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Connecting Our Communities

Literally on the trail of a life-changing experience

Elmira’s John Mathers went off the grid to spend five months hiking the Appalachian Trail

When John Mathers talks about the months spent hiking along the Appalachian Trail, he recalls the stunning beauty as well as the biting cold. The vast open serene landscapes where the hills touched the sky, the friends made amongst fellow travelers, and the wet in his boots and numbness in his digits.

Last year, the Elmira resident took an extended sojourn from his life for a 152-day walk through the mountainous trails along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. It was a life-changing experience, and Mathers will be sharing his insights, his motivations and some of the day-to-day struggles of his trip with fellow hiking enthusiasts at the Woolwich Trails Group meeting next week.

“I wanted to climb my first mountain. I wanted to be off the grid completely for an extended period of time. So no TV, no newspapers, limited phone screen time because you just don’t get reception along trail,” explains Mather. “I just wanted the simplicity of trail life, which is basically eat, hike, eat, hike, eat, sleep. Do it again the next day. It’s very in the moment, it’s very Zen-like.”

Mathers’ interest in the daunting trail was sparked reading the stories of other hikers through online journals. He’d always had an appreciation for the outdoors, and guided by the maxim that you miss all the chances you don’t take, he decided put buy a ticket to Atlanta, the southern point of the trail.

“I’ve always wanted to spend an entire summer outside, that’s just been kind of a dream. When I was 13, I remember planning a trip with my mum to canoe across Canada. That idea never happened, but the idea of being continuously outside struck me, and it was one that never really left me,” he says.

“The AT (Appalachian Trail) would give me an opportunity to be outside for three full seasons, so I go to walk through winter, spring and summer while on the trail.”

The journey took Mathers over 3,500 km of mountainous terrain, up the eastern seaboard of the U.S. from the northern end of Georgia up through to Maine at a comparable latitude with Montreal and Quebec City.

“It’d be the equivalent of walking from Elmira to Banff, just to put it in a Canadian perspective.

“The distance is one thing, that’s a big factor. But the trail goes completely through the Appalachian mountain ranges,” notes Mathers. “You’re climbing 464,500 feet over the course of the trail, so that’s up down up down, all the way. That’s the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest 16 times, so it was kind of brutal.”

That’s a long, tough march through the best and worst conditions and over the course of the journey, Mather’s plodded through sheets of rain and snow and freezing cold temperatures.

“Five months is a long time to be outside, and you’re going to get all kinds of weather. Over the course of those 152 days it rained or snowed 25 per cent of the time,” he says.

“There were some pretty uncomfortable camping circumstances early on. One near-hypothermic experience and a lot of just wet and uncomfortable cold nights and days of walking. When you’re walking the trail and it’s raining, the trail tends to become a river. So you’re walking through like three or four inches of water all day long, and your feet just turn into these massive prune things that don’t even look like [feet],” he says with a laugh.

“There was an instance about seven or eight days in when  we were going up and over a mountain. It just started snowing in the valley and it got steadily worse and worse as the day progressed. When we got to the shelter that we were planning to stay at, it was already full of people who were supposed to have moved on, but hadn’t because they were all hypothermic, and they couldn’t really figure out what they were going to do.”

So Mathers set out on his own. At this point, it was getting dark outside, and the snow was coming down in steado;u. But Mathers made it to a shelter, and was joined by fellow hikers caught out in the stormy weather.

“It was brutal night, but out of that I formed a bond – their trail names are Gravity and Kenya. So I walked the rest of the way with them,”  he says of his newly formed trail family.

“I just can’t underscore how big an experience it was. It made me appreciate the here now, and life on simpler terms. I think I’ve got an enduring appreciation for the many luxuries we have. And a renewed faith in humanity: there’s a huge amount of kindness extended along the trail by trail angels,” he says.

“They provide what we call trail magic. They’ll give you a ride into town, they’ll have cold drinks at the road stops or candy. There’s just a huge amount of kindness that is extended along to through-hikers along the trail, that was a fantastic part of the experience.”

He’s eager to share his stories and inspire others the same way he was when he started out his journey. When he could, Mathers kept a journal of his travels online, and he will be giving a talk to the Woolwich Trails Group on January 17 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Woolwich Community Health Centre in St. Jacobs.

“Overall, would I do it again? I think if you asked me that right after I finished, I probably I would have said no because by the end I was really exhausted. But now, with enough of the memories of that part of the experience fading, leaving just the good stuff, I would definitely say I would do it again.”

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