The epic journey of a sibling pair as they trek 2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachia Trail.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Hansely Ever After... Thoughts

                           Sign at the start of the approach trail
                 up Springer Mountain, GA (the start of their journey)
Sign at the top of Mount Katahdin, ME (the end of their journey)

Here are a few reflections from our intrepid Hansel:

Georgia to Maine! Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin! 2181 miles! 14 states! Right now though all I can really think about is my two sore feet and how happy I am to be home.  It is hard to write my thoughts on the conclusion of such a huge event in my life but I will do my best.  The first thing that I want to do before I say any more is to thank some people who desperately need to be thanked.  First I want to thank Rebecca.  Without her by my side for almost the entire hike I know that I would not have been able to do this.  If nothing else I would have been forced off by starvation.  The times that were the most difficult for me were the times when I was on my own.  The only part of the trip in which I doubted my ability to complete the whole trail was when I didn’t have her with me pushing me on.  Her strength and power of will amazed me and motivated me from start to finish and I cannot express how indebted I am to her for my success.  A lot of people have asked and wondered if we fought a lot throughout the hike and I can honestly and proudly say that not once did we have a serious argument.  As far as siblings go we were unusually close when we started this thing and we are even closer now that we have completed it. 

Next I have to thank my Mom and Dad for getting me through it all.  I am not a bit embarrassed to admit that there were some tear filled conversations with them at some particularly difficult moments on the trip.  I will never forget crying on the phone with my mom as I walked through New York and having her reassure me that “Sometimes it’s hard. I know.  But you can do this!”  Or sitting outside Madison Hut in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, tears of exhaustion and frustration running down my face, listening to my dad tell me that “It is hard to be a leader. This is the challenge, but I know you can do it.  You are strong enough to see this through.  You’re almost there!”  I also have to thank the two of them for introducing us to the Appalachian Trail in the first place.  There are a million other things that I have to thank them for as well but I could fill a book with that so I think I will move on to the next person I need to thank…

Amanda, the last of the fab five that is our family.  The amount of time and effort that she put into this blog and our fundraiser is unbelievable.  There were times that we would call her in the evening and she would excitedly answer the phone and say “Wait like two seconds I’m driving on the highway and I have to pull over so I can take notes!  Hold on…oh where is that pen…oh, ok got it.  Ok go!”  She made sure that she had every detail of all of our crazy stories so that she could share the whole experience with all of you!  She added her creativity and humor to our endeavors and made even the most mundane activities entertaining.  She also helped us coordinate everything from mail drops to family pickups and conveyed messages from all of our followers to us as we made our way up the coast.  All the behind the scenes work that she did really helped keep us motivated and for all of that she definitely deserves a huge shout out.

Finally I want to thank everyone who has contributed to our success in anyway.  Whether you were one of the many trail angels who provided us with support when we least expected it, you contributed to our MSAA fundraiser, or you sent us messages of encouragement along the way I want to thank you and let you know that all of your help was a key component in our ability to make it the whole way.

So now what do I say about the whole thing?  To be perfectly honest most of the trip is a big blur at this point.  There are some specifics that I can very vividly recall, like watching a fellow thru-hiker named Breeze jump 5 feet in the air and scream like a girl when a 4 foot rattlesnake decided to make its presence known to us as we walked past; however, most of it has blended together in my mind.  That probably is a result of the mind-numbing, monotony of the day to day activity.  With that said I do remember the feelings that I had throughout the trip: the sense of accomplishment when I made it up Albert Mountain in NC and could look back at where I had come from for the first time, the rush of excitement (tempered by a bit of discomfort) when I woke up in the Smokey Mountains to 3 inches of snow, the nostalgic feeling of homesickness that brought tears to my eyes when I heard “Looking for Space” by John Denver, the fear and awe that surged through me as I weathered a thunderstorm on the top of Arden Mountain in New York, and the exhausted sense of shear amazement and disbelief as I stood on the top of Mount Katahdin in front of that not so arbitrary sign.  I experienced some of the strongest emotions of my whole life on this trail and though the keenness of those sensations has already begun to dull, I know I will never be able to completely forget what it was like.  I suppose when people are in as extreme a situation as we were in extreme emotion is a natural result.

The other thing that stands out for me when I think about the trail is the people.  There were so many wonderful, interesting, and loving people that we meet along the way that I am inclined to say that my favorite part of the whole thing was just that: the people.  Along the way some of our fellow hikers have talked about how the kindness they were shone restored their faith in humanity.  Well, for me, my faith didn’t need restoring, but with that said my experiences on the trail certainly strengthened the faith that was already there.  When a complete stranger offers drive you to their house so they can offer you a shower, do your disgusting laundry, feed you dinner and then take you grocery shopping you can do nothing but be completely amazed (and of course thank them profusely).  As unbelievable as such an occurrence may seem it actually happened a few times to me on the trial!  What is more, a lot of the people who helped me actually thanked me for allowing them too!  To be honest the more I think about it while I write the harder it is for me to believe a lot of the generosity and kindness I was shown.  I don’t even have a word powerful enough to express it.

It isn’t just the “trail angles” who I will not be able to forget, it is also the other hikers who we encountered along the way. Though their contributions were of a different sort, my fellow hikers helped me through this whole thing in ways that no one else could.  Each person I meet along the way contributed in some way to my experience and without every one of them it would not have been what it was.  I will be telling stories about the wonderful characters I meet for the rest of my life, and though the trail friendships I made may not last, the memories that I created with those friends will never leave me.

I am sure that I will have many more thoughts and reflections as the whole experience continues to sink in, but for now I will leave you all with that.  Thank you all so much for following along and I hope you all will check back again in September to see the bonus stories that Amanda will be posting!

Happy Trails,

Sunday, July 31, 2011


It might be over... but it isn't over!  There are more stories to come!  More adventures to discover!  You might remember the Gretel left the trail in the middle of the journey.  Well, she is currently back in those skipped states and walking the miles she missed.  Hansel has decided to maintain his yeti-like appearance for as long as he can until Gretel finishes. She has already finished Pennsylvania and is currently in Massachusetts.  Mom is helping her slack pack so she can cover as much ground as possible before she has to begin law school.

You might also remember that while Gretel was off the Trail, there wasn't much being written about Hansel's solo adventures.  I have all those stories, but haven't posted them yet.  Over the next two months (more in the month of September than August because I'll be in Europe stating Tuesday... maybe I should make a blog for that too...) all of those missing stories will be posted. So don't be afraid to return to Jabeccawalk.  We're still here!

Happy Trails!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The End

At the top of the mountain, Hansel, Gretel, Two Bad and Mom had a quick photo shoot with the Katahdin sign.  The trip back down Katahdin was more difficult and a bit scarier than it had been to climb up.  This time they were looking at the many-foot drops making the fear factor so much higher.  Two Bad didn't seem to be having any problem.  

"He was jumping around and loving it," Hansel recounted.  Surprisingly, going down was no problem for him this time.  He was able to use his arms to lower himself over the huge bolders most of the time.  He often has trouble on the slow descents because of his two bad knees, but he was able to hop the boulders in stride!  Mom, on the other hand, was having a really tough time.  She was pretty scared.  Gretel led the way, followed by Mom, then Hansel and Two Bad took up the rear.  

When they got to the rebar spot, "that was an event, let me tell you.  She kind of lost it there," Hansel recalled.  She started crying and was getting a little "panic-ie."  This was because the only way to get down was to face forward and lower yourself with your arms behind you holding onto the metal rod.  You had to kind of slide down until you could get your foot on a particular rock.  It was a very big drop (about 7 feet) and it was extremely awkward to be climbing down the bolder backward.  

Hansel came to the rescue.  He managed to position himself so that he was sandwiching Mom between his body and the rock face.  He held onto the rebar around Mom so that she could slide down between his arms.  If she fell, she would fall right into his chest.  When she started to panic, Hansel looked at her (his face was only a few inches from hers) and kept repeating, "Mom, it's ok.  Just look at my face.  Just lower yourself down.  Your foot is almost there.  You can do this..."  He and Gretel coached her down the rock while Mom did her best to stay calm.  She made it safely and Two Bad followed.  He got his leg a little stuck which was hurting his hip a bit, but we was able to fix himself without help.  

Meanwhile, I had hiked one mile up Katahdin to a spot called Katahdin Stream Falls.  I arrived at about 3 pm with my four signs looking pretty.  I made attempts to gather a crowd to celebrate with me, but no one seemed very interested in waiting at the falls for a couple of thru-hikers they had never met.  I staked out a good spot for each sign and seated myself on a rock by the water.  I had also changed into the surprise Jabeccawalk t-shirts we made for the whole family.  I was carrying Mom and Dad's t-shirts too so that when they all came down to find me, I could toss them their shirts which they would throw on in triumph.  At that time, I also planned on jumping up waving one of the signs high over my head and whatever people happened to be there would start that oh-so-inspiring slow clap that speeds up into full out applause!  Maybe someone would even have some speakers handy and play the "We Are The Champions" song by Queen.  In my mind, this whole scene was looking quite momentous!  I sat on my rock watching up the trail ready for the first sign of my family.  Every now and again the wind would blow over one of my signs and I would hop up to fix it as quickly as I could, the whole time watching up the mountain so as not to miss Hansel and Gretel.  

Amanda (me) waiting on a rock beside the falls.

At 4:30 there was still no sign of them.  I had switched my waiting rock a few times and talked with every other hiker who was making his or her way down from the top of Katahdin.  I asked if they had seen Hansel and Gretel.  Some said they might have passed them, other's weren't too sure.  I kept waiting.  At 5:30 I decided to tape down my poster board signs.  I was getting tired of running to pick them up every 10 minutes when the wind knocked them over.  Luckily I had a role of clear packing tape that I used to attach the signs to nearby trees.  At 7 pm I was starting to get cold and the bugs had made a full-fledged meal of my neck.  I was itching and scratching all over.  I crouched between my poster board signs to keep warm and block the wind, making sure to sustain my gaze on the trail leading up the mountain.  

At 7:30 I was getting worried.  What if one of them had gotten hurt?  I hadn't seen any hikers coming down in quite a while.  Maybe they were stranded up there all alone.  What if they took an alternate route down and were already in the parking lot unable to find me?  I thought my parents knew I was going to hike up to the waterfall, but maybe they forgot.  I decided that if they still had not appeared by 8pm, I was going to gather my signs and head back to the car.  It would probably take me an hour to get back since I was still a little gimpy from when I broke my ankle back in April.  I was afraid that if I left any later I would have to find my way in the dark.  

At 7:45 I started pulling my signs off of the trees.  This momentous celebration I had envisioned was not turning out the way I planned.  I don't think I have ever sat and stared at one spot as long as I did that afternoon.  I wish I could say it was a meditative afternoon with the sounds of water and nature all around me, but it really was just kind of pathetic.  I set out on the trail heading toward the parking lot.  Not 10 minutes into my hike, I heard someone clomping along behind me.  I turned around and saw Gretel moving quickly over the rocks!  

"Oh!  Hi!" I said.  "Wait!" I unrolled one of my signs and held it infront of my chest.  "Hooray!!!"  I yelled.  It took Gretel a moment to realize what was going on.  She was very confused to see this gimpy person trotting along by herself with her arms full of poster board, but she started laughing when she realized it was me.  Together, we continued our hike through the woods.  She told me how difficult it had been to get up and down Katahdin.  She explained that she left Hansel, Two Bad and Mom because she really had to use the bathroom (a privy located at the waterfall where I had been waiting).  She was going to sit and wait for them at the waterfall, but it was getting cold and dark, so she decided to return to the parking lot and wait with me.  She had not expected to run into me on the trail.  As we walked, we kept our ears sharp for any sound of footsteps behind us.  A few times we thought we heard Mom and Dad's voice, but our ears were just playing tricks on us.  

Back in the parking lot, Gretel and I taped the signs to the trunk of the car.  It was about 8:20 and daylight was fading fast.  It was getting colder so we moved into the car keeping our eyes glued to the place where the trail comes out of the woods.  Minutes ticked by and Gretel started to worry.  Did Hansel have the head lamps?  She thought he had kept them in his pack.  But what if he didn't?  Maybe she should hike back into the woods to make sure they were ok.  8:45 rolled around and still no sign of them.  The sun was officially gone.  The suspense was killing us.  Where were they?  

At 9 pm two small beams of light glowed from woods.  It was them!  Mom and Two Bad were wearing Hansel's head lamps while Hansel walked between them.  They made it!  Gretel and I jumped out of the car.  "Hooray!!" we shouted, each of us holding up a sign.  We threw Mom, Two Bad and Hansel their Jabeccawalk t-shirt.  Gretel and I were already wearing ours.  After some hugs and some story swapping, we all loaded into the car and drove out of the now pitch black campground.  

We had an hour drive to get back into town, which means we didn't hit civilization until 10 pm.  At that point, every restaurant and ice cream shop was closed for the night.  Our celebratory dinner had to be McDonalds burgers with a McFlurry for good measure.  This momentous celebratory finish had definitely lost its luster, but sitting in McDonalds with the whole family together was really all any of us needed.  Hansel and Gretel had done it.  Knowing that was enough of a celebration all by itself.

McDonalds Celebration

The next day we raced to the airport for an early flight all decked out in our matching Jabeccawalk t-shirts.  I'm sure we were quite a spectacle, limping our way through the airport with a bunch of hefty backpacks.  At least everyone smelled fresh.  Two Bad, being the proud father that he is, didn't miss an opportunity to tell other passengers and airport officials that his kids just finished hiking the Appalachian Trail.  We got back to NJ in the early afternoon.  Pulling into the driveway was a breath of fresh air for Hansel and Gretel.  Tonight, they would use a real napkin, as opposed to their shirt sleeves.  They would brush their teeth with clean running water.  Finally, they would not have to "make their home" from the materials they carried on their backs.  After four long months, this adventure had come to an end. 

Happy tra... well, just happy!

On the plane!

Lookin' good at Newark Airport.

Gretel and Mom waiting for Two Bad to come back with the car.

A toast of wine, coffee and milk at Taormina's, our favorite Italian restaurant in Kenilworth, NJ.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The End: Katahdin's Peak

As Hansel and Gretel climbed their way up Katahdin with Mom and Dad, they discussed how it's kind of stupid that a lame sign is THE thing that signifies the completion of their 2,181 mile adventure.  It seems rather arbitrary to say "you have to get to this sign and then you're done."

"We signed in.  It's not like being on top of the mountain is going to be anything great," they said.  They were kind of poo-pooing it the whole way.  At that point, they were both just so tired and ready to be done with the Trail.  That's not to say it hadn't been the adventure of a life time, they were just ready for it to be over.  With that kind of attitude going up, neither of them were really prepared for the emotions that erupted out of them when that "arbitrary sign" came into view.

"We finally got there and, I have to tell you," Hansel said, "it was NOT an arbitrary end point and this sign was one of the most meaningful things in my life.  I can't even express the emotions that just flew through my body and I can't even explain why this piece of wood with writing on it elicited all these emotions.  [Gretel] and I just gave each other a hug and both of us just cried for like five minutes.  And everyone around us started crying too.  Mom and Dad were crying.  It really was like nothing I have ever experienced before."

It's not every day that a hiker completely the Appalachian Trail, but it's even less likely that a pair of siblings finish the Trail together.  Throughout their journey, people have wondered if Hansel and Gretel were married or dating, and they are always confused when their interactions never really match either of those statuses.  When the on-lookers realize that Hansel and Gretel are in fact brother and sister, the response is always so positive.  It must be refreshing to see that a set of siblings could be such good friends.  Having finished this adventure through the physical, psychological, and emotional hardship, there was something truly magical in the embrace that Hansel and Gretel shared at the top of that mountain.  This really was the moment of a life time.  They had done it!  And they had done it together!

True sibling love

2,181 miles with Froggie and Black Bear (the little animals they are holding)

Mom, Hansel, Gretel and Two Bad pretending to be asleep on the sign.

Not only did Hansel and Gretel climb the mountain, also climbed the sign!

Hansel posing like the cover on the AT Guide Book (click here to view)


The End: Katahdin Ascent

Hansel and Gretel started the final 5 miles up Katahdin at about 11:45am and it took them a little over an hour to catch up with Mom and Two Bad.  Their rendezvous came at the point on the mountain that Mom and Two Bad had rendered impassable.

"Well, it looks like we are going this far and that's it," they said regretfully as they gazed up at an 8 foot boulder at the top of which were two pieces of rebar (a metal rod) that had been hammered into the rock.  In order to climb this thing you had to hold on to the higher rebar rod and then swing your foot up to hook the other piece of rebar.  The foot hold was so high up you almost had to knee yourself in the face to reach it while your other foot dangled bellow your body.  Are you picturing this?  If not, you can see an example of another heel hook here.  You just have to imagine this taking place on the edge of a mountain instead of a foot off of the ground.  From the heel hook you had to pull yourself up.  If you let go, the fall would be about 6 feet and nothing to catch you after that.  It was pretty scary, especially for Mom and Dad.  Dad because he has hip mobility problems (recall previous post: Two Bad's Out of Reach Feet) so finding the flexibility to get his foot on the rebar would be extremely difficult, and Mom because she would need to find some super upper body strength to hoist herself up over the rebar.

"I don't even know how Mom and Dad did it, but they both got up over this part somehow," Hansel said.  Many people turn around when they reach that part of Katahdin, but Mom and Two Bad were determined even though Hansel and Gretel tried telling them that it was ok if they didn't go all the way to the top.  Once they got over the rebar, Mom said, "Well, I'm up now so we're going.  I don't know how I'm going to get down again, but I'm up."  As brave as she probably would have liked that to sound, she was almost crying because she was so scared.  They kept telling her that the hard part was over, but that wasn't really true.  There were more hard parts after that as the trail went straight up the mountain for the next 1.5 miles.

This was the most rock climbing Hansel and Gretel had done on the entire trail.  There were parts where they had to pull themselves up over the rocks.  Mom ended up doing a lot of seal-like belly slides to get up on the rocks.  Or she would just put her knees up because it was too hard to pull up on arms alone.  As they climbed up, a bunch of people were passing them going the opposite direction.  When they looked back, there was no one coming up the mountain behind them.  They were the last group to up and most people had already started the climb down.  This made them kind of nervous too, but as Mom said, "There's nothing else to do.  Can't do anything but keep going."

Gretel and Mom making their way up the boulders.

The End-ish-ish

Mom and Two Bad decided to climb to the top of Katahdin so they could be present when Hansel and Gretel reached their goal.  They left me in the parking lot of Katahdin Stream Campground at 11am and began their 5 mile climb to the top.

Mom and Two Bad.  Katahdin is the peak you can see just above their heads.

On their way up Katahdin!

Thinking that Hansel and Gretel had already passed through the campground, I set up shop at one of the picknick tables and began constructing giant celebratory signs on pieces of poster board.  I couldn't have been more than 15 minutes into it when Hansel and Gretel came trotting out of the woods.  I quickly lept up from the picknick table, abandoning my signs, and started walking towards them as cool as can be.  I made every attempt to draw them away from the picknick table I had left, but they were heading straight for it!  They were looking for the ranger station to sign in, which happen to be just past my table.

"We'll just put our packs down with your stuff," Hansel said, indicating over at my abandoned picknick table.

"That's not mah stuff," I said quickly.  But Hansel just kept walking towards it!

"Oh," he said and put his pack down right next to it, making sure to peak over at the poster board that the wind had blown off the table and was now laying on the ground with the words "Gretel, you did it!" written across it.  Luckily, my tape dispenser had also blown off the table and landed on top of the R E and T part of "Gretel" so it wasn't completely obvious that the sign was for her... just mostly obvious.  Fortunately Gretel is as gullible as I am so when I said "that's not mah stuff," she actually believed it wasn't mah stuff and didn't even bother looking at it.

The three of us walked over to the ranger station to register Hansel and Gretel as official finishers of the Appalachian Trail!  Of course they still had to climb Katahdin, but the Guide Book says to sign in before going up.

Hansel and Gretel were the 374th and 375th hikers to begin the trail back in George, and the 41st and 42nd to finish up in Maine!  That means that 333 either quit or Hansel and Gretel passed them on the trail!

Gretel's note for the log book at the ranger station

Registered Thru-hikers!  Numbers 41 and 42!

The End-ish

Two Bad and Mom took Hansel and Gretel to the trail head early in the morning.  They had a 10 mile hike to get to the base of Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park and then there would be a 5 mile climb to get to the top.  Their hike to base of Katahdin took a bit longer than they expected because "there was a stupid river that wasn't listed in the guide book that we had to ford."  Because it wasn't listed, they spent about 15 minutes trying to figure out where the trail went.  It seems as though other hikers were also a bit confused by this river and ended up creating other trails going up and down the shore in an attempt to figure out where the trail went and the best way to cross.

Finally, Hansel and Gretel realized they had to ford it.  Hansel was actually able to jump from rock to rock to get across, which is pretty extreme.  There was one leap in which he hopped about 4 feet to the next rock over the rushing water!  Gretel wasn't quite as daring so she took off her boots half way and waded through the river.  This not the most comfortable for her because the rocks at the bottom were really sharp and she didn't have her Crocks with her since they were only taking the bare essentials to climb up Katahdin.  They made it across, frustrated that they had waisted 15 minutes (time is precious to a thru-hiker who has made it all the way to Maine).  Half a mile later, the white blazes led them to cross right back over the very same river.  The rest of the trail was pretty easy and they blew through the remaining miles to the Katahdin Stream Campground, where I was waiting at the base of Mt. Katahdin.

Happy Trails!

That is Mt. Katahdin as seen from Katahdin Stream Campground

Hansel and Gretel coming out of the woods and not quite recognizing me yet.  Note Hansel's confused countenance as I snap this photo.