The journey continues

Published 9:06 pm Sunday, August 26, 2012


The headlamp illuminates the path in front of him, picking out roots and rocks that could trip him in the dark. It’s 5:30 a.m. The birds woke him and wouldn’t let him go back to sleep — again.

It’s just another day on the Appalachian Trail.

For two months, local artist Steve Ainsworth has been walking, over mountains and through valleys, fording streams and battling the elements in a bid to hike the 2,184 miles of the Appalachian Trail in its entirety, called a thru-hike.

On June 19, Ainsworth started his journey by climbing Mt. Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine. Since then, he’s crossed four states, hiked the White and Green Mountains of New Hampshire and has reduced one pair of hiking boots to tatters.

Ainsworth says he lives by the sun now, rising at 4:30 a.m. By 8:30 p.m., after 10 to 12 hours of hiking, he’s found a place to bed down for the night, sometimes in his tent, sometimes in shelters along the trail. He’s averaging over 20 miles and burning up to 5000 calories a day.

Physically, it means Ainsworth’s existence has been boiled down to survival: food, water, shelter.

“What’s starting to be a real issue as I come further south is water,” Ainsworth explained. “It’s difficult to carry a whole day’s worth of water.”

The guidebook Ainsworth carries directs hikers to known water sources, but a dry summer means the guidebook often points to dry streams. The constant need for more provisions means hikers must veer off the trail, a delay that takes up valuable time.

But Ainsworth, and the other hikers, get by with a little help from their friends, he said. Ainsworth is a southbounder, hiking the AT from north to south. The majority of hikers are northbounders, going the opposite direction. As the two groups pass along the trail, information flows freely, covering where to get necessary supplies, what difficulties may lie ahead and locations where they’ve encountered “trail magic:” food and water left for hikers, bags of homemade chocolate chip cookies hung on tree branches and coolers full of ice-cold beer, all magically delivered to the AT, left by anonymous allies.

Ainsworth said he’s been surprised by how much time he’s spent with the greater community of hikers — not hard to do when at certain points he’s passed as many as 30 hikers a day.

“I came out here to be in the woods and experience the solitude and time to myself,” he said. “There’re parts that makes that difficult, mainly that there are a lot of people on the trail.

“But the people I’ve met — just a lot of fascinating people,” he said. “The southbound community is a small group.  We’re getting to know each other real well. You can go a good portion of the day without seeing another southbounder then someone you haven’t seen in ten days just comes strolling down the trail. You’ll hike together for the rest of the day. In the morning, you’re gone.”

A third of the way through the AT, Ainsworth has experienced both extreme isolation and been embraced by the AT community. He’s been tired, cold and attacked by a small grouse (which he laughs about). During brief encounters with civilization every few weeks, Ainsworth said downing a large pizza, beer and a pint of ice cream barely takes the edge off his hunger — he’s lost 15 pounds, which is 10 percent of his body weight.

He said he’s never bored. Each day is a challenge and another opportunity for a stunning sunrise and spectacular view from mountaintops.

“The Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains, N.H.,” Ainsworth described. “A cold front came through the night before. It was 50 degrees, steady winds at 35, gusting at 40. The sky was as blue as it could be — I’m sure I could see 60 miles in all directions. I sat behind a rock, out of the wind, and just stared. There’s nothing else to do. There’s no words for it.”