August 21, 2011

Recent grads take 5 months to hike Appalachian Trail

By Gary Hawkins
Staff Writer

They called one another Mango, Smurf, Yogi, Clifford, Johnny Appleseed and Count, names adopted along a 2,200-mile stretch from Georgia to Maine known as the Appalachian Trail.

click image to enlarge

WE MADE IT: From top l-r, Jim McCullum, Nate Pronovost, Damian Melnicove and Austin Langsdorf, bottom center, celebrate the recent completion of their trek along the Appalachian Trail at the peak of Mt. Katahdin.

Photo courtesy of Jim McCullum

Four were graduates of Hall-Dale High School, three of whom decided to postpone college for a year to take five months to negotiate the AT, as it's commonly known.

Austin Langsdorf and Gilbert Taylor, 2010 Hall-Dale grads, came up with the idea for the thru-hike, the term applied to those who complete the trail in one swoop. They quickly recruited Jim McCullum, another 2010 Hall-Dale graduate; Nate Pronovost, a Dresden resident who graduated from St. Dominic High in 2010; and Joe Michel, a friend from Portland, Ore., whom McCullum and Langsdorf met on a fall trip to South America. They were joined at the halfway point by Hall-Dale alum Damian Melnicove shortly after he finished his freshman year at Colby-Sawyer College.

"When they mentioned it I was really stoked," McCullum said. "I think I enjoyed the freedom and the independence. You wake up and walk as far as you want. I didn't hike with a watch, I didn't care what time it was."

The trip began at Springer Mountain, Georgia, on March 1, traversed through 14 states and concluded at the top of Mt. Katahdin on Aug. 5.

"I think five months is pretty average ," McCullum said. "There were 50 or 60 people ahead of us."

More than 3,000 hikers test the AT each year, but only about 20 percent complete the entire trail. Most are so-called section hikers who may take two or three years to finish the trek, if they finish it at all.

Construction on the trail began in 1921 and was completed in 1937. Earl Shaffer of York, Pa., was the first officially recorded thru-hiker in 1948, and such numbers remained in double digits until hiking took off around 1990.

"The trail was a lot more mental than physical," Langsdorf said. "Every day out you have to have motivation."

The physical part is by no means easy, even for 18- and 19-year-olds who were high school athletes. They averaged about 20 miles a day, slept in tents or once in awhile shelters, and came off the trail after four or five days to shower and replenish supplies.

"The hardest thing to get over was the pain in my joints," said Melnicove, a 6-foot, 4-inch basketball player. "You get used to it after awhile, but each day was always difficult."

Melnicove joined the group at the halfway point in Pine Grove State Park, Pa., shortly after Taylor left. Adopting a trail name is part of AT lore and Taylor's was Count, derived from counting the days and miles on the trip. McCullum, who ate mangos early in the trip, was Mango, as Pronovost's penchant for apples earned him the moniker Johnny Appleseed. Melnicove's habit of wearing something red much of the time earned him the nickname Clifford after Clifford the Big Red Dog, while Michel was called Yogi after the name of a childhood pet.

Langsdorf drew Smurf because he wore a blue glove after cutting his finger. He still identifies himself as "The Smurf" on his voice mail.

"For the most part we became closer and considered ourselves a family," McCullum said.

Terrain varied from walking on roads and through fields, over boulders, up mountains and in deep woods. The group often hiked at night using head lamps. Although they climbed several mountains including Mt. Washington and Katahdin, dangerous situations were tough to predict.

"There was twice when I felt like my life was in danger," Langsdorf said. "In Pennsylvania a huge boulder came crashing down right after we went past it, and in Vermont a giant branch came down on the trail."

(Continued on page 2)

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