Franklin Co. resident Ronald Stuart thru-hikes the AT
Ronald Stuart, 26, of Franklin County, has achieved a feat that many only dream about.
Last year, Stuart took on the arduous task of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT).
He began his journey in April and completed the entire trail by November. The exhausting, unforgettable journey is one he said he wouldn’t have missed for anything.
Stuart, who works at A&E Emergency Services as an advanced emergency medical technician, developed a passion for camping and the great outdoors after hiking the Walls of Jericho trail located on Keith Springs Mountain.
“I first fell in love and started hiking and camping a lot around high school,” Stuart said. “While I was working at the (David R. Bean) Swimplex (in Winchester), a group of guys invited me on a week-long section hike on the Appalachian Trail,” he said.
Stuart admitted that at that time, he had no idea what the hike actually entailed, but quickly agreed once the guys explained.
Stuart enjoyed the week hike over a section of the famous trail, which took them 70 miles through Georgia. He then made a vow to one day take on the mammoth challenge of hiking the entire trail.
“I was pretty awe-inspired and couldn’t fathom hiking the whole length,” Stuart said.
School, jobs and keeping the dream alive
After graduating from Motlow College in 2012, Stuart began working and living in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
From there, Stuart went to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to obtain his wilderness emergency medical technician certification. Once back home, he returned to Motlow for his EMT-IV training.
After all that, Stuart did a few more section hikes on the AT and just kept dreaming about hiking the whole thing. In 2015, his great-uncle John Lloyd asked him to join him in hiking the entire trail the following summer. He was quick to agree to go along.
“I said ‘sure’ and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I just needed to go,” Stuart said.
So, he took the leap, telling his bosses he would be gone for a while, and creating a game plan.
“By plan, really, I mean watching videos and reading articles about what gear I would need and what I should expect.”
Stuart gathered all his gear on the morning of April 28, 2016, stopping first to eat breakfast with his mom, Angie Stuart, who shed a few tears knowing it would be a while before she would see her son again.
As Stuart and his Uncle John headed off to Springer Mountain (Georgia), the official start of the trail, a concoction of intermingled thoughts and emotions raced through his head.
“I had a hurricane of emotions while walking up Springer Mountain,” Stuart said. “I was beyond excited, scared, nervous, but, above all, I just couldn’t believe I’d quit my job, saved my money, moved out of my house and moved all my stuff to my parents to go for a really, really long walk.”
Rugged amenities, mice, rain storms and new friends
Stuart’s first night was spent at Springer Mountain. These primitive structures are merely three-walled cabins with a flat wood surface for sleeping bags – no place for the squeamish.
Stuart recalls, “I laid there on the wood floors of the shelter after my dinner of ramen noodles and noticed mice nests all over the roof beams and even mice running around.”
The next few days were spent getting into the routine of walking. At mile 30 Stuart found his first hostel and trail store.
“Stores on the trail are very rare and the opportunity to have a soda and ice cream was welcomed,” Stuart said.
Hikers endure all kinds of weather. Stuart experienced his first rain storm on the hike about 2 miles from the shelter he was to stay at that
“Like a firemen putting their gear on, I practiced putting my rain gear on and got it on quick — not to get my sleeping bag wet was priority number one,” he said.
He and his uncle reached Gooch Mountain Shelter soaking wet, but in a good mood.
Other people packed the shelter but Stuart didn’t mind.
“That was just a lot of new friends that I would end up hiking the whole trail with. My uncle set up a clothesline out of his bear line to hang all of our wet clothes on to dry.”
Several days in, the hikers hit a major milestone — the 100-mile mark on Albert Mountain, which features a short climb at a steeper-than-45-degree angle, filled with boulders and loose dirt which made the climb difficult.
A few days later, Stuart reached another major milestone – the Fontana Dam.
“I had seen the Fontana Dam before just driving up there and on movies, but for me it was a small goal that reinvigorated and kept me going,” he said.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park entrance was on the other side and Stuart couldn’t wait.
Bear sighting, bone-chilling cold, beautiful views
Certainly, Stuart was prepared for a possible bear sighting.
Stuart noted that North Carolina bears are hunted, and they run from people.
“The funniest quote I got from a ranger in North Carolina was: ‘You’re only going to catch a glimpse of the south end of a northbound bear.’ I laughed for a while about that.”
Bear warning signs were posted, and it didn’t take long until Stuart saw one.
“I was just walking by, and a person I was walking with grabbed my shirt collar and stopped me,” Stuart said.
As soon as he was about to question what he was doing, he pointed and told Stuart to be quiet.
“The bear knew we were there and just didn’t care,” Stuart said. “Since it was the Great Smokies, the bears are used to the people being around. So, naturally, I pull out my phone and video him for a minute and then continue on my way.”
The trail crossed a paved road in the Smokies at Newfound Gap, which leads to Gatlinburg, where he picked up a package.
After leaving and hitting the trail once more, Stuart noticed the damage left from the fires that ravaged the park.
“It did hurt my feelings because much of the trail and town were destroyed. But, it is making a comeback due to the trail clubs and very kind volunteers from around the state and beyond.”
After passing a sign that announced “Clingmans Dome 5 miles,” Stuart got super excited.
“It had to be the most frustrating climb of the whole trip.
“The whole time through the Smokies we had pretty miserable weather. Apart from a few breaks, it was pretty cold and wet,” Stuart said.
The last day was spent going down a gentle slope on a 70-degree day with sunshine. They were soon rewarded with yet another spectacular view.
“We were spending our last day in an awesome park (Smokies) that I would love to visit again during better weather; next time farther into the summer,” Stuart said.
Stuart set his sights on a place call Max Patch.
A hiker called Sir Packs A Lot had given a speech to hikers making sure they were aware of the grim statistics about the AT: “Out of all the thru-hikers, only two out of 100 will finish; 8 percent will quit on Springer Mountain, 25 percent will quit at Neels Gap, 35 percent will quit at the top of Georgia and 50 percent will quit at Max Patch,” he predicted.
Stuart was determined he would not be a quitter. He saw Max Patch coming up on his map and sped up in anticipation.
“The day I get there, I’m hit with a lot of different emotions,” Stuart said.
And, it was at this point, Stuart said, that he knew he could make it through the entire AT.
“There was no reason I couldn’t do it in my mind,” he said.
From Max Patch it was only a few days hike to reach Hot Springs, North Carolina, the first town the AT actually goes right through.
“As we walked, we all planned on what we were going to eat once we got there and how much,” Stuart said.
To avoid putting undue stress on his body, Stuart never hiked more than 15 miles a day and he built up to that gradually, starting his first week at only 8 miles a day.
At this point in the hike, Stuart and his Uncle John had hiked almost 400 miles and the pair had become great pals.
“In the beginning,” Stuart said, “I hardly knew my uncle; he was just a stranger at family reunions. But I feel I really know him now and consider him a really good friend. Walking that far with someone, I feel you get to really know them.”
At this point on the trail, Stuart’s uncle decided it was time to go home.
Stuart was now on his own as he started over Roan Mountain and drew closer and closer to what he describes as a near-death experience.
“That day started out beautiful and clear, not a cloud in the sky,” Stuart recalled.
He was in great shape at this point and literally sprinted the 9 miles up Roan Mountain. After taking a snack break with some hiking friends he’d met earlier on the trail, he started down and that’s when the first drops of rain hit his backpack.
And, even though Stuart had no rain gear after sending it home weeks earlier to lighten his load, he wasn’t worried, thinking, “No big deal. I’m a rain pro by now. Who cares, right? It’s summer, how cold could it get?”
With 6 more miles to go to complete the day’s hike, Stuart trudged on and the rain started coming down sideways with lightning. At 6 feet, 6 inches tall and carrying metal walking poles, Stuart felt like a bullseye.
“Everything in my body told me to get off the trail,” Stuart said.
So, he quickly set up a tent in the storm and waited it out while sitting in an inch of water. After 30 minutes, the rain stopped and Stuart continued down the mountain. Little “rivers” gushed down over his boots but he felt lucky knowing the situation could have been much worse and even deadly if the rain had not ceased.
“I finally made it to my shelter, soaked and dog-tired. I’m glad my uncle left that morning; he would have hated it.”
Stuart badly needed a rest so he spent a couple of days at a hostel in Kincora in the far north corner of East Tennessee.
Kincora is run by trail legend Bob Peoples, who has opened his hostel free for hikers for decades. He has hiked most of the long distance trails in North and South America.
A fellow hiker and friend Trek caught up with Stuart at the hostel and informed him about Bob’s volunteer program that takes thru-hikers and has them help fix up parts of the trail.
“That will also get you a rare patch most thru-hikers don’t have, so obviously I was in,” Stuart said.
Ironically, the place on the AT needing repairs was at the very spot Stuart had run into the thunderstorm and had a close call.
“We worked on its drainage so rain doesn’t erode it anymore,” said Stuart. “So we spent eight hours digging rain ditches and fixing some rock problems.”
What state is this?
The next day brought warm sunshine. Stuart waited on top of a bald with his gear all over the place to dry.
Balds are mountain summits or crests covered primarily by thick vegetation of native grasses or shrubs occurring in areas where heavy forest growth would be expected.
Once dried out, Stuart continued on his trail along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. It is hard for hikers to determine whether they are in Tennessee or North Carolina, but Stuart knew once he crossed Doll Flats he was in his home state, and it was a huge mental boost.
After crossing Doll Flats, Stuart went off the trail about 2.5 miles to resupply at a little gas station. He said it felt good to be doing his first resupply alone.
“That was the first time I knew I was by myself and it was all me,” Stuart said.
Once back on the trail, he discovered his first pet peeve along the way — tall grass and bugs.
“I had to walk about a mile in a field in 90-degree humid weather with grass up to my chest and hanging over the trail. I had so many bugs come out of the woodwork and ticks galore.”
Near the end of the day, Stuart reconnected with an old friend who had introduced him to Trek, the Savage Rabbi, who would join him a couple days later to hike on for 1,000 miles.
Wild horses and other new friends
Stuart’s next milestone was Damascus, Virginia.
“Damascus has always stuck out in my mind as a major milestone and there was no way to get there other than by doing a 33-mile day.”
Stuart woke up that morning at 5 a.m., determined to make it there. He kept a steady pace all day over decent terrain. But, no matter how easy or hard the terrain, Stuart kept up hope and energy.
Leaving Damascus, Stuart and his new hiking friends headed up the Creeper Trail, an old railroad bed converted to a bike path that follows the trail for 10 miles over lots of older iron bridges.
“It was a nice break and the trail followed an incredibly pretty river that flowed down over boulders. The trail even had a café, so we took full advantage of that.”
A few days later, they entered Grayson Highlands, which is known for wild horses.
“The whole park is full of wild ponies that wander around and will approach you and let you pet them,” Stuart said.
When Stuart reached McAfee Knob in Virginia, he admits he shed a few tears of relief.
“I worked so hard and had dealt with so much to be there that being there at that moment with a perfect sunset over the mountains was overwhelming,” he said.
The next day Stuart woke with even more enthusiasm for the trail than ever. His parents would be meeting him in Daleville, Virginia.
After hiking all day in the heat and humidity, he reached the hotel where he would meet his parents the next day.
“Before we got to our room, I took my backpack and boots off and fell face first into the pool with all the rest of my clothes on. I figured chlorine would help kill all the smell off my clothes and myself.”
Flip-flip hike to Maine
From Virginia, Stuart began looking for a way to get to Maine, the end of the AT. He had decided to finish the trail “flip-flip,” leaving from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, traveling north to Mount Katahdin, Maine, and then back south.
“As (hiking partner) Trek and I were sitting at the (Appalachian Trail) Conservancy we were looking at bus tickets to Massachusetts and realizing quickly we couldn’t afford any of them a lady overheard us. She began talking to us and after a while she offered us a ride all the way to Maine. We couldn’t believe it but gladly accepted.”
Stuart said it was “really weird” riding in a car that long and it really bothered his legs to sit for such a long period. So the duo stopped in Massachusetts for a week at Trek’s friend’s house before continuing.
“We then headed up to Maine and it only took a few hours to get to where we were going.”
The hikers reached Millinocket, Maine, and that’s where they stayed – right outside of the end of the trail at a campground.
“We got to see Mount Katahdin (northernmost point on the trail) for the first time and you hear a lot about it but it was way more spectacular than anyone can speculate.
“We decided that we should start on the other side of the mountain and walk over like the approach trail on Springer Mountain (Georgia). We started up the trail and we realized that it was nothing like hiking down South. The trails were a lot more rough and straight up and down. The scenery, though, was more than worth it.”
Looking off the back side of Katahdin one quarter way up
As the hikers kept going, they noticed that the temperature was getting a lot colder.
“The wind was picking up and we had to drop our backpacks and put on our warmer clothes to continue on, Stuart said. “After two hours we reached Pamola Peak, which is just west of Katahdin Peak and we would have to walk the Knife Edge to get it. According the research my mom did before I went, most of the deaths on hiking trails in America are on the Knife Edge and I believe it.”
Trek on the Knife Edge
“The wind was crazy and I almost got blown off the mountain several times,” Stuart said.
“After walking the (Mount Katahdin) Knife Edge for a mile we started up the hill towards Katahdin Peak. After a seemingly forever climb to the top we found it through the fog.”
Stuart said it was oddly emotional to see Katahdin Peak because he had always imagined it being at the end of the hike, but he knew it was “just a second beginning.”
“I brought some local flavor from home, being Jack Daniel’s, had myself a shot and ate a snack and took my summit photo.”
Stuart hiked down from there and was met with more horrendous trail and a steep decline all the way down to the campground.
“I had only done 10 miles but it felt like a 30-mile day down South. The next day we headed out again and that was the beginning of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness.
According to Stuart, the Hundred-Mile Wilderness is just like it says – 100 miles of no roads or resupply and no help if things go wrong.
“On our walk in, Trek and I ran into some people walking north and they looked like they been through hell. They told us to watch for the squirrels that would rob us at knife point. We laughed. They didn’t. The trail remained the same all throughout Maine. The trail was horrendous.”
Stuart said the trail was a “cesspool of rocks, roots, mud and vertical inclines and declines over thousands of feet that never end.”
That being said, Stuart claims that Maine is the prettiest state on the trail.
“I will go back and do Maine again but I need some time before I go back to process all of it.”
Lots of lakes
“Our first night was spent in a small shelter full of mice and other hikers going the other direction. That night we hung our food bags and the next morning we found that squirrels ate all of Trek’s snacks,” Stuart said. “So all pissed off we continued our walk. After a day or two we decided to stop short and camp near a small spring before a shelter.”
As Stuart was setting up the tent, he noticed eight nickel-sized holes in the bottom of his tent.
“I was annoyed to say the least but I figured it was nothing duct tape couldn’t fix. So I made my dinner and ate with some friends and went to bed on my holey tent floor. I woke up and got ready to leave and pack up.
“I sat down to filter my water and, unfortunately, the spring was not very clear and it clogged my filter. As I was putting pressure on it the collapsible bag full of water busted and all the contents filled my boots.
“Now at that point we had been in the Hundred Mile for a while and I was near my wit’s end. So the next logical step was to throw my filter in frustration and stomp around like a toddler who doesn’t get their candy.
“I then noticed the filter never came back down. I look up and find the filter hanging in the tree adjacent to me just high enough I couldn’t reach it.”
So Stuart plowed through the bushes under the tree and started throwing his trekking pole like a javelin at the filter and bag.
“After several attempts I finally hit the filter and it just nudges it ever so slightly to dump the rest of the water into my head. So naturally my next step was to yell obscenities and then throw my pole end-over-end until I hit it and finally I did and knocked the filter onto the ground.”
But, Stuart said, his trekking pole was now stuck in the tree.
“So, blind with rage I was having to back-up run and then jump to hit my trekking pole with the filter. After several attempts I finally got everything out of the tree. By that time Trek and I were laughing too hard and I wasn’t mad anymore. It seemed like it took about 500 miles for me to have a small freak out, so luckily they were rare.”
The hikers made it out of the Hundred Mile Wilderness after five days and were, as Stuart said, “wrecked.”
“We were in Monson, Maine, and it was a gorgeous little town. It was about the size of Cowan and had about the same amount of things there, too.”
A day or two later, the hikers headed back out and walked over countless mountains through the typical Maine terrain.
“We continued along through the state and I couldn’t believe one place had as many lakes as it does. We went swimming quite a bit and took lots of breaks.
“Trek and I made it into Rangeley, Maine, and due to time constraints Trek and I had to split up. It was hard to do because up to that point I hadn’t spent that much time with anyone. He really was one of my best friends. We fought, had good conversations, discussed god, the universe and politics and still remained friends. We saw each other at our lowest and our best and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. So we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. I hiked off ahead but that wouldn’t be the last time I saw him.”
As Stuart headed back on the trail, he ran into another hiker and friend, Sourpatch.
“Sourpatch is from Austin, Texas, and was hiking south on the trail, I found out, which is rare. Not a lot of people go south thru-hiking. So we hiked together all the way to the finish. She helped me through a lot on the trail and I hope I did the same for her.
“I left Trek and ran into Sourpatch the same day. It was a crazy day. We headed off and ran into some of the most iconic parts of the trail. Grafton Notch is a huge cliff on the side of a mountain that you hike up and over.”
On the other side of the cliff is what is often considered the hardest section of the AT.
“It’s really just a boulder field that you have to crawl over or sometimes under to get through.
“Sourpatch and I continued our hike south and finally, after a long and crazy week of hiking, we made it to New Hampshire.
Once Stuart reached the top of the next mountain after the border he turned on his phone to send a picture to his mother and saw that he had a few text messages from a friend he had made down South.
“He said his family had a ski condo in Gorham, New Hampshire, and if we met him there we could stay with him that night. Luckily for us, we were 15 miles from Gorham.
“So Sourpatch and I raced through the mountains and rain to get to that ski condo. Around four or five in the afternoon we met my friend Nate and his cousin picked us up and took us to eat and then to the condo. Once we arrived we learned they had a hot tub. So, naturally, the three of us made our way to it, had a beer and sat in the hot tub and just caught up for the next two hours.”
The following day the hikers resupplied and headed for what’s called The Whites (White Mountains). The Whites are a big mountain range with a lot of it above the alpine zone – meaning no trees, just rocks and cold. Stuart said the mountain range is the second prettiest sight on the trail.
“Just as hard as Maine but worth every step you take.”
“We hiked almost every day in awe,” Stuart said.
“I grew up half of my childhood in Denver and I was having a hard time believing these were the Appalachian Mountains. They were cold, but we were prepared. The big part of The Whites everyone talked about was Mount Washington, the tallest mountain on the trail and home of the worst weather in the world. Wind speed has been clocked at 200 mph plus at the summit.”
Stuart said as they approached Mount Washington, it seemed as if they would never get there.
“We saw the mountain four days before we actually got to it.”
Mount Washington Center
“As we approached, the trees thinned and we were just surrounded by massive mountains all around us, but one was the biggest,” Stuart said.
“We reached a mountain hut called Lake of the Clouds and we were just a mile from the top of Mount Washington but we were just exhausted so we decided to stay in what’s called The Dungeon. Its six bunks and stone floors and walls are for emergencies only. We had nine people and a dog in the dungeon.”
The day the hikers arrived at Mount Washington it was 70 degrees and clear. The next day it was 20 degrees, the winds reached 80 mph and it was so foggy hikers couldn’t see farther than 20 yards.
“So we all made a chain of people and wouldn’t let anyone out of sight and we walked slow. We had to escape the mountain so we didn’t get anyone hurt and we walked down. We eventually got into town and ate a ridiculous amount of Chinese food.”
To learn more about the Appalachian Trail, visit www.appalachiantrail.org.