Millions of people hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail annually. Thousands take to the trail in Charlottesville’s own Blue Ridge backyard. But only a few hundred ambitious adventurers make the full 2,190-mile trek between Georgia and Maine.
Last year, longtime Charlottesville resident Jesse Smyth completed the arduous journey. She shared her story with C-VILLE:
I’ve been hiking pretty much my whole life. I lived in Charlottesville since I was 2 until college, and did a lot of the day hikes around Charlottesville, everything from Ragged Mountain and Sugar Hollow to Humpback Rocks and Shenandoah National Park. My favorite day hike is Bearfence Mountain. It’s a fun rock scramble and has some nice views.
My first backpacking trip was when I was around 10, in the Adirondacks. The next year, that’s when I decided I was going to hike the AT, Georgia to Maine. I’m 24 now and finished my hike last year. I started on March 15 and finished August 14—right in the middle in terms of speed. I wasn’t trying to rush. At first I wanted to take my time and do eight to 12 miles per day, but I didn’t keep that up. We did a 14-mile day by day four. There were a couple stretches where we didn’t take a zero—a full rest day—for 20-some days. We were just going.
On the trail
I had a few different trail families, or tramilies. I had been with a group for the first 300-some miles, the first couple states, and then there was a norovirus outbreak, which is common on the trail. Norovirus doesn’t get killed by hand sanitizer, and it spreads easily. I was in this group, and they all got sick, but I did my first 20-mile day and outran it. Only two of that tramily ever caught up again.
Most hikers on the AT get trail names. My tramilies gave me two trail names. The first was Double Stuff, because I started out carrying two puffy coats, and the second was Fumbles, because I dropped things a lot, particularly my water filters.
For the last part of the trail, one of the women I was hiking with had the idea for all of us to take a summit picture on Mount Katahdin in animal onesies. We initially pushed back a bit, but in the end it was a great idea. She asked her boyfriend to buy them all, and he sent them to us the day before we summited. We got our normal pic first, then we got a group pic. I was a kangaroo.
On the aftermath
I’m still in touch with some of the people I met on the trail. In my final tramily, there were seven or eight of us. We still have an active group chat. I preferred company to hiking alone. I had about five days completely by myself and decided that wasn’t for me.
Last year, there was a murder on the trail about 150 miles south of me in Virginia. While it shook the trail community, it didn’t ruin my hike, but it increased my awareness of my surroundings. The vast majority of the people I met were really cool. There was only one time I felt uncomfortable about someone I ran into on the trail, but I was able to add a few miles and hike into town.
I definitely would recommend a thru-hike to others. I don’t know that I would do the same one. I was pretty tired right when I finished and thought that there was no way I would do a five-month hike again. Now that I am a year out, I have started to think that maybe the Pacific Crest Trail wouldn’t be so crazy after all.