By Charlotte Underwood / Staff writer
Freezing rain pelted Daniel Johnson and Ben Callahan as they doggedly walked the rocky up and down terrain of New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
It was June 3 and wind gusts of up to 75 mph threatened to knock them off the trail, but the men had walked more than 1,800 miles over four months and were within 320 miles of their goal: to summit the fog shrouded Katahdin and finish their 2,184 mile journey as through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Their journey began in January in Georgia. By the time they were scaling Katahdin, they had each worn out several pairs of shoes on the trail, shed weight until they were lean muscle and meat, and — in one case — tragically lost a new friend while trekking.
Last week, after spending five months on what’s known as America’s third longest trail and by far the most difficult, Johnson returned home to Gray and Callahan to his home in Corbin.
Both said they returned home as changed men.
Johnson said he has a newfound clarity.
“The trail can change people; you have a lot of time to think while out there walking,” Daniel Johnson said.
The Long Walk
Stretching from its southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia to its northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in central Maine, the Appalachian Trail (AT) traverses 14 states.
Callahan, 24, took time off from studying architecture at Western Kentucky University and his job as a screen press operator in order to make the trek.
Johnson, 21, a heating and air installer, also took time off of work to make the journey.
Having grown up on a farm in eastern Kentucky, Johnson said he has always been an outdoorsman. Since he was a teen, he dreamed of hiking the AT, and he credits his uncle, Claude “Benny” Johnson, for helping to inspire him to take on the ambitious goal.
“There were a lot of things that inspired me to go, but one of the main inspirations was my uncle. He had always talked about doing the hike, but then he got cancer and even though he got better, he couldn’t do a through-hike. So in a way, I kind of did it for him,” Daniel Johnson said.
“He was pretty excited to get to experience the trip through me,” Johnson said.
His uncle said he was proud of his nephew for making the journey.
“It makes me feel pretty good that he would even say that I had something to do with it. It’s something that I always wanted to do myself and talked to him about it,” Claude Johnson said.
Daniel Johnson also said he felt spiritually called to make the journey as well.
“I felt God wanted me to do it. My faith is very important to me and I felt as if it was a spiritual renewal,” Daniel Johnson said.
Callahan said he enjoyed being out in the woods and hiking the trail had “definitely” been a spiritual experience for him as well.
“Every day we were out there, there was no distractions like phones bothering you. There’s a lot more clarity without the distractions; I talked to God a lot,” Callahan said.
Johnson and Callahan began their journey on Jan. 17, when they traveled to Georgia and made the short eight-mile hike along the Southern Terminus Approach Trail. The next day was their first day on the AT.
Planning for the trip, however, began nearly a year in advance with lots of research and physical training to get in shape for the ambitious south-to-north trek.
Those who hike the AT as through-hikers usually take on a trail name that reflects their personalities or refer to a funny story. Johnson, aka Iceman, and Callahan, aka Viking, were no different.
Johnson was dubbed “Iceman” because when they began their hike it was cold and, while he slept in his sleeping bag, his perspiration wicked to the outside of the fabric. That moisture would freeze and, each morning, he had to chip his way out of a thin sheen of ice.
Callahan garnered his name from a college roommate, who upon learning of the incredible journey he planned to make, dubbed him “Viking.”
With trail names, 50-pound packs and the determination of youth, Johnson and Callahan spent their days hiking up and down mountains, seeing sights that most never get to see.
“The best part was Grayson Highlands in Virginia, it was very scenic,” Johnson said, describing natural balds that revealed scenic vistas and far-stretching views.
“They don’t really know why the area has so many balds, but it makes it where you can see forever and is just really beautiful,” Daniel Johnson said.
To Callahan, Maine was his favorite part of the hike.
“Maine is a beautiful state,” Callahan said.
Johnson said he wasn’t surprised he saw a bear on the trip, but he was surprised at which state he saw it in.
“It took me 13 states to see a bear, but I finally saw one in New Hampshire,” Daniel Johnson said.
Moose, beavers and porcupines were also among the wildlife viewed by the two men during the hike.
Living mostly on dehydrated food and energy bars, both Callahan and Johnson spent many nights sleeping under the stars.
The men averaged 16 miles per day, but as they built up stamina, their daily mileage increased, culminating with several 30-mile days and one monster 33.5-mile day, according to Daniel Johnson. Though there were some cold nights early on in the hike, Daniel Johnson said the mild winter made for better hiking through the North Carolina and Tennessee Mountains.
During the journey, the mosquitoes and black flies were “relentless,” especially in Connecticut, according to Daniel Johnson.
Despite traveling over 2,000 miles, often through wilderness, they did not need navigational tools as the trail was well marked and really, they were never alone.
“You’re not really alone on the AT, not even in January when it’s cold, there are still other through-hikers. It was really like a tight-nit community for us,” Daniel Johnson said. He even got to see his parents while he was hiking in the South.
Johnson’s parents sent care packages for him to pick up along the way, but while in the southern part of the country, his family personally delivered supplies to him every week or so.
While hiking, the two also met several new friends and “trail characters.”
One of these new friends had the trail name of “Parkside.” Callahan and Johnson first met him in Virginia, hiking on and off with him.
“Parkside had found a dog on the trail and named him Nutty, but Nuttty got lost and followed a Boy Scout Troop the other way. We were able to reunite Parkside with Nutty and from that point we hiked on and off together; he was a really fun guy to hike with,” Daniel Johnson said, describing Parkside’s talent for doing voice impressions.
“He could do Gollum and the Godfather; he was hilarious.” He described another situation in which he, Callahan and Parkside had stopped at a small country store at Cloud Nine in Vermont to resupply.
“We were all stinky from hiking and they were having a fancy birthday party in part of the store. They had it roped off so the stinky hikers wouldn’t be over on that part,” Daniel Johnson said, explaining Parkside took some nicer clothes that were hanging on a clothesline, changed into them and crashed the party.
“He came walking out with a couple beers and the biggest smile on his face and even though Ben and I don’t drink, it was hilarious. He was just a very fun person to be around,” Daniel Johnson said.
He also described the night he and Callahan were staying in a shelter in Pennsylvania when some “random guy” comes up to the shelter at 9:30 p.m. at night banging pots and asking if “anyone wanted bourbon and ham fresh from his freezer.”
“That’s when you start listening real close to hear that banjo music,” Daniel Johnson said with a laugh.
Reaching the summit
According to Johnson, the hardest part of the journey was near the end when he and Callahan were in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and parts of southern Maine. Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet, is the highest mountain in the Northeastern United States and higher than their ultimate goal of Katahdin.
Callahan agreed the “Whites” in New Hampshire was probably the most daunting part of the journey.
“They were pretty nasty. We woke up on June 4th and had snow,” Callahan said.
The weather is so bad in this area, that trail clubs manage huts along this part of AT, allowing through-hikers a warm bed and a hot meal in exchange for an hour’s worth of work, according to Johnson.
“We woke up that morning of June 4 and the crew there at the hut was playing Christmas music, so we had Christmas in June,” Johnson said with a laugh.
The men experienced some of their worst weather in this region, including freezing rain that lasted a week and 75-mph wind gusts.
“There was a lot of rocks and it was constantly straight up or straight down while we were being pelted by the wind,” Johnson said,
Determined to summit, the men pressed on toward the 5,267-foot high summit of Katahdin.
“That was a bad time to be soaking wet with freezing rain and 50 pounds lighter,” Johnson said.
“I’m a pretty competitive guy, so quitting wasn’t an option. I thought it would be nice for a bear to come maul me just enough to get sent home, but I never thought of quitting,” Daniel Johnson said with a laugh.
Callahan said quitting was not an option for him either and he “was determined to do it.”
A photo taken June 20 shows the two men dressed in boots and packs, their faces ruddy from the exertion, but each bears a smile as they stand on either side of the sign that marks the summit of Katahdin.
“It was mixed emotions; relief that it was over, but sadness that it was over as well. It really hit me the day before, just the sense that it was almost over and so the summit at Katahdin was really confirmation that it was over,” Daniel Johnson said.
The experience of a lifetime
Their journey complete, the two men returned to their homes last week.
The two had hiked the AT straight through except for a brief period in March when they had to return to the area for several weeks for a wedding.
Both men agree the trip could not have been completed without their parents’ support.
“My family was very excited for me, but I think at the same time, my mom was ready for me to be home,” Daniel Johnson said.
It was “the experience of a lifetime,” the men said, and Johnson said he will forever remember the trip and the lessons that he learned along the journey.
After returning home, Daniel Johnson and Callahan received a call from a woman they had met on the trip informing them that Parkside had fallen into a pond in Maine and drowned. He was less than 150 miles from Katahdin and his goal. He was 20 years old.
“It was an amazing experience; the memories of the trail are really bittersweet for me, especially about Parkside,” Callahan said.
“You’ve got your bad days, but the experience is worth it. No matter what the situation, God would always reveal himself on the crummy days and give me something to be thankful for, to be grateful for what I did have. And besides, the bad days make for good stories later,” Daniel Johnson said with a smile.
A very brief history of the AT
Monitored by the National Park Service, the Appalachian Trail is known to be one of the toughest long distance trails in the United States, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) website. The conception of the trail is credited to Benton MacKaye, a Massachusetts regional planner and forester for the U.S. Forest Service. His idea for a continuous wilderness trail was proposed in his article in the Oct. 1921 edition of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, titled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.”
As work on the Appalachian Trail progressed during the 1920s and 1930s, the ATC was established to manage the workings of small trail clubs, as well as state and federal agencies that were involved in the process.
The trail was completed in Aug. 1937, according to the ATC. It passes through 14 states including: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. In 1968, Congress passed the National Trails System Act making the Appalachian Trail a National Scenic Trail and basically a national park. The act also authorized funds to protect the trail by surrounding the entire route with public lands, according to the ATC.