Sam Gartley isn’t one to let a few obstacles stop him from reaching his destination.
Last month, Gartley became the latest hiker from Southwestern Pennsylvania to join the prestigious “2000 Miler” club when he completed a brisk 124-day trek on the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail—also known as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail or A.T. Gartley, who started his journey on June 19, was racing against the clock to finish his arduous hike.
“Most people start their hike on the Appalachian Trail between March and April,” said Gartley, 26, a native of Connellsville who now lives in Pittsburgh. “I started my hike several months later and had to walk a fast pace to reach Mount Katahdin before its northern terminus closed for the winter. Some days were tougher than others, but I kept my focus and continued walking until I reached my destination.”
Completed in 1937, the Appalachian Trail spans 14 states between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is considered the longest hiking-only trail in the world and draws more than 2 million visitors each year. Gartley was the 1,118th thru-hiker to complete the trail this year.
Gartley was accompanied by his father, Herb, for the first two days, but walked most of the trail by himself. Often, Gartley was unable to make a call because certain areas did not have cell phone service.
“I didn’t really encounter many people on the trail until I reached Connecticut,” said Gartley. “Most of the thru-hikers already completed the trip months earlier. Sleeping alone in the wilderness was a little unnerving but eventually you get used to it.”
On a typical day, Gartley covered about 17.6 miles through brushland, marshes and bogs. Most nights, he camped out in an Adirondack shelter—an open, three-walled structure with a wooden floor—or under a tent that he carried in his backpack. Occasionally the trail ran through a rural trail town, where Gartley would restock his supplies, wash his clothes and spend the night in a hostel.
Gartley credits his strong willpower for giving him the strength to complete the grueling hike. During his northbound journey, Gartley’s endurance was put to the test on a daily basis.
“The Appalachian Trail is mostly dirt, rocks and roots,” he said. “One misstep, and you could easily get a serious injury. You soon learn to keep your eyes on your feet, so you don’t trip. Fortunately, I only suffered a few minor ankle sprains, along with some blisters and chaffing. For the most part, the weather wasn’t that bad, but I had to walk through pouring rain and extreme heat during the early part of my journey. Probably the biggest discomfort was hunger. You burn up a lot of calories while walking and you can only carry limited rations. At one point, I lost about 15 pounds.”
It wasn’t unusual for Gartley to come face-to-face with wildlife on the trail. Gartley estimates he encountered 17 black bears, six rattlesnakes and one bobcat during his four-month hike.
“Animals were generally more scared of people than we were of them,” he said. “Almost every bear I saw would quickly run away. I was never concerned for my safety. But you had to watch your food at night or one of the bears would run off with it.”
When Gartley finally reached New England, he came in contact with a group of other thru-hikers who accompanied him to Maine. Gartley’s brother, Ryan, also joined him for the last day of the hike.
Aside from the joy of taking a break from the everyday grind, Gartley learned some valuable lessons during his hike.
“Walking the trail is a good metaphor for accomplishing any type of long-term goal in your life,” said Gartley, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in history and film. “When you start, it seems almost impossible to walk more than 2,000 miles. But you can do it when you take the first step and concentrate on reaching your daily destination. Before you know it, you are almost at the finish line.”
Gartley is unsure if he will hike on the Appalachian Trail again. If he gives it another try, however, he will take a more leisurely walk the next time.
“I missed out on experiencing more of the trail culture because I had to cover ground so quickly,” he said. “If I would do it again, I would explore more of the sights along the way and get to know more of the people. I’d have to say walking on the Appalachian Trail was one of the most interesting experiences in my life.”