Matt Howard, Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker
Northbound : May - October 2003

At age 41, Matt Howard was caught up in his career. A production manager for a high definition TV technology company, he put in long hours at his Manhattan office just three blocks from the World Trade Center. Everything changed for Matt on September 11, 2001. While personally unharmed by the leveling of the Twin Towers by terrorist-piloted airliners, Matt realized that life was passing him by.

"Work became my life and it ate my heart out," he said. "You can forget your dreams if you have a career."

Matt had been searching for a way to honor his father, an outdoorsman, who had died of cancer several years earlier. He decided that, in memory of James Howard, he would fulfill his own dream : to hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,174-mile footpath that parallels the East Coast of the United States.

"A pilgrimage through the woods and mountains made sense," Matt said.

He began researching the Trail and outfitting himself for the hike. Taking a leave of absence from his job, he started hiking at Springer Mountain, Georgia, on May 4, 2003. He was among 2,041 "thru-hikers" who started out to hike the entire Trail in 2003 and one of only 397 men and women who actually achieved their goal. Like 60% of the "2000-milers", Matt began at the southern end of the Trail, walking north with the Spring.

The year 2003 was the wettest season on record. Parts of the Trail were turned into a muddy river, but Matt did not see snow until early October. He reached his destination, Mount Katahdin in Maine, before permanent snowfall covered the ground.

Starting out by himself, he often trekked with other hikers he met along the Trail. Two of his more regular companions were a Tampa Philharmonic percussionist and an Alaskan chef. He knew them only by their trail names of "Deacon Blues" and "Little Bear". Matt himself became known as "Smurf" because of his 40 pounds of blue gear - backpack, sleeping bag, poncho, and belt bag.

Hiking more than 2,000 miles is in itself an accomplishment; doing it while carrying a backpack is a feat often requiring superhuman effort. The Appalachian Trail, laid out along the top of several mountain chains, traverses 14 states and has 350 peaks over 5,000 feet. Few hikers manage to carry less than 40 pounds. In addition to clothing, everything required for sleeping and eating must be carried in a backpack or bedroll.

There are trail shelters available for overnight hikers, generally three-sided roofed structures with wooden shelves serving as bunk beds and an open-air fire pit facing the open side. In areas where black bears are a nuisance, this open side may be guarded with an iron grill.

Occasionally it is possible to leave the Trail briefly to purchase supplies or even to spend the night in a motel or boarding house. These stops are highlights for the 2000-milers mainly because of the chance to have a hot shower and to liaison with other hikers.

The solitude is often more of a deterrent to thru-hikers than the terrain or the weather. For Matt, who frequently walked with one or two other hikers for several days, the isolation was to his liking.

"The first few days you get antsy and out of sorts," he said, "but by the third day I break through that wall and I like the isolation. I could hear my own thoughts. I like that."

Maintaining his weight was Matt's chief concern. He felt his hardest hurdle was eating enough to replace the 5,000 calories he burned each day. Walking as much as 27 miles a day, he lost roughly 30 pounds in the process and slimmed down to about 175 pounds.

"After a while, the women tend to look better," he said, "but the men look like prisoners of war."

Other occasional annoyances were wild bears and moose, but insects were a chronic problem, especially around Maryland.

"Gnats get in your eyes and your nose and mouth. I found creative ways to tie a bandana to keep them off", Matt added.

Aside from the sense of accomplishment, Matt's fondest memories of his feat rest in the people he met along the way. He kept a journal filled with stories not only of hikers but also the farmers and hostel-keepers he encountered.

Would he do it again? Maybe not the Appalachian Trail, but he plans to walk the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide trails with several good friends he made along the way. That would complete what he called "the America's Cup" of hiking.
"A Walk in the Woods": Bill Bryson - ISBN 0-7862-1513-5