A Walk for Sunshine: A 2,160-Mile Expedition for Charity on the Appalachian Trailby Jeff Alt
Jeff provides hiking tips, accounts of his journey, and the inspiration behind his 2,167 mile walk on the Appalachian Trail. This is part of a new series on ESPN2 titled "Inside Americas National Parks". This segment focuses on the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine through 14 states spanning the entire length of the Shenandoah National Park.
About the Author
Jeff Alt lived in the woods for 147 days and raised over $60,000 for the disabled by inspiring an annual fundraiser. Jeff dedicated his journey to his brother with cerbral palsy. As jeff trudges along, he encounters wild animals, interesting people, and breathtaking scenery, which he describes in a humorous style.
Chicago Sun Times
- Dreams Shared Publications
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A Walk For SunshineA 2,160-mile expedition for charity on the Appalachian Trail
By Jeff Alt
Dreams Shared PublicationsCopyright © 2000 Jeff Alt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStepping Out
Walk 2,160 miles and live in the woods for 6 months?
I stepped onto the Appalachian Trail for the first time as a 14-year-old teenager while on summer vacation with my family in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had never been to this park before, nor had I ever gone on an overnight hike. My family and I set up camp at one of the national park campgrounds, Elkmont, at the foot of Clingmans Dome. At 6,672 feet, it is the highest mountain in the Smokies. My two brothers and I decided to hike up the mountain, leaving our parents, a cooler full of food, and a comfortable camper. We obviously were not thinking clearly. We didn't have the proper backcountry gear essential to hiking, so we headed up with our sleeping bags in trash liners along with some candy bars, canned food, and two-liter pop bottles filled with water.
We intended to stay in the Double Spring Gap Shelter along the Appalachian Trail, a makeshift shanty for overnight hikers located only a short distance from the summit. Half-way up the mountain the three of us laid down along the trail, not wanting to go a step further. A ranger came hiking down the trail from the summit and advised us to get off our duffs and scramble up the mountain if we wanted to make it to the shelter by nightfall. We all stoodup and began hiking as fast as we could in fear of being exposed to the bear-infested forest without light or shelter. That ranger gave us the firecracker-the motivation-we needed, and we finally arrived at the shelter at dusk. The hike was the toughest thing I had ever done physically, and I still felt it in my muscles a week later. I was never so happy to be back with our parents and a cooler full of food the next day. We learned to appreciate all of the simple luxuries of life after just two days in the woods.
Of course, we didn't appreciate the historical significance of the Appalachian Trail on that first hike. We were just proud of our physical accomplishment and the bravery that carried us through the bear-and snake-infested wilderness. We were thankful to be alive. We didn't realize that we had spent the night in a shelter along one of the oldest, longest footpaths in North America.
I did not venture out on backcountry excursions again until I entered the U.S. Army years later, at age 18. If I had any pleasant memories of hiking in the backcountry, the Army was efficient in wiping those thoughts away. Forced marches wearing a poorly designed ruck sack, 3 A.M. wake-up calls, digging defensive fighting positions, and verbal abuse pretty much eliminated any thoughts of hiking for pleasure.
Years passed before I went on a hike again. In college, I acquired some basic hiking equipment and returned to the Great Smoky Mountains for a hiking adventure. I was in better shape than my teenage encounter with hiking, and I had appropriate gear this time. I actually began to enjoy the rigorous endurance required for backpacking. Throughout college, I hiked frequently during school vacations and led several college groups on week-long hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park became my mountain playground. If I wasn't visiting family during college breaks, I was hiking somewhere in the Smokies. The Appalachian Trail traverses right through the Smokies, and forms the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee.
My parents, who live in Florida, planned to meet me in the Smokies for Labor Day weekend in 1992. I asked my stepfather, Ron, if he would be interested in an overnight hike during the weekend, and he agreed, enthusiastically, to give it a try. After coordinating our supplies and gear, we hoisted backpacks that were outfitted with enough food and clothes to supply an army. We waved good-bye to our family and headed up the mountain to spend the night. The weather was pleasant and the terrain was not very rugged. We reached our destination-the Spence Field Shelter-with plenty of daylight left. We had hiked eight miles in four hours. Some other hikers who also camped in the shelter informed my stepfather and I that we had just hiked one of the most rugged sections of the Appalachian Mountains. We sat around the fire into the dark hours that night sharing stories with other hikers. At some point during that inspirational weekend, my stepfather and I decided that we were going to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.
Everyone who decides to hike the Trail does so for different reasons. I wanted to get back to a simpler life. I grew up in the computer age. These electronic wonders are supposed to simplify our lives, freeing our time and enhancing the quality of our life. Indeed, computers have simplified many tasks, making it easier to bank, shop, and write this book, but computers have not simplified our lifestyles. Americans work longer hours than we did 20 years ago. We spend less time with our families, and many folks are in a constant fast-paced routine. Fast food has become the norm in many households, while home-cooked meals are a thing of the past. Road rage has become a national problem. Is there an end in sight for the overworked, fast-paced, demoralized, lack-of-family-time madness in which we live? Will the idea of having a weekend off eventually be something kids read about in history books? What would it be like to step back in time to an era without cars? What would it be like to walk every day for five months with my only worries being food, shelter, and sleep, similar to our nomadic ancestors? These were all thoughts going through my mind on a daily basis, after that second hike. I hoped to gain a better perspective of life's issues and enhance my quality of life. Walking the Appalachian Trail had become a necessary goal.
Ron and I were definitely not the first to set a goal of walking the whole 2,000-plus-mile Appalachian Trail. Earl Shaffer was the very first person to walk from end to end in 1948, shortly after returning to the states after serving his country in World War II. If walking is the cure for posttraumatic stress disorder and the Appalachian Trail doesn't cure you, I don't know what will. In the 1940s, people walked as a mode of transportation, but prior to Earl's hike, going the full 2,000-mile distance from Georgia to Maine was considered impossible, lacking in purpose, and even crazy, but Earl did it. In 1998, the year I hiked the trail, Earl successfully completed another end-to-end-hike at the age of 79, marking the 50th anniversary of his first thru-hike. Earl's second hike has inspired me to stay in shape so I can hike the whole trail when I'm 80.
Since Earl's first hike, several thousand hikers have completed end-to-end-hikes and have become what is known as thru-hikers. The adventure of living in the wilderness for six months has become attractive to more and more folks every year. Every year, between 2,000 and 3,000 hikers attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. Only an estimated 10% actually complete the journey. Millions of hikers take day hikes and overnight hikes each year.
Saying I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail and actually doing it were two different things. At the time of the hike with Ron, I was working as a food sales consultant and preparing to leave my job to go back to school. I decided to make a goal of hiking the whole Appalachian Trail after I graduated from college, but before I jumped back into the work force. At the same time, my stepfather decided that he would begin hiking the trail in short sections.
And so it went. I left my job to go back to college, and my stepfather systematically began hiking sections of the A.T. I hiked with him during breaks. All through college I read books about the trail, talked with some people who had walked the whole trail, and tested out hiking equipment in preparation for my eventual thru-hike.
Living your dream is one thing, but sharing it lets everyone live it with you.
The window of opportunity to hike the entire Appalachian Trail had arrived. Five years had lapsed since I made a personal commitment to walk the A.T. I was at the end of a masters program to become a speech pathologist. I had left a marketing career five years before to pursue a new episode in my life. Most of my colleagues were interviewing for jobs, but not me. I felt that I wouldn't really "graduate" until I completed my goal of walking from Georgia to Maine.
Often, I think of what my handicapped brother would do with his life had he been dealt the physical and mental opportunities that I take for granted. I decided to dedicate my walk to my brother Aaron and raise money for the home in which he lives, The Sunshine Home in Maumee, Ohio. Born with cerebral palsy and mental retardation, Aaron has been dependent on others for all of the daily needs that I take for granted such as eating, going to the bathroom, and taking a bath.
As I began to prepare for my journey, I wondered which would be the bigger challenge: a healthy person walking 2,160 miles through rugged mountain terrain or not being able to live your dreams due to physical and mental disabilities. Aaron would never let on that he has had a rough life. He is always laughing and smiling as if he is up to something. Who knows? He may be living a better life than most of us by not having all of the daily stress of paying bills, taking tests, and accounting for himself. He does not communicate verbally or with any adaptive devices, which leaves his thoughts, dreams, and aspirations a mystery. I assumed walking the AT would be a big challenge, but it would still be much easier than having to use a wheelchair.
I appreciate everything Sunshine has done for Aaron. My family admitted Aaron to Sunshine so he could receive quality care. Aaron lived with my family until he was 12 years old. Every one of my siblings and parents cared for him. We changed his diapers, gave him baths, ground up his food for dinner and fed him, took him for walks, played with him, and took him on and off the school bus, but this was not enough. Aaron grew too big for us to lift him without hurting ourselves. In addition, he often became sick and had to be hospitalized. We began to realize that Aaron was too much for our family to handle. His needs would be better served by an organization with the proper equipment and expertise.
Aaron first lived in a county managed home. Shortly after establishing residence there, the county began shutting its services down. My parents were panicked with what to do. Then we heard about Sunshine. The rest is history.
The home has lived up to this awesome task. My brother has lived at Sunshine for more than a decade. Aaron is cared for by a committed staff that is willing to go the extra mile to make the residents and their families feel at home. I learned that a good measure of quality care is the bed sore-ratio among residents. Last I heard, Sunshine did not have any.
I not only wanted to dedicate my journey to Aaron out of love, but I also wanted to give back to the home for all that it has done for our family and Aaron. So I decided to turn my dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail into a fundraiser for the Sunshine Children's Home.
The administration at Sunshine liked my idea. I contacted the home's director of development. He shared my idea with the board of directors, staff, and residents of Sunshine, all of whom overwhelmingly supported my idea. I met with the director, and we set a goal of raising $10,000 to purchase some much-needed adaptive equipment such as communication devices, lifts, and walkers.
I kicked off the fundraiser in September 1997, during my last semester in college. To begin, I contacted several organizations on campus and scheduled speaking engagements. I sent out press releases to Miami University and local newspapers. I would not begin my hike until March 1998, which gave me seven months to plan my journey and raise funds.
I began planning for my hike at the same time I kicked off the fundraiser. I submitted requests to manufacturers for specific hiking gear. I knew what types and brands of equipment I needed for my expedition from five years of field-testing gear during college breaks. I requested a 7,000 cubic-inch internal frame backpack, two pairs of mountaineer boots, a six-month supply of energy bars, two sleeping bags with different climate ratings (0-degree and 20-degree), a backpacker's tent, synthetic clothing, a Swiss army knife, trekking poles, and a one burner stove. Ninety percent of the gear that I requested was donated by the manufacturers.
My next task was planning my menu for six months. I didn't know what I was going to eat tomorrow, which made planning 150 days worth of meals seem impossible. I decided to create 10 meals that I liked and use the same 10 in every box. I visited the same grocery store every day for a month. I would fill two carts at a time. The grocery store employees must have thought I was stockpiling a fallout shelter.
My Mom had given me a food dehydrator for Christmas several years before. She had seen it on an infomercial and thought of me. I never really thought I would actually use it. When I began preparing my food, I found the prepackaged meals for backpackers were as costly as eating in a restaurant, so I decided to use grocery store food, including fresh fruits and vegetables that I could dehydrate. I found that a dehydrator preserves nutrients in fruits and vegetables but removes the moisture, making the food light and easy to carry. Five months before my expedition I began preparing my dehydrated food and, needless to say, my clothes reeked of whatever vegetable I was drying.
I was planning to have twenty-some boxes sent to me along the way. I needed to decide where to send each box. The Appalachian Trail Conference puts out an excellent Workbook For Planning Thru-Hikes, which I used to plan my supply points. I spaced my supplies about 100 miles apart to post offices all along the trail. Post offices along the AT have grown accustomed to thru-hikers using the US mail for logistics. The post offices would hold packages for hikers.
I lured my good friend and future wife, Beth, into driving with me to Florida where my mom and stepfather live. I explained to her that we would be setting up supply boxes for my parents to send to me along the trail. She didn't quite register with what I was saying. Beth packed her bathing suit in anticipation of a week of fun in the sun. We ended up spending eight hours a day packing my supply boxes during six of the seven days we were in Florida. To prevent mutiny, I took a day off from packing boxes and took Beth to the beach. I still cannot believe she married me after her vacation work-camp in Florida.
The last few months before embarking on my hike were jampacked. Between fundraising efforts and packing, I was training for the physical rigors of hauling a 50-pound pack up and down rugged mountains. Because there are no mountains near Toledo, I utilized a treadmill at Golds Gym to simulate steep mountain inclines. I filled my backpack with 50 pounds of sand, raised the treadmill to its highest level and walked on it for two hours every day. Many people stared at me while I was walking on the treadmill with my pack on. Considering that the nearest mountains were nine hours away, I did look a bit odd. But after explaining why I was training to a few of the curious folks, they agreed that my training was a smart idea.
My three years of experience as a marketing/sales consultant before returning to school gave me a pretty good idea about how to get attention and ask for money. I carried my backpack with 50 pounds of provisions in it to every presentation. Student senate, the office of residence life, the speech and hearing department where I studied, and Greek affairs all heard my presentation. My pack stood out like a sore thumb. It was fire-engine red, which I guess was good because it drew the attention necessary. I would first explain what I was raising funds for and why. I played a short video reviewing the mission of Sunshine and showed a few slides about the Appalachian Trail. Then I would ask for financial support. In exchange, all sponsors would receive a newsletter three times during my trek. Sponsors who pledged more than $100 would be recognized in the newsletter. Every presentation ended with questions about the trail:
"Are you going to carry a gun?"
"How much does your pack weigh?"
"Fifty pounds. Here, try it on."
"Where will you sleep?"
"In my tent and in shelters."
"Why walk all that way?"
"I don't know, but I hope I have fun getting there."
Excerpted from A Walk For Sunshine by Jeff Alt Copyright © 2000 by Jeff Alt. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Jeff Alt's adventures have been featured on ESPN, Hallmark Channel and more. Alt is a talented speaker and award-winning author. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Alt has walked the Appalachian Trail, the John Muir Trail with his wife, and he carried his 21-month old daughter across a swath of Ireland.
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