Andrew Parker, A12

By Kristin Livingston

For many, the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail sparks fantasies of an epic, solitary expedition, a time for silence and reflection deep in the valleys and high on the peaks of an iconic American path. When Andrew Parker, A12, set off on his 2,185-mile, 14-state, five-month “thru-hike” of the entire “AT” from Georgia to Maine, he found his silence interrupted by colorful hikers and the biggest moments of self-reflection on the beaten path.

Andrew Parker, A12, walks north.

A seemingly simple task

Parker started his journey with a simple plan: walk north.

“It is rare, I think, that in life we are presented with so straightforward a task as to simply walk in one direction,” he wrote in reflection after the trek. In May of 2012, Parker was fresh from Tufts and at a transition point in life; he wanted to take some time to figure out who he wanted to be, what he wanted to do. He’d had the AT in his head since he read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods when he was 12. “I harbored the dream through high school and college, through my first hikes in New Hampshire with my aunt,” he says. He spent the year after college working as a standardized test tutor, saving his money and hiking as much as possible to condition himself for the trip.

Unlike Bryson, Parker didn’t have a wheezing sidekick lumbering 20 paces behind him, yet he was rarely alone. He started the AT in April—peak season, when thousands rush to the starting line atop Springer Mountain in Georgia. As the weeks passed he made friends and built a routine: wake at five, hike 10 to 15 miles until dusk, set up camp, dine around the camp stove or fire, strategize the next day’s plan (where to get fresh water, how far to travel), and fall asleep as soon as his head hit the bag. All was going according to plan.

Super 8 break

When a norovirus spread like wildfire among the hikers, Parker was forced off the trail in Erwin, Tennessee. He stayed with Philip, a fellow hiker, in a Super 8 motel. Sweating and nauseated, he lay in bed and thought about the past month, especially his fellow thru-hikers, some of whom he knew only by their trail names (Parker went by Mash, short for dehydrated mashed potatoes, which he ate in abundance). He also thought of the “trail angels,” strangers who appeared in the trail’s parking lots on freezing, sleeting days with ham sandwiches, homemade brownies, and positive words to kick-start the soul, or who left coolers full of “trail magic,” fresh food he calls “life-altering” after days of granola bars and freeze-dried supplies.

After two days in the motel, Philip took a cab to the airport. He was done. Parker wouldn’t give up. Two days later, he dragged himself back to the trail. The warm greeting by new thru-hiker friends inspired him to continue.

“Corny as it sounds, I thought I was heading on a spiritual journey by myself,” he says. “But the biggest discovery I made was that people are incredible. I was blown away by their generosity and kindness.” As new obstacles challenged his resolve, the people he met helped bolster it.

“In the end, the Appalachian Trail is ultimately a test of how badly you want to hike the Appalachian Trail,” he says. And Parker was determined to finish, never mind the snakes, bobcats, moose, ponies, persistent clouds of mosquitoes, rainy days when even waterproof gear had its limits, and about 25 bears. “Surprisingly, I came by most of those bears in New Jersey,” he says. Ian Kenley, a friend from Washington, D.C., met up with him in Virginia just long enough to encounter two snakes and a bear in one night. “It was terrifying for him at the time but is a great story to this day,” Parker remembers with a laugh.

One weekend, Parker accompanied Kenley into Washington, D.C. Sitting on the train, he was overwhelmed by the smell of perfume and deodorant. “On the trail, your sense of smell heightens to a point where if someone uses detergent or perfume, you can smell them from miles away,” he says. Walking out of the station, he was surrounded by the roar of the city: speeding and honking traffic, hurried commuters, blaring music. And with his shaggy hair, growing beard, and worn pack and clothes, he realized he must look like “a mountain man.”

“I realized my needs were changing,” he says. “I’d been living with the most minimal of material items and I’d become accustomed to that lifestyle. I enjoyed my time in the city, how easy it was to turn on the faucet and grab food from the market, but I couldn’t wait to get back on the quiet trail.”

In the end

On September 5, 2012, Parker could finally see the white-tipped peak of Katahdin in Maine.

After months of walking forward, “the knowledge that my experience was coming to such an abrupt end, and that it would soon be replaced by something that seemed so lifeless compared to the excitement of the trail, was sobering,” he says. Friends who had been inseparable for hundreds of miles would soon part ways. The woods would no longer be a constant. “I felt as though a part of me was being wrenched away; the life I had cultivated so carefully over the past five months was just a long vacation.”

As he reached the summit with his comrades, one of the most meaningful reasons for walking the trail hit him hard.

“My mother passed away in 2009 after a two-year struggle with breast cancer,” he says. The two had often spoken of hiking the Appalachian Trail together. “It was my mother who instilled in me the love of nature that had played a huge role in my wanting to hike the trail in the first place. The raw emotion that I had felt after my mother's death came rushing back all at once, and the pain of that loss was suddenly more unavoidable and immediate than it had ever been.”

And yet, when he reached the top, his cheer rang out with the rest; what he had imagined to be a solitary moment was instead a raucous group celebration. “A hint of sadness lurked behind our laughter, because we knew the journey was over,” he wrote in his reflections, “but we remained atop Katahdin in the warmth of the sunlight for hours.” Parker and the group made their way back down the mountain and were greeted at the bottom with handshakes and back-slaps from thru-hikers who were planning their final climb for the next morning.

Now working as a data integrity analyst for Commonwealth Financial Network in Waltham, Mass., Parker is in the preliminary stages of planning a hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, another of America’s long-distance trails, which he hopes to trek in a few years. In the meantime, he thinks of the AT and his fellow hikers often.

Around that last campfire, Parker remembers soaking up the camaraderie and savoring the conversation. He wrote, “One thru-hiker, around a s'more shoved hastily into his mouth, and with bits of graham cracker stuck in his flowing philosopher's beard, offered some sage advice, ‘You won't forget what you did, just make sure you carry it with you.’”

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