Solo to the summit: NHS graduate conquers the Appalachian Trail

  • Eva Gerstle at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, where she completed her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • Eva Gerstle in Maine during her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • Eva Gerstle swimming in Maine during her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • Eva Gerstle sits at McAfee Knob in Virginia during her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Although she made the trip on her own, she met many fellow-travelers she shared stretches of the trail with along her 2,190-mile trek. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • A view from Eva Gerstle’s thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • Gerstle is seen transiting a ridge in Tennessee.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • Eva Gerstle in Tennessee during her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • Eva Gerstle at the Vermont-New Hampshire border during her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • Gerstle poses on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania with other hikers she met along the way.  CONTRI BUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • A hiking shelter in Tennessee.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

  • Eva Gerstle is seen at the beginning of her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain in Georgia.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/EVA GERSTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/9/2019 7:30:55 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The journey began in March on Springer Mountain in Georgia. Over 2,000 miles and almost five months later, Eva Gerstle ended her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine on Monday. 

Gerstle, 19, a Northampton High School graduate, set out on the trek as a solo hike, sometimes traveling with others she met along the trail.  

“I definitely sort of saw this as a solo adventure,” Gerstle said the day after completing the trail. “I wanted to be able to hike at my own pace, and I knew that if I ended up hiking a chunk of the trail with other people, I would want those to be people that I found along the trail.”

Gerstle’s interest in backpacking began at age 12, when her biological father took her hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He had some concerns that she would find the trip too difficult, Gerstle recalled, and “brought all these Jolly Ranchers to bribe me along the way.”

But the incentives turned out to be unnecessary — Gerstle “ended up loving it,” she said, and found herself “totally hooked” after the hike. After years of regularly backpacking during the summer, Gerstle decided she would take a gap year after graduating high school, primarily so she could hike the Appalachian Trail. 

Thousands of hikers attempt the Appalachian Trail every year, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, but only about 1 in 4 successfully complete the estimated 2,190-mile thru-hike. The northbound route that Gerstle took has a slightly lower success rate, at 19 percent. 

Although Gerstle set out on the trail as a solo venture, she often met other hikers on the well-traversed route, traveling with some of the people she met for hundreds of miles. But even to the hikers she befriended, Gerstle was known only by her “trail name” — a moniker connected to a story from the trail that hikers typically have granted to them by another backpacker.

Gerstle was known as “BookBag,” a name she earned during her first solo hike on the Long Trail, which runs through the Green Mountains in Vermont. Concerned that she would be lonely, Gerstle carried five books with her — among them “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” and “The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” — despite the extra weight they added to her pack. 

Gerstle remained an avid reader in her recent hike, she said, but this time avoided the extra burden by bringing along a Kindle. “Probably the best book I read on the trail was ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara,” she said. ​​​​​

Trail names help to create a sense that thru-hiking is “sort of this separate environment” from everyday life, Gerstle said. But aside from her use of a different name, the people and attitudes she came across also were part of a vastly different environment from Northampton. While it wasn’t uncommon to meet other women on the trail, Gerstle said that they were “definitely outnumbered” by men, and that she noted fewer older women in particular. 

“That was hard for me because I was raised by lesbians in Northampton, with a ton of older women I love so much,” she said. “I just missed it. I want that energy you get from older women.”

Gerstle said that she also faced “outdated views” that some backpackers held toward female solo hikers.

“You meet a lot of people with a lot of different attitudes with the idea of a woman hiking alone,” Gerstle said, noting that male hikers would often ask her questions such as if she was OK alone or whether she was sure she could carry the weight of her pack.

But Gerstle’s upbringing was a source of determination when others cast their doubts on her, she said. 

“Whenever these men would say these things to me, I would say I knew I could do this hike and was doing the miles they were,” Gerstle said. “Sometimes bigger miles than they were, faster. I was able to hold onto, ‘I should absolutely be out here.’”

‘A new extreme’

Gerstle was a swimmer throughout high school and completed triathlons, which she said helped to prepare her for the hike. But the trail was “a new extreme of long-distance athletics,” she said, “because there’s very little recovery time.”

Gerstle’s mileage per day usually spanned from the high teens to the 20s, she said, interspersed with rest days every 10 to 14 days. 

Hiking seemed to breeze by on some days: “The weather was good, you’re feeling really strong, and you’re like, ‘I’m going along, I’m heading north, I’m following my white blazes,’” Gerstle recalled, referring to the trail markers that guide hikers.

“And then there are other days when you’re like, ‘Oh my god, 20 miles is so far. I just want to sit,’” she said.

Bracing for the elements on the trail also required extensive preparation. Even in the south, the highly elevated areas provided a few snowy mornings and temperatures as low as 13 degrees.

Gerstle took trips into towns along the trail about every five days to restock on food. On those excursions, she was also able to receive packages and words of encouragement from her moms, Jen Werner and Katie Gerstle. She also found support from home when her younger brother, Jesse Zeldes and a friend joined her for a few days on two separate occasions. Although most meals were limited to foods that were light in weight and high in calories, Gerstle said she would participate in an occasional “crazy food hike,” bringing pizza or a cupcake out onto the trail. 

Gerstle’s brother joined her for her final ascent up Mount Katahdin, where the two shared a blueberry-peach pie with other thru-hikers in celebration of the accomplishment. 

“It was such a big deal,” Gerstle recalled of the moment. “It felt so cool. Mount Katahdin is such an incredible finish. It’s a beautiful climb, a hard climb, very technical. You get to the top, and the views are breathtaking.”

“It was very sweet to have my brother up there with me … and just exciting to really be up there at the end,” she added. “Five months is a long journey.”

Gerstle will leave the Valley again in less than a week — this time to start her first year at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she will major in statistics. 

In the future, Gerstle has many other hiking destinations in mind, including national parks in the western U.S. — and maybe “farther down the ways,” the 2,650-mile long Pacific Crest Trail. But in the more immediate future, she is looking into shorter, five-day hikes. 

There are “definitely some more big adventures coming up,” Gerstle said. “But for now, a little bit of college seems like it’s due.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com. 


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