October 24, 2021

The Long Haul

An Appalachian Trail hike leads to soul searching & friendships

Provided by Hannah Whelan

Lily Engerbrecht, left, and Hannah Whelan, at the approach trail to Springer Mountain in Georgia. This would lead them to the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile hike through 14 states.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail, a six-month adventure through 14 states, seems more real to Hannah Whelan now than having to go to Westfield this week to find a job.

“You are not on the trail anymore. It’s a surreal feeling. I think I am still trying to process it,” she said Sept. 28. “I think it will take a while. It’s still fresh.”

The 23-year-old Cortland woman, a 2016 Cortland High School graduate and 2020 Canisius College graduate, hiked the 2,200-mile trail, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, from March 29 to Sept. 18.

“I did it with a friend from college,” she said, of Lily Engerbrecht. “I intended to do it alone. I told her about it. We both completed it together.”

And the pair met with Ashleykate Brummet of Indiana, three miles on the approach trail to the Appalachian Trail, known as the AT.

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy says more than 3,000 people try to hike the entire 2,200-mile length in a single year. They do it for a variety of reasons: to reconnect with nature, escape the stress of city life, meet new people or experience a simpler life.

Chad DeVoe, an environmental studies teacher at the OCM BOCES New Visions program, walked the Appalachian Trail in 2009.

“I through-hiked with my friend that I worked with at a summer camp in the Adirondacks. We had his dog, Lucy, with us,” he said. “I know what she means about still processing things. Leaving the trail is sorta traumatic — a whirlwind of emotions that cannot be put into print.”

And it’s a simple life, he said.

“(It) makes you realize what we all take for granted,” DeVoe said. “It was hard, but I know for sure that the world would be a better place if everyone spent at least a few nights living that way.”

Whelan couldn’t stop thinking about it once she read about it on the internet while working on a bachelor’s degree in animal behavior and environmental studies. She wanted the challenge and a way to connect with nature. She decided to make a go of it after college.

Her parents, Jennifer and Tim Whelan, worried about her safety. But they came around, especially when she would be with her friend.

Getting ready
“I was nervous about my lack of knowledge,” Hannah Whelan said.

She had never backpacked, except for day hikes in the Adirondacks, carrying only water and food. She had set up a tent at a campground.

Whelan turned to The Trek website for advice on the best gear and tips from experienced hikers.

“Mentally preparing was my biggest concern,” she said. “Physically I was in pretty good shape. I am a runner.”

She played soccer and softball in high school and was on the crew her sophomore year of college. Rowing was intense as players conditioned and ran, as well as rowed. Whelan got hooked on running and completed a half-marathon.

To prep for the weight for the backpack she’d carry, she walked on the treadmill with 40 pounds of weight in a pack.

“People thought I was crazy. I had this feeling that I would love it,” Whelan said. “I don’t have a problem, you know, living a dirty lifestyle. I have always been a little gross. I knew that wouldn’t bother me.”

After graduating in May 2020, she worked two jobs to save money for the trail. Then she quit both for the half-year journey.

Provided by Hannah Whelan

Hannah Whelan’s gear at the start of her hike on the Appalachian Trail. She carried her home on her back for six months.

She brought a 60-liter backpack, Hoka trail running shoes. “I went through three pairs and then a fourth pair of a different shoe,” she said. She had a 15-degree down sleeping bag, a Big Agnes Copper Spur tent, for two people: “I like my space.”

She also carried a bear can, a locked container to hold food that a bear could not access. Most people on the trail use a bear bag for food, hanging it in a tree. She would eventually give it up to shed two pounds from her load.

“Every pound counts,” she said. “I always had 25 to 40 pounds of gear.”

She typically walked 15 miles a day. About the distance from Cortland to Tully High School.

‘Different sections are easier or harder’
A typical day starts with waking up.

“You either really want to get up and start your day and hike big miles or sleep longer and not hike that long,” Whelan said. The latter became more common toward the end of the hike.

First task: release the air from their air packs they sleep on.

“We get out of the tent and eat together,” she said.

Everyone on the trail has a trail name. Hers was “Bug.” Lily was “Mouse.” Th hikers they traveled with, an informal group that varied in size, called a tramily, was called the Dirty Von Trapps. “We were filthy hikers who like to sing.”

“We all would get up in the morning, drink instant coffee and eat a granola bar and maybe some oatmeal. Or a pop tart or just plain peanut butter,” Whelan said.

About the food
Hikers generally had a hot meal at supper time. They had tiny stoves and cans of gas.

“Sometimes my favorite thing to bring was a block of cheese. There’s lots of calories and real substance,” Whelan said.

Her favorite hot meal: a ramen bomb. Start with ramen soup. After adding the flavor packet, mix it with instant mashed potatoes.

“It’s satisfying and lightweight.”

Some people get really fancy, carrying mayonnaise, chipotle, hot sauce.

Whelan and crew got good at disassembling the tent and loading packs in five to 10 minutes. They’d brush their teeth and decide: hike alone? Hike with a partner? Hike with the tramily?

They had 15 in their group at one point. Hikers would plan how far to walk and where they would end, using Guthook Guides app, which outlines where tenting space or shelters are located. Cell service was not always available, but hikers used their cell phones to connect. No matter their numbers on the trail, they would end up in one place.

Safety on the AT
Whelan felt safe on the trail.

“Every once in a while, when hiking along, I’d get a primal fear,” she said. “It was me getting in my own head. I scared my own self.”

She saw a bear in Virginia, a mother and two cubs, and saw bears in New Jersey.

“New Jersey has the highest per capita of black bears. I saw a mom and three cubs,” she said.

One day, she and her friend were eating berries off a raspberry bush, 25 feet from a bear nibbling at the same patch!

“It was so cool. I never had an encounter with a bear where I felt afraid,” Whelan said. “They are more afraid of us.”

She had to be careful of snakes from Virginia to Pennsylvania. It was hot there with sandy and rocky terrain. Copperheads and timber rattlesnakes were present.

Whelan stopped listening to music in those parts to instead listen for the rattle of rattlesnakes.

“We were on high alert.”

One of her favorite moments was pulling into a trail friendly town, Sylva, N.C., to The Lazy Hiker. It was packed with AT people.

“It was incredible to see how many people are doing this journey. Wow, you are not alone out here,” she said.

Fellow hikers supported her, as did her family, her boyfriend, Greg Schroeder and the Cortland community, offering well wishes in a notebook she carried. They buoyed her through the trip.

Beautiful vistas and rattlesnakes
Her favorite state was New Hampshire.

“The White Mountains are beautiful. I am an Adirondack girl. They felt like home. The terrain and the view are not like anything else on the AT,” she said. “But you have to work for it. It’s physically strenuous.”

Pennsylvania was the worst.

“The northern half of Pennsylvania is so rocky,” she said. “You have to watch every step.”

It’s mentally exhausting, and then there are the snakes. “And there’s not many view points that boost morale. We were happy to get out of Pennsylvania and into New Jersey.”

She became separated from her trail friends at the 1,100-mile mark, when her tramily pulled ahead 55 miles. She had a visit from her boyfriend in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and didn’t hike for a day. A visit from her family in the Shenandoah Valley delayed her another.

She planned to reconnect with her trail friends in two days, but they kept moving. In fact, they did a four-state challenge, walking 44 miles in 24 hours, through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, getting up at 3 a.m. and hiking till 9 p.m.

“They are awesome.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Hannah Whelan of Cortland on Sept. 28 at Bru 64 in Cortland, after her six-month Appalachian Trail hike. She completed the trek Sept. 18.

One little cheat
Now, Whelan had to decide, hike alone for days and days or take a 30 mile ride with her boyfriend, who made the offer, to drive her to the Mason-Dixon line.

“There’s 30 miles of Maryland untouched by my feet. I did drive with my boyfriend.”

“I was so much happier. My purpose being out there changed,” Whelan said. “It was about being with the people I met. I didn’t expect that doing it. I thought it would be a solo journey. A soul searching journey. It was. But the trail is about the people you meet.”

“I don’t think it takes away from her accomplishment at all,” DeVoe said. “Actually, I met a person in his 70s in New Hampshire that was working on finishing up the trail after chipping away for 30 years. People approach it in many different ways.”

Appalachian Trail Stats
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Appalachian Trail is:

  • The longest hiking-only path in the world, roughly 2,190 miles.
  • Sees more than 3 million visitors a year.
  • Has more than 3,000 people trying to hike the entire path in a year.
  • Goes through 14 states: Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont and West Virginia.

“I don’t regret that decision,” Whelan said. “I’m going back to hike that section with my dad and grandfather this summer.”

“You can’t expect people to slow down for you,” she said. “That’s when decisions get tough. Hike with them, or without them and slip miles behind. The trail was good for that. How to make decisions to make me happy. And I had to swallow my pride, which is a good thing.”

“The trail never felt like hard work. It felt like fun. It’s so simple. You forget you are doing something great.”

Finishing the trek was strange, exciting and unbelievable, she said. Seeing their end point, Mount Katahdin, 60 miles from the end of the trail, was emotional.

She got up at 3 a.m. because it was going to rain and they wanted to summit in nice weather.

As they walked, it became clear:

“This is about to end. The way we were living isn’t going to go on forever. But then you got excited to see family, to see Greg. And have a shower.”

Still, she and her friends cried together, laughed together and suffered together, every single day.
“It connects you in a way you can’t explain.”