On a recent morning, Rich Gilliland was wearing flip-flops, despite the fact that the weather had turned nippy. He still likes to wiggle his toes freely, since his feet have recently spent 134 days in hiking boots.
"I'm still airing them out," he says.
After he graduated from Yale last spring, Rich, who grew up in Essex, spent the next 4 ½ months hiking the Appalachian Trail, which stretches across more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia. Traditionally, the hikers go from south to north, because, Rich explains, the first person to hike the trail did it that way.
Rich, however, chose the opposite route, proceeding from north to south, from Maine to Georgia. Weather determined the direction.
"If I had started in Georgia, it would have been snowing by the time I got to Mt. Katahdin in Maine," he says.
The north-to-south route had some advantages besides avoiding an early winter. By the time Rich got to Pennsylvania, known among hikers as Rocksylvania because the trail is so rock strewn, Rich had no trouble walking.
"What I had already gone through was much harder," he says, noting the mountains in New Hampshire and Maine.
The 281-mile Maine section, with peaks as high as 4,000 feet, is usually considered the most challenging part of the trail.
Another of Maine's major challenges is the 100 Mile Wilderness, an area with no towns. Hikers are advised to take enough food for 10 days; Rich says he brought food for eight.
"When you finally get to the first town, it is elation," he recalls.
In general, he tried to carry food for three days, often packs of ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes and an ever-present jar of peanut butter. Still, by the end of the hike, he was carrying less.
"I couldn't carry a three-day supply because I was eating so much," he says.
He supplemented the food he carried by what he bought along the way, anywhere from roadside service stations to Walmarts.
"You eat all the things that no one buys in gas stations, things like Little Debbie Cakes, candy bars; when you get some ice cream, you eat the whole pint," Rich says. "You never say 'No' to food."
Often, both in the service stations and large chain stores, management let hikers charge their cell phones. Rich said the towns right off the trail are used to such requests. Rich phoned home once a week and also kept a blog recording his journey: firstname.lastname@example.org. He also used his telephone to take the pictures shown on the blog.
The problem with carrying too much food was weight-not Rich's, but his pack's. Since he had to carry everything on his back from sleeping bag to snacks, keeping the total poundage light was imperative. His father, also Richard Gilliland (Rich is technically Richard Gilliland III; his father Richard Gilliland, Jr.) helped him before he left in locating the lightest available gear.
Among the things in the pack were a guide to everything a hiker would need to know on the trail and portable water purification system. The guide gave the locations of water sources, but the water was not drinkable until it had been filtered.
"The filtration system is an absolutely necessity," Rich says.
Most often Rich stayed in the hiker's huts that dot the trail, but he also camped with his own gear. Rather than a tent, which he judged would have been too heavy, he used a hammock with a rain fly.
Over the four months, his main problem was his feet. They got wet constantly; walking through dew-covered grass could soak them as much as fording a stream. As a result, Rich got a fungal infection. On one day his feet were so painful he could not walk at all.
Bringing extra boots would have added too much weight to his pack. Stopping to change into plastic waders every time he hit a stream would have taken too much time. He switched socks as often as he could, and constantly sprinkled moisture-absorbing powder on his feet. Eventually the condition cleared up.
Sometimes, he says, it was the mental effort that exceeded the physical.
"The hardest part was walking 20 miles and then knowing you were going to get up in the morning and do the exact same thing the next day," he says.
There were, nonetheless, rewards for the effort, a sense of emancipation that came with the adventure.
"The best thing, my favorite freedom, was that I could choose my own schedule. I could yell out as I was walking, sing," he says.
Before tackling the trail, Rich had never taken a very long hike. As a part of his Yale freshman orientation, he had done a walk of several days, enjoyed the experience, and thought he would someday like to tackle a bigger journey.
"I wanted to do it if I had the time, and that time came when I graduated," he says.
As his Yale classmates went on job interviews, Rich prepared for the trip. People asked him about his plans. When he told them, he got different reactions.
"Some people pretended to be excited, but they were judging you underneath," he says.
Some others had never heard of the trail and thought he was going on a three- or four-day jaunt. His close friends, he says, understood and cared about what he was doing.
Since he has returned, he says that most of the questions he has gotten about the hike involve either food or bodily functions. He himself has not yet figured out a short, capsule answer when people ask him about the experience.
"I haven't drawn any big lessons; I don't have an elevator speech yet," he says.
Now, Rich, who majored in international development, plans to move to Austin, Texas, where one of his bandmates from a group that he played with at Yale has settled. He is looking for a job-maybe in the consulting field-that calls for creative problem solving. As he interviews for his first after-college position, he observes that some of the people he graduated with last May are already on their second job.
He has no definite plans for another adventure, but he does have an idea for the future. He would like to hike the Pacific Coast Trail that runs from the Mexican border through California, Oregon, and Washington to the Canadian province of British Columbia.
"You go through dramatic country-the Sierras, the desert. It's my next dream," he says.
And one other thing: The Pacific Coast Trail is 500 miles longer than the 2,180-mile hike Rich has just finished.