Elmira’s John Mathers went off the grid to spend five months hik­ing the Ap­palachian Trail

The Woolwich Observer - - FRONT PAGE - FAISAL ALI

WHEN JOHN MATHERS TALKS about the months spent hik­ing along the Ap­palachian Trail, he re­calls the stun­ning beauty as well as the bit­ing cold. The vast open serene land­scapes where the hills touched the sky, the friends made amongst fel­low trav­el­ers, and the wet in his boots and numb­ness in his dig­its.

Last year, the Elmira res­i­dent took an ex­tended so­journ from his life for a 152-day walk through the moun­tain­ous trails along the east­ern se­aboard of the U.S. It was a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and Mathers will be shar­ing his in­sights, his mo­ti­va­tions and some of the day-to-day strug­gles of his trip with fel­low hik­ing en­thu­si­asts at the Wool­wich Trails Group meet­ing next week.

“I wanted to climb my first moun­tain. I wanted to be off the grid com­pletely for an ex­tended pe­riod of time. So no TV, no news­pa­pers, lim­ited phone screen time be­cause you just don’t get re­cep­tion along trail,” ex­plains Mather. “I just wanted the sim­plic­ity of trail life, which is ba­si­cally eat, hike, eat, hike, eat, sleep. Do it again the next day. It’s very in the mo­ment, it’s very Zen-like.”

Mathers’ in­ter­est in the daunt­ing trail was sparked read­ing the sto­ries of other hik­ers through on­line jour­nals. He’d al­ways had an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the out­doors, and guided by the maxim that you miss all the chances you don’t take, he de­cided put buy a ticket to At­lanta, the south­ern point of the trail.

“I’ve al­ways wanted to spend an en­tire sum­mer out­side, that’s just been kind of a dream. When I was 13, I re­mem­ber plan­ning a trip with my mum to ca­noe across Canada. That idea never hap­pened, but the idea of be­ing con­tin­u­ously out­side struck me, and it was one that never re­ally left me,” he says.

“The AT (Ap­palachian Trail) would give me an op­por­tu­nity to be out­side for three full sea­sons, so I go to walk through win­ter, spring and sum­mer while on the trail.”

The jour­ney took Mathers over 3,500 km of moun­tain­ous ter­rain, up the east­ern se­aboard of the U.S. from the north­ern end of Ge­or­gia up through to Maine at a com­pa­ra­ble lat­i­tude with Mon­treal and Que­bec City.

“It’d be the equiv­a­lent of walk­ing from Elmira to Banff, just to put it in a Cana­dian per­spec­tive.

“The dis­tance is one thing, that’s a big fac­tor. But the trail goes com­pletely through the Ap­palachian moun­tain ranges,” notes Mathers. “You’re climb­ing 464,500 feet over the course of the trail, so that’s up down up down, all the way. That’s the equiv­a­lent of climb­ing Mount Ever­est 16 times, so it was kind of bru­tal.”

That’s a long, tough march through the best and worst con­di­tions and over the course of the jour­ney, Mather’s plod­ded through sheets of rain and snow and freez­ing cold tem­per­a­tures.

“Five months is a long time to be out­side, and

you’re go­ing to get all kinds of weather. Over the course of those 152 days it rained or snowed 25 per cent of the time,” he says.

“There were some pretty un­com­fort­able camp­ing cir­cum­stances early on. One near-hy­pother­mic ex­pe­ri­ence and a lot of just wet and un­com­fort­able cold nights and days of walk­ing. When you’re walk­ing the trail and it’s rain­ing, the trail tends to be­come a river. So you’re walk­ing through like three or four inches of water all day long, and your feet just turn into these mas­sive prune things that don’t even look like [feet],” he says with a laugh.

“There was an in­stance about seven or eight days in when we were go­ing up and over a moun­tain. It just started snow­ing in the val­ley and it got steadily worse and worse as the day pro­gressed. When we got to the shel­ter that we were plan­ning to stay at, it was al­ready full of peo­ple who were sup­posed to have moved on, but hadn’t be­cause they were all hy­pother­mic, and they couldn’t re­ally fig­ure out what they were go­ing to do.”

So Mathers set out on his own. At this point, it was get­ting dark out­side, and the snow was com­ing down in steadily . But Mathers made it to a shel­ter, and was joined by fel­low hik­ers caught out in the stormy weather.

“It was bru­tal night, but out of that I formed a bond – their trail names are Grav­ity and Kenya. So I walked the rest of the way with them,” he says of his newly formed trail fam­ily.

“I just can’t un­der­score how big an ex­pe­ri­ence it was. It made me ap­pre­ci­ate the here now, and life on sim­pler terms. I think I’ve got an en­dur­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the many lux­u­ries we have. And a re­newed faith in hu­man­ity: there’s a huge amount of kind­ness ex­tended along the trail by trail an­gels,” he says.

“They pro­vide what we call trail magic. They’ll give you a ride into town, they’ll have cold drinks at the road stops or candy. There’s just a huge amount of kind­ness that is ex­tended along to through-hik­ers along the trail, that was a fan­tas­tic part of the ex­pe­ri­ence.”

He’s ea­ger to share his sto­ries and in­spire oth­ers the same way he was when he started out his jour­ney. When he could, Mathers kept a jour­nal of his trav­els on­line, and he will be giv­ing a talk to the Wool­wich Trails Group on Jan­uary 17 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Wool­wich Com­mu­nity Health Cen­tre in St. Ja­cobs.

“Over­all, would I do it again? I think if you asked me that right af­ter I fin­ished, I prob­a­bly I would have said no be­cause by the end I was re­ally ex­hausted. But now, with enough of the mem­o­ries of that part of the ex­pe­ri­ence fad­ing, leav­ing just the good stuff, I would def­i­nitely say I would do it again.”


John Mathers spent 152 days hik­ing the Ap­palachian Trail last year. He kept an on­line jour­nal dur­ing his jour­ney, and will be giv­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion to the Wool­wich Trails Group Jan. 17, re­count­ing the ups and downs of the ad­ven­ture.

Hav­ing started at the trail’s south end, Mathers worked his way north.

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