By Eric J. Wallace
From February 22 to December 29 of 2016, 23-year-old Crozetian and recent Princeton University graduate Adam Geilker did something rather astounding: Setting out from the peak of Hightop Mountain, just south of Swift Run Gap in the Shenandoah National Park at high noon, he headed north on the Appalachian Trail, hiking to its terminus at Katahdin in Maine, then south to the terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia, whereupon he turned around and hoofed it right on back to Hightop. During the 45-week hike, he took only 27 days off, eight of those due to a wildfire in North Carolina. The walk totaled over 4,400 miles—over 3,000 of which were completed in a pair of OESH sandals.
As that last detail may imply, while the distance is certainly remarkable—on his first major solo thru-hike the man tackled the AT twice in under a year—what’s more interesting is Geilker’s method. Determined to abide by the AT credo to ‘hike your own hike,’ he made much of his gear himself and approached the trail in a manner uniquely his own.
We sat down at Mudhouse for an interview.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I lived in Charlottesville all my life until I went to college. While I was in college, my folks bought a farm in Crozet, so now I’m sort of from Crozet.
My undergraduate degree is in mechanical engineering and I also received a certificate—Princeton’s version of a minor—in materials science. I love designing and building things, and my goal is to use my degree to do that. I’ve also pursued welding as a trade, and I’m doing a bit of that now to make money while I look for a proper engineering job.
Outline your hike.
I began in Greene County in the middle of the Shenandoah National Park on Hightop Mountain at noon on February 22, 2016. I chose the location because of its personal significance in my life—I’d spent a lot of time there when I was younger hiking, camping and working with my father, and had even had my first kiss with my high school girlfriend on the rock overlook.
Originally, I intended to get started on January 15, but I was a little late getting ready and our area got about two or three feet of snow. I finally got going when the snow melted in the Valley, although there was still around four inches left in the mountains at that point.
After hiking around 1,300 miles, I made it to Katahdin on June 15. I turned around and finished my southbound thru-hike on November 3 (4 months and 18 days from Katahdin). I completed my second northbound leg on December 29, when I re-summited Hightop.
Going into this trip, how much backpacking experience did you have?
I’ve been backpacking and camping since before my earliest memories. I’ve hiked and camped extensively with my family and participated in the Field School of Charlottesville’s Field Camp and Outdoor Leadership School between the ages of 14 and 17. The program included a week of introduction to backpacking and then a week-long hike along the AT. Two years we did from I-64 to the Priest, and one year we hiked from Grayson Highlands to Damascus. Additionally, I spent the whole summer between high school and college camping in the woods. And in college, I led Princeton’s Outdoor Action backpacking orientation program, where we went on three summer-long cross-country bicycling trips, which involved camping every night.
How did you prepare for the trip?
Other than making a lot of my own hiking equipment, I researched the trail as much as I could. I made my own trail guide, following the minimalist style of my directions sheets for my cross-country cycling trips. I read Internet forums, watched YouTube videos and Googled all the trail slang…. In retrospect, I actually wish I’d planned less. It turns out planning and logistics matter a whole lot more for a shorter trip—say, for a week. Basically, in terms of preparation I think it’s good to keep the popular Trail-saying in mind: “the Trail isn’t a sprint; it’s not even a marathon; it’s a way of life.” For nearly everyone, a thru-hike is three to six months of your life—life happens and planning a day-by-day itinerary from the outset is unlikely to be useful, just as planning today what you’re going to eat on June 14 is kind of ridiculous.
How did you deal with being on the trail in winter?
At first I wore muck boots and brought along a huge, heavy and incredibly burdensome sleeping bag, basically because I was afraid of freezing. I really didn’t hit anything crazy until I was coming down Mount Moosilauke in New Hampshire. That was the first time I hit trail where technical ice-climbing was required. I was completely unprepared and genuinely thought I might die—although oddly, turning back didn’t occur to me at all… Ultimately, I made do by tying my hammock strap to my bear-bag line and used this ersatz-rope to belay myself down the steep ice-sheet that was the trail. Then I went into town and spent hundreds of dollars on ice-climbing and winter gear.
Another winter shocker was when I took a zero-day in the New Hampshire Whites at Greenleaf Hut after getting caught in a succession of rain, fog, horizontal hail, then a howling snowstorm on Mount Lafayette— instead of the summit forecast, I’d referred to the valley forecast, which was 40 degrees, no chance of rain and sunny. That was the last time making that mistake!
What made you want to do the double-thru-hike?
My favorite answer to this question goes something like: “The first time I went backpacking on the AT I was three-months old and riding in my father’s backpack.” That pretty well sums up my relationship to the trail. My father is a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club trail overseer so, in addition to growing up hiking and camping on the AT, I also spent a lot of time doing volunteer trail work with him, and wrote one of my college common-app essays about that experience… In high school I knew I wanted to thru-hike the AT someday, but it wasn’t until I was a college senior that I began to seriously plan for the trip.
As an environmentalist, it seemed crazy to me to take a plane/bus/train to one end or the other and then again for the trip home—after all, the AT passes right through my backyard! However, by starting out hiking from Virginia to Maine, I wasn’t properly a thru-hiker. Technically, that’s just a section-hike. So, if I failed on that first 1,300-mile leg, at least I wouldn’t be a failed thru-hiker. And if I was able to complete those first 1,300 miles? I figured I could probably manage the whole thing.
Plus, it’s just plain harder to do it twice. Lots of people told me I couldn’t and doing what people say I can’t do has always been a hobby of mine.
Was it lonely?
Oh, the loneliness was awful. During the summer season there are plenty of people. I started and finished my hike in the extreme off-season, which made it pretty lonely. The longest I went without seeing a person was five days—and while that isn’t so bad, when you factor in the fact that on the trail when human interaction does occur it’s often pretty limited, it got a little rough… Typically I’d cross paths with someone and just say hi or, at best, chat for five minutes before we went our separate ways. If I stopped at a shelter and someone was there, then maybe we’d interact for longer—or we might both be so exhausted we just crawled into our sleeping bags for the night.
Now I’m pretty good at dealing with loneliness—I’ve been rather profoundly alone for the vast majority of my life. It’s there, I’m just used to it. But in the off-season, the loneliness sometimes got to the point where, when I went into town to resupply, I’d fall in love with the cashier at the grocery store when she smiled at me. That’s meant to be funny; it’s also very true…
But being alone wasn’t always lonely. Especially when conditions were hairy. The worse the weather or the more arduous the climb, the happier I was hiking solo.
What’s the takeaway?
I find the self-reliance of being alone in the woods to be a good antidote to day-to-day suburban American existence. Our post-industrial society is somewhat alienating to the individual for two reasons. First, if you were to suddenly disappear you would just be replaced in many respects, which makes it feel like society doesn’t need you. Also, the basic necessities of life are so readily accessible in the modern world that obtaining them sometimes fails to satisfy. In other words, society can alienate you by giving the impression that it doesn’t need you and the impression that you don’t even need yourself. But on the trail, I need food, water, shelter and other people far more immediately than I do in typical day-to-day suburban existence. Not only do I appreciate these basic necessities far more on the trail, but I can appreciate my own agency in getting them. Fundamentally, I need me far more on the trail—my judgment and my physical ability constantly, directly translate into fulfillment of my needs, and are measured by my daily successes or shortcomings as a hiker. This sense of needing yourself and having greater agency is healthy and deeply satisfying.
What was your favorite stretch of trail and why?
I don’t have a favorite section of trail. I think someone who’s hiked the AT only once or always at the same times of year is a lot more likely to have a favorite section. But hiking it twice, I realized that the experience of a location can be totally different in different seasons.
A stretch of trail in Vermont that was staggeringly perfect in the winter with snow-cover was just another mile or two when I hiked through it going south in the summer. Mountains where I’d seen great views in the winter were completely obscured by leaves the other time I passed them. Even the time of day that I stood on a particular spot made all the difference. In short, I do have favorite moments on the AT, but not as many favorite places, if that makes sense.
Eventually, I might do another crazy outdoors adventure, but the next things I intend to accomplish aren’t necessarily what most people think of when they hear the word adventure. I regard getting married and starting a family as constituting a more exhilarating and challenging adventure than hiking the AT. Same with getting a job and designing machines and other complex systems. I don’t view returning to the “three-dimensional world”—where east and west exist in addition to north/south and up/down—as a let-down. Instead, I see it as an opportunity to do many of the things I didn’t have the freedom to do while on the trail. Life is full of opportunities, and all new experiences have a touch of adventure in them…
In the end, I’m much more than a hiker. The idea is in a saying I coined on the trail: “The most dangerous thing about thru-hiking the AT is letting it be the coolest thing you ever do.” I don’t intend to let myself down on that one.