|On the Appalachian Trail, surrounded by sweeping natural vistas, sheltered from the cacophony of modern living by a canopy of trees, one thought is all consuming.
Food, glorious food, calorie-laden, sugar-rich, carb-heavy food.
For ravenous hikers Julia Geisler ’03 and Michael Snyder ’03, visions of triple-decker bacon cheeseburgers, stuffed-crust pizzas slathered with extra cheese, banana splits mounded high with hot fudge and whipped cream tormented them with every step. They instead were sustained by lightweight freeze-dried rations that had to be reconstituted before being eaten.
“I could eat a lard sundae for breakfast and lose a pound by lunch. Fat doesn’t stand a chance when you are hiking 15 miles a day, every day,” Michael wrote from the trail two months into the hike. At mile marker 460 in Pearisburg, Va., after Julia vainly tried to convince him not to eat a package of expired chicken found on the dirt floor of a shelter, he penned an ode extolling the virtues of hamburger:
Burger! Burger! My love for thee,
Deeper than ocean, wider than sea.
Never a sandwich before or hence,
Hath known thy culinary immaculence!
When the two decided to embark on the 2,174-mile, Georgia-to-Maine adventure in March 2004, they knew that an average hiker burns 6,000 to 9,000 calories a day while consuming about 3,000 to 5,000 calories. The sustained deprivation of the six-month hike would be a challenge to their already-slight frames. They plotted out their nutritional needs, forwarding 24 packages of dehydrated food, cereal bars and gorp to themselves to be picked up at towns along the way so they could keep their backpacks light.
While intellectually prepared, they weren’t ready for the physical reality.
Michael dwindled to 125 pounds, 40 pounds lighter than he is now.
“There’s an interesting phenomenon that chemically happens to you if you are physically starving, that later, when food is plentiful, it is still ingrained in you that you might starve,” said Michael. “It’s a year later, but whenever food is in front of me, I eat voraciously, past the point of being full.”
Which is why he doesn’t advocate the Appalachian Trail diet plan.
What they do advocate is the experience itself, something so life changing they mark time as Before Trail and After Trail.
“It’s so hard to sum up what it means, but it was a turning point,” said Michael. “It puts a lot of things in perspective.”
For Julia, the trail not only taught her “what strengths I have and to learn to appreciate life every day” but also to relish the simplest of pleasures.
“When we’d come off the trail for a day, I learned to appreciate having a toilet and how wonderful it felt to be clean.”
What drives someone to spend half a year with the single imperative: Walk North?
Growing up in the Allegheny Mountains of western Maryland, both were well-versed in outdoor living, with Julia tackling the ski slopes as soon as she could walk and Michael venturing out on a section of the Appalachian Trail with his Boy Scout troop.
At Dickinson, Julia majored in environmental science and Michael in geology. The two met freshman year when they shared a ride home. When they weren’t in the classroom, they spent much of their time outdoors. Like many Dickinsonians, they went abroad, Julia to Costa Rica and Michael to New Zealand. After graduation they headed to California to lead outdoor adventures through mountain ranges for middle-school students.
But something was always propelling them to make the ultimate trek of the earth’s most ancient mountain range that passed so close to home.
“It became a goal to do after college, to experience our home region of the woods,” recalled Julia.
After assembling lightweight camping gear that would allow them to carry only 20 pounds at a time, they were off to Springer, Ga., to embark with 2,000 other hopefuls. Only about 12 percent of hikers complete the trek to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
“Walking along the trail allows you to get a sense of who we are in the greater scheme,” Michael reflected. “There’s a sense of wonder, a trippy, head-rush kind of thing that comes from spending so much time in the mountains, getting my feet into the rocks.”
Midway through the trail they stopped off in Carlisle to attend Geology Professor Noel Potter’s retirement dinner. It was a chance for real food and conversation, but the call of the North forced them to press on.
Their favorite parts of the trail came near the end. Julia fell in love with the White Mountains of New Hampshire. For Michael, it was northern Maine.
When at last they rejoined their families, shedding their trail names of Yippie and Jabberwock for Julia and Michael again, they celebrated by feasting on lobsters dripping in butter. Then it was time to reacclimate.
“After spending so much time in the woods, so simply and elementally, walking into a Wal-Mart, that festival of consumption, is overwhelming,” said Michael. “To be thrust back into that environment, the tremendous amount of waste, is nothing like being on the trail where we would carry our little sandwich bag of trash out.”
In doing the hike, the two wanted to give back to their community, asking supporters to donate to an outdoor educational program at an alternative school for disadvantaged youth. Several hundred dollars have been collected to date for a scholarship program.
“Dickinson taught me how to reach out and be part of a community, how to be an active citizen,” said Julia. “This hike furthered that, not only with the support from the local community before the hike [but with] the whole network of people along the trail that helps hikers. Now we’re giving presentations to school groups and scout troops. We’re finding that what we’ve done has encouraged a lot of people.”
Now it’s on to their latest adventure: a year in Japan teaching English.
“Japan is the next step in an education that isn’t terminal but about educating yourself,” said Michael. “A lot of the message of Dickinson is lifelong education, about learning how to learn, about learning from your core. It’s another learning experience—challenging yourself and putting yourself in a place you haven’t been.” •
Daina Savage ’90 is a freelance writer who lives in Lancaster, Pa.