In a few short weeks, Matt Baer and Garrett Seibert, buddies since high school, will drive to Springer Mountain, Ga., strap on backpacks and start walking north.
With good planning, good weather and good luck they hope to scale Mount Katahdin in Maine some five months, 2,184 miles and 5 million footsteps later.
"It's something I've been dreaming about for years," Matt told me the other day, describing his goal to hike the Appalachian Trail, one of the world's most venerable and celebrated footpaths.
The 21-year-old East Lyme resident, who graduated from East Lyme High School in 2009 and last year earned a degree in recreation, adventure travel and ecotourism from Paul Smith's College in upstate New York, eventually hopes to work as a guide. Garrett, 22, originally from Salem, graduated from East Lyme High in 2008 and went on to earn a similar degree from New Hampshire's Plymouth State University. He now works as an instructor at an adventure camp in California and plans to return to his job in September after finishing the trail.
Though the pair began seriously planning the hike about a year ago, the seed was planted some seven years earlier when Matt and his family were hiking up Mount Greylock in Massachusetts.
"We met a couple of through-hikers (trekkers hoping to cover the entire AT) and I remember thinking, 'One day I'm going to do that.'"
It's a dream many hikers share but relatively few try to fulfill. Every year a couple thousand set out on the AT – most, like Matt and Garrett, taking the northbound route – and statistically, about one in four succeeds. Some "flip-flop" directions because of cold weather at either end, or "section-hike" depending on trail conditions, but Matt and Garrett hope to through-hike, averaging about 15 miles a day.
Since the trail was completed in 1937, more than 13,000 hikers have hiked the entire route.
Matt and Garrett have hiked mostly up North, including the Adirondacks of New York and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, though Garrett did one 100-mile hike in New Mexico. He also has climbed 20 of New England's 4,000-foot-plus mountains, including Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT. Matt's longest backpacking trip was a week in Maine's Acadia National Park, but he has climbed the Presidential Range in the Whites as well as 30 of New York's 4,000-footers.
It's a big jump, going from relatively short outings to more than five months of relentless pounding over challenging terrain, but both are confident and eager to get started.
"I'm looking forward to warm sunny days on the ridges, enjoying that sense of freedom of being outside," Matt said. That, of course, can't always be guaranteed.
"My biggest fear is days and days of rain. It can get miserable," he added.
Garrett said he is excited about hiking in parts of the country he hasn't visited, and by the prospect of meeting new people on the trail.
Both plan to keep their pack weight under 30 pounds, and are preparing to mail food packages to seven or eight post offices along the way. The rest of the time they will have to resupply every few days.
They also will carry an ultra-light tent that is basically just a thin tarp supported by trekking poles, and will forgo a water filter in favor of purification tablets.
The pair expects to each go through about five pairs of lightweight hiking shoes, though the April 1 start at Springer Mountain will require the use of heavier boots because of the likelihood of snow and ice on the trail.
"I'm hoping most of it will be gone by then," Matt said.
He also will bring a Kindle on which he has downloaded the necessary guidebooks and trail maps (they will carry paper copies as a backup), and both plan to bring their cellphones.
Matt and Garrett promised to check in from time to time, and I'll keep you posted periodically on their progress.
Good luck, guys. I hope I get to see you when you make it up North this summer, either along the Connecticut section of the AT or to some of my favorite stomping grounds in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
Friends I know who have completed the AT say everybody takes away something different from the experience, but they all agree their lives are forever richer. It should indeed be the trip of a lifetime.