For the past five months, Austin Whitehead and Steven Pitts woke up each morning to a landscape of pines, winding rivers and changing leaves on the Appalachian Trail.
Steven and Austin hiked the Appalachian Trail, or ‘AT’ in one continuous journey.
They spent their days trekking 15 to 30 miles on one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world — measuring about 2,180 miles.
The childhood friends, both from Charlotte, North Carolina, began their journey together, but split up in Vermont so they could follow the trail’s motto of ‘hike your own hike’. Steven finished November 5, and Austin on November 19.
Thru-hikers typically start their six-month trip at the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, proceeding north through 14 states.
Steven and Austin took a path less travelled and, on June 19, left from the northern end in Katahdin, Maine.
Fewer than 1,000 people have reported completion of the trail on a southbound hike.
Meet the hiker: Austin Whitehead
Austin, 19, a recent Myers Park High School graduate, decided to take a ‘gap year’ before attending college.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail was the first segment in the gap.
It “was always something in my mind I wanted to do,” he said.
“As I got closer to applying to college, I had no idea what I wanted to do and I wanted more experience, so I took a gap year.”
Roughly two to three million people visit the AT each year, according to the trail’s site, and about 1,800 to 2,000 people attempt a thru-hike. Only one in four completes it.
“Rain or shine, cold or hot, it’s very ritualistic,” Austin said about the hike. “It’s not always an adventure. It’s meditating.”
One of his more difficult stretches came when Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee hit the East Coast.
Day after day, Austin woke up to drenched belongings, and hiked through constant rainfall.
“It’s so much of a mental battle convincing yourself to take the next step,” he said.
Austin met other thru-hikers on the trail for company. In mid-October, he spent time travelling with a hiker headed to Atkins, Virgina, where he set a personal-best day of 33 miles. It was his 19th birthday.
“I never (felt) lonely, but I have learned to appreciate conversation,” Austin said.
That night, Austin said he was looking forward to catching sleep in a three-sided shelter, which are common on the trail.
There are more than 250 three-sided shelters placed along the trail to relieve hikers, according to the AT website.
As he approached the structure, the last thing he wanted to see was rowdy campers.
His blog: “I came in and was greeted by a barking dog. The picnic table was littered with stuff and a big flashlight sat on the table: To me this meant a shelter full of obnoxious people and a long night, but then I realized that it was my dog (Sandy) that was barking and my family that was holding the flashlight!”
His parents had driven to Virginia to meet him for a surprise birthday party. They hiked three miles with buckets of KFC chicken and two cookie cakes.
“My mood quickly turned and a night of frivolities ensued.”
On the trail he often called “from mountain tops or ridgelines where cell service is the best, or from grocery stores” while resupplying, his mother, Beth Whitehead, said.
“I told him before he left I would be happy if he just called to say, ‘Mom, this is the most beautiful view’.”
While hiking in Virginia, Austin got a taste of ‘trail magic’ when he stopped at a laundromat to escape the cold for a few hours.
He wrote: “In this short amount of time I was given leftovers from the restaurant next door, offered a ride to a nearby Dollar General, and just when I was getting ready to walk to the shelter that the town built behind the laundromat for hikers, a family in a beat-up Volvo told me to wait there for just one more minute — 15 minutes later they returned with six hot dogs, hot chocolate mix, a litre of homemade, piping hot clam chowder and some Dr Pepper. Southern hospitality is alive and well.”
Trail name: Mismatch. Within the first 100 miles, Austin lost one of his trekking poles as he was fording a river.
His mom had to send him a pole from another set.
What he’ll study in college: “I have no idea... The only thing that seems to be certain is that I will not be making any money as an adult, but I am sure I will be doing something that I love.”
Three things everyone should carry with them: “On trail and in life, I have found that a pen, paper and a book are worth having on my person at all times. All of these have their traditional functions... but they also open you up to the people around you.”
While the allure of the AT is not for all, Austin says it was a great option for him during his gap year, especially since he is not sure about a career yet.
“You can be successful by filling a mould,” he said, “but it’s much more fun to not.”
Ms Whitehead said: “It is so hard to put into words what I’ve seen over the past five months.
“Austin was a great kid when he left, but there is a maturing that happens when a person is responsible for himself.”
Meet the hiker: Steven Pitts
Steven, 19, a recent graduate of East Mecklenburg High, discovered the thrill of exploring while reading adventure novels.
At 15, he began to plan a gap year to relieve his itch for adventure and hike the AT.
“I grew up being a huge fan of high fantasy novels and my dad gave me my love for hiking and the outdoors.
“Whenever I went camping, I felt like I was living out some of my favorite stories,” Steven said.
Hiking the trail ‘seemed like the perfect way for me to have my own personal big adventure”.
To celebrate the finish of his five-month hike, Steven’s family climbed to the summit of Spring Mountain, Georgia, to greet him.
“The entire trek was demanding. But not in the ways I expected,” Steven said.
“It demanded that I endure long days over rough terrain and often in poor weather. But it also demanded me not to take the hike too seriously and ... enjoy the sights and experiences that the trail had to offer.
“Sometimes the hardest thing for me to do was enjoy myself, but once I did, the trail became a breeze.”
Travelling above the tree line in New England was a highlight on the trail, Steven said.
The views along the White Mountains and the Presidential Mountain Range were breathtaking.
“You could see for hundreds of miles in the distance, which was really lucky because the White Mountains, particularly Mount Washington, are known for having horrible weather,” Steven said. “When I got up there, there was not a cloud in the sky.”
He also stumbled upon a large field of quartz and saw the Lake of the Clouds, a body of water that sits atop the White Mountains at about 5,000 feet.
The highest elevation Steven climbed was Clingmans Dome in the Smoky Mountains, at 6,643 feet, he said.
Chris Pitts, his dad, celebrated his 50th birthday by making that hike with Steven.
Along the trail, Steven encountered an abundance of wildlife, including a moose in Maine and nine bears in the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
But it was an encounter with a falling tree that rattled his nerves.
“I was coming up a switchback and I heard some small rocks shifting on the ground and I thought, ‘OK, it’s a rocky section of the trail, maybe someone is coming up’.
“I heard it more and I looked up and there’s this massive tree coming down right over the trail.”
He had to scramble up the side of the bank to avoid being struck.
“I walked up to it once I got my breath back,” he said. The downed tree was up to his chest in diameter.
Like many along the trail, Steven was consumed by ‘the hunger’, as hikers call it. “It didn’t matter what you put in front of me, I ate it. I would never touch hummus, but I ate that by the bucket-full.”
At a hostel, there was a leftover pizza topped with Doritos, salad, taco meat and “anything you could imagine,” he added.
“I ate half of the thing.”
Steven advises new hikers to spend some time on a portion of the trail to become familiar with their surroundings before a thru-hike, and to take it a day at a time.
“There were a lot of times I really felt like quitting and I would be halfway up the trail and say, ‘I quit’. But I couldn't,” he said.
It was the support of his parents, he said, that kept him going on the trail.
“Whenever I was really down, they would remind me this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Ann Pitts, his mother, said: “In this day and age, I don’t feel like a four-year college degree is for every person, and I don’t think that’s what he wanted to do after school. What a better time (to explore, when) you’re young and you have no responsibilities?”
Trail name: “That depends on who you ask. Some hikers early on tried to call me Grits, for my Southern taste in breakfast. Others called me Hiccup. One wouldn’t stop tagging me as Babyface, because I shaved during my hike, which is considered unusual for long-distance hikers.
“I always signed into registers as Hiccup though. That’s what I got called the most.”
Steven enjoys painting with watercolours and is thinking about attending art school.
Thinking about a gap year? See Lee Bierer's ‘Countdown to College’ column at www.charlotteobserver.com/health and go to the link to her website.