Local men take separate journeys but use similar motivation to hike entire Appalachian Trail

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 13, 2013 

Two local men at different ends of life took separate five-month journeys to hike the entire Appalachian Trail this summer.

But they used similar motivation.

And along the more than 2,100-mile path, as each of them raised money for charity in memory of a loved one, they also raised their understanding of themselves.

Only one in four thru-hikers complete the feat, but Tyler Baughman and Mike Stephens persevered to join the prestigious list of about 13,600 folks who have walked from Georgia to Maine on that tantalizing and treacherous trail.

Here are their stories:

Preparation and motivation

Baughman, 25, played baseball for Columbus High School and Columbus State University, so he knew how to get in shape and push his body toward a goal. But hiking with some buddies on parts of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia after his freshman year in college planted the seed for a different kind of challenge.

"That was the first time I heard of a thru-hike," he said, "and it kind of blew my mind."

He graduated from Georgia College with a bachelor's degree in outdoor education. His appreciation for nature grew while he worked during the summers as a backpacking guide at Glacier National Park in Montana. When he was hired full-time after graduating, he had the seasonal work schedule to take the time off he needed to hike the AT.

Although he said his main reason for wanting to complete the trail was "selfish," Baughman used the memory of his mother, Cheri, as motivation. She died from lymphoma in 2007.

His sister, Laura Irvin, kept a blog based on reports Baughman called in and the photos he sent. Through his hike, he raised about $2,000 for the Lymphoma Foundation.

"Not that it would necessarily disappoint them, but you don't want to quit something like that where a lot of people are pulling for you and rooting for you and watching you on a blog," he said. "I wanted to do something that, like every kid, to make my parents proud. My dad was, and I figured my mom would be proud too."

Stephens, 62, taught English for 31 years and coached cross country for 25 years and track for 11 years at Shaw High. In 2006, he left to teach at Smiths Station High, where he stayed for six years before retiring again in 2012.

He started section-hiking the Appalachian Trail 10 years ago with former Shaw colleague Alton Pitts, now at Beulah High.

"I always had it in the back of my head I'd like to try a thru-hike, but I didn't think I'd have the toughness to do it," he said. "It's more mental than physical, so I just gave it up."

He revisited the idea after his younger brother, Don, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in May 2011, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"Even though we were six years apart in age," Stephens said, "We were very close."

Stephens graduated from Baker High in 1969; Don graduated from Glenwood School in 1976. He was a five-sport letterman, including a baseball state championship. As an adult, Don lived in Harris County and worked for Atmos Energy.

By May 2012, Don was in a motorized wheelchair. All he could move below his neck were two fingers on his left hand, but he still enjoyed go

ing outside with his brother. So as they overlooked the Chattahoochee River, Stephens told his brother he was planning to thru-hike the AT in honor of him.

Don laughed and replied, "It won't be in my honor; it will be in my memory."

Three months later, Don died. He was 55.

"It's a horrendous disease," Stephens said. "It just takes away all of your dignity. You lose everything but your mind. You're clear thinking, but eventually you don't have any control over your arms or legs and can't even talk."

Stephens isn't sure of the total money his hike raised for ALS yet because he is waiting for one person who might make a substantial contribution, but he said he collected "a few thousand" already and might reach five figures.

Hike begins

On Springer Mountain in north Georgia, Baughman started March 5 on the AT at a slow pace, 8-12 miles per day, then gradually increased his daily distance as long as 30 miles. His pack weighed 20-30 pounds, depending on how far he was from his next resupply point, which he reached every four to seven days.

"I'd say, mine was on the heavier end of the spectrum," he said. "I mean, people get their backpacks pared down to the very bare essentials, and I was carrying books and stuff."

Stephens was on the lighter end. His pack weighed 26 pounds when he started March 23, but he trimmed it down to about 10 pounds because he did what is known as slack-packing.

"I tried to base in a town a lot," Stephens said. "I'd go to a town like a day or two south of there, then I would shuttle out and hike in. I might be 30 miles short of the town, get a shuttle in or hitch in, then the next day shuttle out, maybe hike 15 miles and come back in. All you take is food and water. Everything else is left in the room."

Stephens hiked 13-14 miles per day early in the hike, then up to 18 during the middle stretch. In the mountains, he slowed to 6-7 miles per day. He slept mostly in motels, sometimes hostels or cabins.

"Somebody offered me a condo for one night," he said. "I stayed in private homes a few times, thanks to people you just meet along the way. My slogan was light pack, big miles and beds."

Late in the hike his slogan became, he added with a smile, "Every step I take is a step I'll never have to take again, because I ain't doing this again."

Worst moment

Baughman overcame two bouts of the norovirus that plagued the trail this year. He first got hit outside Irwin, Tenn., then in Waynesboro, Va. Both times, he was fortunate enough to be near towns where he could recuperate for a few days. But his worst moment on the trail came during a stretch of 95-degree days in Palmerton, Pa.

"It was just unbearably hot," he said. "I got chafed up pretty bad. It was pretty painful."

From the friction and the sweat and the rain, his upper legs and thighs were rubbed so raw, it was worse than any jock itch the former baseball player ever had. He finally found relief from ointment used for diaper rash.

"I was glad that I got that figured out," he said, "because that was going to stop my hike."

Stephens' worst moment on the trail came in New Jersey.

It was near the end of a 20-mile, muggy and buggy day. When came to a high step, he couldn't pull himself all the way up and fell straight back, about a 6-foot drop. One of his poles snapped in half between two rocks, and he landed on his right hand.

"If I didn't have my pack on, I probably would have broken my back," he said. "Fortunately, that was a day I had a full pack. I probably would have broken my back if I was slack-packing. I mean, I went down hard, really hard."

The next morning, his right hand was swollen and bruised. But he didn't dare quit.

"I just thought, I'm this far in, so I kind of just sucked it up," he said.

Funniest moment

Baughman's funniest moment on the trail came in Manchester Center, Vt., a hoity-toity touristy town, complete with Gucci and Ralph Lauren stores. But it still had a McDonald's, where Baughman and a buddy dined. As they departed and walked through the parking lot, a woman noticed their scruffy condition, leaned over the front seat of her car and rolled up the passenger-side window.

"We just looked at each other and started laughing," he said. "She thought we were going to steal her car or something. Some people just have no idea the Appalachian Trail goes through their town. The people who realize what you're doing are normally very excited and interested and want to hear about the hike."

Stephens' funniest moment on the trail came in Pennsylvania -- and it resulted from his second-most serious fall.

He was trying to open a bottle of Mountain Dew and lost his footing.

"I was laughing about my inability to screw the top off, and I went backwards and fell over a rock," he said. "It could have been disastrous. I was hiking with somebody else, and we both got really serious for a moment, and then when I realized I wasn't hurt, it became another laughing moment."

Food

For breakfast, Baughman often ate Pop-Tarts. For lunch, he munched on granola bars, trail mix or whatever salty snack he could find at a store. Bagels with peanut butter also were a staple. Occasionally, he splurged with cream cheese, despite the lack of refrigeration in his pack. "I was willing to risk it," he said with a laugh.

Dinner normally was something he could toss into boiling water, such as rice or pasta. He sometimes mixed it with tuna.

For water, he relied on the sources along the trail. Before drinking from creeks or ponds, he treated each liter with two drops of bleach to prevent waterborne infections.

Stephens didn't carry a stove and stayed in the woods back-to-back nights only a couple times. In towns, he typically bought tortillas and packaged meat or tuna or salmon to bring on the trail.

He got tired of the peanut butter and cheese he relied on early in the hike. He also carried cans of Beanie Weanies or Vienna sausages. But anytime he was in a town, he feasted on fast food and took a meal to go on the trail. Eating the breakfast at the motels also was key.

Gear

Baughman had one set of clothes to hike in and one set for camp, plus rain gear and long underwear. He rinsed his clothes whenever he found a body of water, but anything resembling a bath or shower had to wait at least four days between the youth hostels he reached.

He laughed when asked how bad the odors were emanating from him and his fellow hikers.

"You get used to it, and you almost revel in the fact that you're doing something different," he said. "You're on an adventure."

Stephens took two short-sleeve shirts, one long sleeve and one compression shirt. He had a pair of long pants to wear in towns. And he did the entire hike in an ALS hat.

Baughman went through four pairs of shoes.

"I started with the hiking boots I would guide in, but that was before I realized they were just too much," he said. "They would freeze, and they would take forever to put on."

Stephens didn't hike in boots at all. He went through five pairs of Brooks Cascadia trail runners.

"Well, I really count four, he said. "I sent home the pair I got injured in. I only had 60 miles on them.

I started with a 10½, which is what I always have worn, but your feet flatten out as you hike. I got almost 700 miles in my first pair, then I got Achilles tendonitis, and I could barely walk."

A friend over-nighted him a pair of 11s to Daleville, Va., and Stephens took four days to recover in a motel. Other than that episode, he didn't leave the trail for more than one day. The longest stretch he hiked without a day off was 18 days.

"My whole life revolved around the hike," Stephens said.

Baughman's longest break from the trail came in late July, when he was in southern Maine, only 250 miles to go, but he left for eight days to attend a family reunion. When he returned, he felt out of shape but the rough terrain quickly forced him to find his rhythm again.

Besides, the toughest part wasn't physical.

"It was a constant struggle just being mentally prepared to walk all day every day," he said.

Trail names

Thru-hikers on the AT adopt trail names they use during the hike. Baughman's trail name was Sweat.

"I was just nasty-sweaty," he said with a shrug. "I didn't see anybody who sweated as much as me. Maybe no one was working as hard as me."

Stephens' trail name was Don's Brother. Every time he told someone his trail name, it was another chance to raise ALS awareness and perhaps more money.

"It was interesting how people reacted to that," Stephens said. "Usually, it was with a laugh. My brother was a real jokester too. He loved to laugh, so he would have thought it was funny too. If I was standing with somebody, probably a dozen times, somebody would say, 'Then is that Don?' I would say my brother died last summer, and their demeanor changed dramatically. That usually was the opening. I'd follow up with something about doing a memorial hike for him and something about ALS. I'd try to downplay the money. I tried to just stress awareness. So many people have no clue what it is."

Baughman and Stephens hiked with different trail mates off and on.

"A guy I hiked with described it like a small town, which is pretty accurate because some people you see pretty often," Baughman said. "They do a similar pace, similar miles. Then other people you don't see quite as much, but you take some time off and get back on the trail and see someone you didn't think you'd ever see again."

When he got tired of a trail mate's company, Stephens just hiked faster or slower.

"One kind of an obnoxious woman was southbound, and I was in a shelter with her for one night only, and she would never shut up," Stephens said. "I saw two other people wrote about her in their journals."

Final day

On Aug. 14, Baughman's group started to ascend 5,269-foot Mount Katahdin at 7:45 a.m.

It was 162 days since he began his hike. It was raining and windy. But as they made the final push, the clouds parted in time for Baughman to get a gorgeous view off to the east and a rewarding glimpse of the famous sign marking the trail's end.

"That really brought everyone's spirit up," he said. "After that, the rest was just a cakewalk."

When they reached the top around 10:30 a.m., they took turns taking each other's photo next to the sign. They wore funky clothing they bought at a thrift store, but the more than two hours they spent on the summit were sublime.

Oh, and Baughman had packed appropriate beverages -- aptly named Rolling Rock -- to celebrate.

"We got some sunshine up there, and it was my birthday," he said, "so I had a beer or two before we made our way back down."

Stephens faced even worse weather when he tried to ascend Katahdin on Sept. 2. It was 163 days since he began his hike.

"The weather folks had it in the 40s, but with the windchill, it probably was in the 30s," he said. "We were very close to hypothermia. The wind was just terrible. It had to be at least 60 mph. It was sideways rain. It blew me over twice."

It was so foggy, Stephens was almost at the summit before he saw the famous sign. His first thought wasn't elation but "get out of here alive."

Besides finding someone to snap his photo, he spent no more than three minutes celebrating before safety concerns meant heading back down the mountain.

Insight

The biggest benefit Baughman received from completing the trail was proof that he can rise above rough stuff.

"I think I learned I was pretty tough to just be able to deal with a constant state of discomfort and being sweaty or being eaten by bugs, just to be able to block that and stay oriented on the goal I had set," he said. "I think you can apply it to any number of things, not getting too bogged down in things that appear to be holding you back."

When his mind wandered on the trail, Baughman often thought about his mother and how he and his sister and father, Brad, pulled together instead of apart after Cheri died. He also realized he is more self-sufficient than he had thought.

"It's good to know that I can throw a bunch of stuff in a backpack and fully take care of myself for weeks at a time," he said.

The hike also boosted Stephens' confidence.

"I think I learned I'm maybe a little tougher than I thought I was," he said.

And he earned the trail name Don's Brother.

"I wanted people to realize that here was this vibrant, athletic man of great faith and great commitment who really had so many things to live for, who was stricken with this incurable, awful, hideous disease, and he had to suffer tremendously, and we're out here on this trail with such an opportunity," Stephens said. "This man would have loved to have been walking with us.

"At the end, he couldn't take one step, so I realized every step I took was one he couldn't take. He was on my mind. He was with me. I felt strong with his presence. I think that gave me a sense of calm at times I might have felt some danger. There was no doubt I was enveloped in prayer then, a sense of strong connectivity with God and just the whole concept of being watched over."

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