Pearce, the journey represented many things.
“I’ve always liked to hike and be outdoors, but I’ve never backpacked,” he told The Times via text message. “Carrying all my belongings and traveling with minimal things was new to me. I saw it as an adventure, to get away and do a little soul searching.”
Pearce started making plans for the five-month trek only one month ahead of his departure date. It would include telling his family he was quitting his job to embark on an adventure.
He admits that at first they didn’t know what to think.
“I honestly believe they thought I was crazy for what I was about to endure,” Pearce said. “But then they slowly showed support, and I really appreciated that.”
His parents, Michael and Sharon Pearce, dropped their son off at noon on May 18 at Amicacola State Park in Georgia. They kept a journal of his social media posts and their intermittent conversations with him while he was on his hike.
Adopting a “trail name” is a common practice among those making the journey along the Appalachian Trail. It’s easier to remember fellow hikers by nicknames. Pearce became “Wooder.” A few days into his hike, he met Claire Stam, aka “Grit,” a Bay University graduate from Grand Rapids, Michigan. The two would catch up with each other from time to time during their respective thru-hikes.
Their mutual goal was to arrive at the Katahdin Summit in Maine around the first week in October.
Six days into his trip, Pearce had hiked more than 100 miles.
One down, 12 to go
“One state down, twelve to go,” Pearce shared in a May 27 Facebook post. “Not bad for this old stinking hippie from Mississippi.”
Hikers are often at the mercy of rivers and streams when they are out on the trail. The occasional stop in a nearby town offers a proper meal and a warm bath. For thru-hikers, it’s more important to stay on track and make good time, so these moments of respite are luxuries few and far between. Pearce said the longest he went without bathing was eight days.
“I just finally accepted that I was gonna stink,” he said. “I was in the Nantahala Mountains in North Carolina, and I was standing on the top of Indian Mountain. The bugs and insects were attacking me like I was a dead animal.”
Pearce averaged 16.5 miles a day. He said he finally learned to “embrace the stink.”
Around 13 days in and 200 miles down, he had traveled from Fontana Dam to The Great Smokey Mountains. Pearce noted on Facebook his excursion had, to that point, “been nothing but awesome.” He said the simplicity of nature was truly the coolest thing he had ever witnessed. He was eager to see where the next 2,000 miles would take him.
Battling the elements
In early June, Wooder and Stam met up again. Pouring rain forced the cold, wet hikers to stop seven miles short of their goal for the day and take refuge at Hogback Shelter. Severe weather is one of the top dangers on the trail.
Pearce said he began to do the math. He told Stam if they could make it to Bald Mountain, the rest was downhill. At 4 a.m., they began the hike with headlamps blazing. They spent 12 hours in dense fog, slipping on rocks along the way.
After conquering their 27-mile objective, they arrived in Erwin too late to catch the shuttle. A “trail angel,” a moniker given to people who assist hikers along the trail, picked them up and took them to a nearby McDonald’s. Stam told Pearce, “burgers and flurries never tasted so good.”
Pearce offered a piece of advice for any would be thru-hikers: “Find your bear-hanging tree and get it ready before dark.”
Suspending food in a tree is done to protect it from black bears, another notable danger on the trail. Pearce said he encountered nine of them on his trek, four of which he called “close encounters.”
In mid-June, Stam developed an infection in her eye. To further complicate things, she had to hike with only one shoe on after problems with her toenail. Pearce stuck with her while hiking in torrential rains. Eventually, though, she told him she’d had enough. Without hesitation, Pearce took her backpack, and the two hiked the remaining six miles with approximately 60 pounds of weight on Pearce’s back.
Stam wrote in a Facebook post about the incident “taught her the selfless, sacrificial nature of others.”
Unfortunately, the downpours continued. Both literally and figuratively.
“After coming out of Hot Springs, North Carolina, the rains had ruined my phones,” Pearce said. “It had rained for five days straight, but even so, I still made it passed the 400 miles mark. I just wasn’t able to get any pictures.”
When he reached Damascus, Virginia, Pearce’s cousins Mandy and Anna and his friend Cody made the trip to visit him. It was one of those aforementioned rare, too brief moments of respite.
“It was tough to say goodbye to them but I knew I had to get back on the trail,” Pearce said.
Ponies, strangers and family
“We reached Grayson Highlands,” Pearce wrote on June 20. “It’s known for its ponies and beautiful scenery. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever laid my eyes on.”
Pearce and Stam decided to spend a moment among the ponies, but were chased back into the woods when they realized they had upset the mother of one the not-so-docile creatures by trying to pet it. It was one of the lighter moments on their journey. They laughed hysterically as they escaped the mildly agitated mammal.
By June 30, the pair was in Wind Rock, Virginia, enjoying wine, cherries and Wheat Thins with strangers. They were 43 days down and had a new appreciation for being outdoors and hungry.
Pearce told Stam, “When I go home to Mississippi, if I ever see a homeless person, I’m gonna tell them to get themselves to the Appalachian Trail. They’ll be a whole lot better off. Hell, I’ll even shuttle them there if I need to.”
The longest single-day trek for Pearce was 30 miles through Shenandoah National Park. He also racked up several 20-mile days. His longest span without leaving the trail was 46 days straight with only three “zero days,” meaning no miles were hiked.
His first “zero day” was July 4 when his parents traveled to meet him in Daleville, Virginia. After the visit, he packed up with supplies and got back on the trail.
As July and Pearce both pressed forward, the extreme heat and humidity of one began to wear on the other. Pearce noticed fatigue was setting in much earlier in the day.
He was 24 miles from Harpers Ferry when he realized he had to get to a medical facility to get checked out.
The outcome would not be good. Tick-borne diseases are a common enemy to hikers along the Appalachian Trail. The doctor diagnosed who diagnosed Pearce with Lyme Disease told him he must come off the trail.
It was an difficult end to a difficult journey, and although Pearce’s dream of completing the 2,190-mile trail in its entirety will have to wait, his accomplishment of reaching the halfway point at 1,025 miles is one few will ever know personally.
“I can go on and on,” Pearce said of his experience. “The woods have been my home for 63 days, and being back here is completely different. Time moves slower there.”
Although disappointed by his journey’s sudden end, Pearce said he was extremely blessed to been able to attempt it in the first place. It left him a different man than the one who first set foot on the trail in the dawning days of summer.
“Every day was a moment of clarity, just being surrounded by God’s creation and pure nature,” he said. “There was a ‘universal sound.’ It was like a meditation, and you’re connected with nature. Life doesn’t have to be as complicated as it’s made out to be. Someday I would love to go back and finish it.”