It took six months and nine days for 32-year-old Washington resident Alex Baumgardner, aka Mailman, to hike 2,180 miles and reach the summit of Katahdin, in Maine, and touch the sign marking the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. He started April 6 at Springer Mountain in Georgia, traversed 14 states, and finished Oct. 15.
After completing the Appalachian Trail thru-hike, Baumgardner returned to Rappahannock County — to see his mother, Margarette, and father, Doug — with his new girlfriend Nicole Mannan, and a six-month-old beard. He stayed long enough for a few home-cooked meals, a warm bed, a haircut and a shave, before hitting the road with Mannan, headed west to live in Vail, Colo.
“It was basically the perfect time in my life to do it,” Baumgardner said, about making the decision to thru-hike the AT. “I had a lot of money saved up from living at home for a few years. And because I was 31 when I started — now I’m 32 — I figured if I waited any longer, your physical capabilities start to diminish. So it was kind of like now or never.”
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a thru-hiker is a hiker or backpacker who has completed or is attempting to walk the entire Appalachian Trail in one uninterrupted journey. Completing the entire estimated 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail in one trip is a mammoth undertaking, states the ATC. Each year, thousands of hikers attempt a thru-hike; only about one in four make it all the way.
It was Flint Hill resident Jim Carney who inspired Baumgardner to hike the entire AT. Carney completed the northbound thru-hike in 1993, and also hiked the Pacific Coast Trail, where he met his wife, also an avid hiker.
Baumgardner, formerly a postal employee at the Washington Post Office and thus called “Mailman” by other thru-hikers, also found “trail love.” He ran into Mannan — called “Whisper” because she is incapable of whispering at low volumes — at an overlook in North Carolina, about 140 miles into the journey. The two hiked together for a few days before Mannan sprained her ankle and had to take a month off.
A meddling mother on the trail acted as love connection, and texted Mannan that Baumgardner thought she was cute, which stuck in Mannan’s mind for that month of recovery. The two met back up in Damascus, Va. Mannan hiked with Baumgardner for days at a time, then took time off to let the ankle recuperate, before meeting up again farther north.
It was Mannan who met Baumgardner at the summit of Katahdin to give him a ride back to Virginia.
“He looked like a mountain man,” Baumgardner’s mother, Margarette, said of her son when he walked in the door of her Washington home this month. Though the long hair and beard that Alex had committed to not shave for the entire journey didn’t last long once he was home. “But he looked so happy — really, really happy.”
Margarette admits that she was not initially a fan of her son’s idea to hike alone through the wilderness for six months, without much outdoor survival experience. But as the trip wore on, and as she met other thru-hikers, the idea grew on her.
In late June, around the 900-mile point of the hike, Baumgardner reached Thornton Gap in Page County, and Margarette asked if there were any other thru-hikers who’d like to stay at their family home for a night or two before continuing on.
“So he brought 10 hikers in addition to himself,” Margarette said. “Six of which were women, which is unusual to have more women than men. But it was such a neat, interesting group of people. And from that experience I was able to be more a part of the trip. Some of the hikers had journals and blogs, and many of them were quite in-depth, so it was wonderful to follow along, to read about their journey, and their ups and downs and successes and failures. Some of them even got off the trail and then came back. What’s really amazing is 10 out of 11 hikers that stayed with us finished the hike.”
Trail names came into style 10 or 15 years ago, Baumgardner said, when the AT experienced a surge in popularity as a thru-hike. He hiked with notables such as Blacksquatch, Let’s Party, Stealth, Tumbleweed and Dimples.
“Basically I named myself, because I worked for the post office, and I didn’t want to get stuck with a nickname I didn’t like,” Baumgardner said. “Because some people get stuck with a name if they do something really dumb. This one guy, on the first night, he got too cold and got hypothermia. And ever since then he said he’d been really scatterbrained, so he got the nickname Brain Damaged. He actually introduced himself as Brain Damaged to everybody, and it just stuck the whole trail.”
Throughout the hike, Baumgardner said he felt as if his grandfather, Fanning — who died in 2009 at 88, and was an outdoors enthusiast — was with him, finally experiencing the thru-hike of his dreams. As a boy, Fanning’s parents took him up the Skyline Drive to witness its construction, and in later years he hiked sections of the AT in Virginia.
Baumgardner decided before the hike that he wasn’t going to cut his hair or shave at all on the trail — and he didn’t.
“I wanted to look like a real thru-hiker,” he said. “I didn’t want anybody asking me, ‘Oh, you’re hiking the trail?’ When people saw me hiking, they knew I was a thru-hiker: ‘He has the beard, he has the pack, he’s dirty, he stinks; he meets all the criteria of a thru-hiker.’ ”
In many ways, Baumgardner was lucky: It never got below freezing, and he didn’t suffer any notable injuries. But Baumgardner does offer some advice to anyone hoping to hike the trail.
“Just be prepared to be burnt out, on the trail, just kind of sick of it,” he said. “Because basically the first half of the trail is awesome; it’s all new, new experiences, everything’s new. And the second half, the grind starts to get to you. So you really learn how to push yourself. Because it’s really hard, not just physically but mentally too. Just be prepared to push yourself, mentally and physically.
“But getting to the end is just an experience you could never duplicate, because you’ve just been through so much,” Baumgardner said “You hike in the rain, you have blisters, you’re tired all the time, your feet hurt all the time, you get super skinny. And you just keep pushing. And then when you look back on it, and look at the map saying you just hiked from Georgia to Maine, it’s just an amazing feeling. You did it the whole way, you did it on your own. It was hard, but it was worth every step.”