The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, ranging from Georgia to Maine. It covers 14 states and is 2,190 miles long. Experienced hikers take years to plan their trip along the trail, but for one Ruston native, it only took three months before he set foot on the trail.
Silas Schroeder is a Bossier Parish Community College student studying communications. Earlier this year, he decided to take a break from school and embark on the journey of a lifetime.
“I honestly had no idea that the Appalachian Trail was a real thing,” Schroeder said. “I spent a lot of time on Google, looking up facts about the trail and then on YouTube looking at videos of hikers who have hiked the trail.”
Schroeder started his journey on April 1 and reached the final summit on Sept. 15. He spent five and a half months out in the wilderness with nothing but a few belongings and a drive to finish the trek, not only for himself but also for his father.
“My dad grew up wanting to hike the trail,” he said. “So it was cool to be able to do something that he had always wanted to do. He actually started the trail with me in Georgia and ended the trail with me in Maine.”
Schroeder said it was an honor to have his dad with him during the start and end of his journey.
Spending months in the wilderness is not an easy task and could sometimes be dangerous. Schroeder said he only suffered minor injuries during his journey and only had one run-in with wildlife.
“The scariest thing that happened to me was one night a bear took my backpack from camp,” he said. “You’re supposed to hang your bags with food from trees so the animals can’t get them and I forgot I had peppermints in a side pocket. The bear tripped and the noise woke me up. I had to jump out of my hammock and shoo the bear away because I needed my backpack.”
The brown and black bears of the region are not very big, he said, so it was easy to make yourself big to scare the animals away.
Hiking alone can drive anyone to a breaking point, but Schroeder said he enjoyed the solitude.
“You would think that being alone for that long would make you think about life,” he said. “But honestly, I just listened to a lot of music and a lot of podcasts; mostly murder mystery podcasts.”
While he was alone for a good portion of the trip, Schroeder said he met people along the way.
“The best part about the trip was the people I met while hiking,” he said. “You hear a lot of different stories, and you see a lot of interesting things. There was one guy I met, his trail name was ‘Toe’ because he had to cut off his big toe and he mummified it and kept it around his neck. That was kind of strange, but he was a cool guy and we hiked together for a while.”
Schroeder said every hiker is given a trail name and the name given to him was ‘Pepper.’
“I carried Dr. Pepper in my backpack and that’s how I got my name,” he said. “When I would summit a mountain top I would chug the two-liter of Dr. Pepper I had in my backpack. That was kind of my thing.”
Schroeder said this was his first big hike and he plans to one day complete the Triple Crown of Hiking.
“So there are three long-distance hikes in America,” he said. “The Appalachian Trail, which I just completed, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trial. The PCT and Continental Trail both stretch from Mexico to Canada. I’ve hit one of the trails in the Triple Crown and now I want to hike the other two.”
Schroeder said he is going to have to start planning a lot further in advance for the next two.
“I only planned for about two or three months for this trip and most people spend years planning,” he said. “I would plan longer for the next two and would definitely pack less, especially when starting off.”
When he started the trail in Georgia, Schroeder said his pack weighed roughly 50 pounds. That was a lot of weight and it took getting used to, he said.
Schroeder said the thing he missed the most during his trip was his family.
“I was lucky enough to have my dad, sister, brother and sister-in-law join me at various points of the hike,” he said. “That was really nice because they had a better idea of what I was going through. When I would call and complain about not wanting to walk, they would understand instead of just saying ‘come on, you can do it.’ They knew what it was like to wake up and not want to walk anymore.”
Schroeder hiked the Appalachian Trail during the second rainiest season recorded since the trail opened for hikers.
“There was a point where it rained for a solid two weeks,” he said. “You can try to cover yourself with a trash bag to keep from getting wet, but everything ends up drenched after you stop and camp every night.”
Schroeder said he even encountered 80 mile-per-hour winds during his trek.
“At one point I could barely walk because the wind was so strong,” he said. “I found myself crawling on the ground between bushes. I eventually just gave up and tried to wait it out.”
While Schroeder said he endured some trying times, he said he is glad to be back to what some may call “real life.”
“It’s definitely taking some time to adjust back to living with other people now,” he said. “People say that this world that we are living in is real life, but for me, while I was out on the trail, that was real life. I didn’t have any distractions and I didn’t know what was going on in the news, or with politics, or even random fads that were taking over. I was just hiking and surviving. I’m glad to be back with my friends and family, though.”
Getting back to a normal sleep schedule is what’s taking the most re-acclimation, he said.
“On the trail, I would go to sleep around 6 in the evening and wake up around 5 a.m.,” he said. “Now, my friends want to hang out with me at night and my body is like, nope it’s time to sleep, so that’s going to take some time, but it is nice to be back.”
Schroeder said hiking for that long alone, he was able to learn a lot about himself and other people.
“It was definitely an experience,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me what I learned and I finally got the answer down. When you set limits for yourself, they’re very much mental. No matter what your body shape is, or how old you are, you can do this. People make excuses not to do something and they set limitations, if you can get past that mental block, you can do anything.”
This originally appeared in the Ruston Daily Leader