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Belchertown native reflects on his 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail hike

  • Josiah Gummeson at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, the northernmost end of the Appalachian Trail. Gummeson thru-hiked the trail in about 6 months in 2016. Contributed Photo/Josiah Gummeson—

  • Sunrise at Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Contributed Photo/Josiah Gummeson—

  • Josiah Gummeson with a wild pony in Grayson County, Virginia, while hiking the Appalachian Trail. Contributed Photo/Josiah Gummeson—

  • A fellow hiker snapped this photo of Josiah Gummeson at McAfee Knob in Virginia. Contributed Photo/Josiah Gummeson—

  • Gummeson lost 60 pounds while hiking the trail. Contributed Photo/Josiah Gummeson

  • Josiah Gummeson, right, and Jim Gummeson, left, stop for a picture at the approach trail to the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, before starting their trek in March 2016. Contributed Photo/Josiah Gummeson—

  • A sunrise from Mount Lafayette in the White Mountains on the Appalachian Trail. Contributed Photo/Josiah Gummeson—

  • Gummeson documents arriving at his home state — Massachusetts — near Mount Washington. Contributed Photo/Josiah Gummeson

  • Josiah Gummeson, 24, recalls his Appalachian Trail thru-hike outside the Hadley Starbucks, where he works, Sept. 21, 2018. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • A section of trail on the Mahoosuc Range in Maine, which is one of the toughest sections of the Appalachian Trail. Contributed Photo/Josiah Gummeson



@AndyCCastillo
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

He was atop Storm King Mountain in Orange County, New York, when the sky opened up and rain poured down into the inky black night. Thunder crashed. Lightening streaked the sky, and the Appalachian Trail turned to mud.

“Buckets of rain coming down. Buckets and buckets and buckets,” recalls Josiah Gummeson of Belchertown, now 24, about his successful 2,190 mile hike from Georgia to Maine. “The trail was like a stream. Thunder and lightening was coming, and I'm on the peak of the mountain.”

When he arrived at a shelter just off the path later that night, “I was miserable. Raw like a lobster. Completely chaffed," he continued.

But early the next morning, as he had done since March — with the exception of a month-long break to rehabilitate his foot from severe peroneal tendonitis — Gummeson packed up his tent, rolled up his mat, strapped on food packs, and stepped off before sunrise for another full day of trekking, always north. 

The Appalachian Trail, which is the longest hiking-only trail in the world, stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It’s the longest hiking-only trail in the world. It was completed in 1937 by volunteers, and is a part of the National Park System, according the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit that takes care of the trail.

The Conservancy noted that more than 3 million people visit the Trail every year and over 3,000 people attempt to ‘thru-hike’ the entire footpath in a single year.

Now almost two years after his trek, while Gummeson escapes into nature as often as he can, and has completed shorter trails in the more recent past — the 250-mile-long Long Trail near North Adams and Mount Washington in below-zero temperature, both last year — he doesn’t have the same sense of purpose or face the same challenges that he experienced, and overcame, while hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

"If I could live on the Trail for the rest of my life, I would. But it's not feasible," Gummeson said.

He was sitting outside the Hadley Starbucks, where he works as a barista, and says he’s still coming down from the emotional high that he experienced after cresting Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine, the northernmost end of the trail.

Gummeson identifies strongly as a ‘thru-hiker,’ which is a title given to those who hike the Trail in 12 months or less. But these days, still in his early twenties, Gummeson is trying to find his place in the world outside the Appalachian Trail’s tight-knit hiker community — among peers who don’t necessarily appreciate the challenges the he overcame.

"You're carrying a heavy pack, going up and down mountains, going through sweltering heat, through downpours, dealing with lightening, dealing with giardia, dealing with ear infections, dealing with norovirus, dealing with all these different things — being lost in the middle of the night, going the wrong direction, and then getting no sleep but having to get up the next day," he said. "No one understands, except you, because you did it."

When Gummeson first considered embarking on the trek, he was working at the Belchertown Stop and Shop and going to school at Westfield State University, on track for a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, having just completed an associates degree from Springfield Technical Community College in the same subject. But on a whim, he decided to leave school, after deciding that criminal justice wasn’t for him, and tackle the Trail.

A friend at work, Jon Crisostomo, a pharmacist, overheard Gummeson talking once about his plans and came in the next day with a photo album documenting his own thru-hike in 1995. Soon after, he took Gummeson on a section of the Trail up Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire.

A few months later, Gummeson began hiking with his brother, Jim Gummeson, 31, of Belchertown, who quit his office job working on computers in Boston to pursue a more fulfilling lifestyle. Jim Gummeson hiked from Georgia to Belchertown, and completed the remainder of the trail up into Maine last year.

Snow fell on their first night on the trail in Georgia, Gummeson recalls, remembering how he gathered firewood that night for a group of about 30 other hikers, also fresh on the Trail, to make a fire. Because of his efforts, he was given the trail name “the gatherer.” Trail names are used by hikers in log books along the Trail to document weather conditions and pertinent information for others coming after.

Before starting, neither Josiah Gummeson nor his brother trained for the trail. Rather, they eased into daily hiking for a few weeks to get their “trail legs.”

About 40 miles in, the brothers separated to hike on their own. And for the remainder of the Trail, Gummeson hiked alone.

Gummeson estimated he averaged between 20 and 30 miles every day — about the length of a marathon race — for about five months. His brother averaged closer to 10 miles, which is what most hikers usually log, Gummeson said.

“There were days when I had five or six marathon days in a row,” Gummeson continued. And while he wasn’t the fastest hiker, Gummeson recalls that he’d usually begin hiking before sunrise, and eat breakfast while walking. He’d only stop for snacks and to filter water. Often, he wouldn’t make camp until well after sunset.

When he began walking, he was 220 pounds. By the end, he’d dropped about 60 pounds.

Through the challenges, Gummeson notes that he learned how little he needs to survive — just snacks and a water filter — and built confidence in his ability to face whatever challenge comes next.

During his hike, Gummeson says his pack weighed less than 50 pounds. It contained only the necessities — a tent; a sleeping bag and pad; a pair of wool socks for sleeping; long johns; a raincoat and winter coat; hiking poles; food, his cellphone charger and its extra battery; a toothbrush sawed off to the bristles to save weight; travel toothpaste; a small first aid kit that included a needle with which to pop blisters, and tape wrapped around a pen; toilet paper in a plastic bag; rope; a headlamp and an extra set of batteries; a massage ball and balm for his feet; and a journal.

As a “luxury” for the Trail, Gummeson says he rolled the massage ball into his feet and rubbed them down with balm every night, before putting on wool socks.

His food — items like ramen noodles, oatmeal, and protein bars — was mailed to towns along the Trail’s winding route by friends, including Crisostomo, and he’d pick up the packages every three to five days when he reached the town’s post office. In total, Gummeson says he spent around $1,500 on food, including occasional stops at restaurants. Sometimes, the Trail traveled directly through some towns, intersecting with public sidewalks.

In-between, he relied on “trail magic,” or do-gooders along the way who grilled and served food to hikers from the edge of the path, or offered rides into the nearest town.

Hiking solo was “freeing and terrifying at the same time,” Gummeson said, noting that most of the challenges that he encountered on the Trail were more mental than physical.

“You put dry socks on, and they get wet in two minutes from your shoes,” he continued.

He recalls late one night in Maryland, after completing nearly 30 miles of hiking, when he mistook the blue markers of a different path for the Appalachian Trail’s distinctive white blazes under the light pale light of a headlamp. He took a wrong turn, and hiked in the wrong direction for a few miles before figuring out his misstep. He didn’t make camp until around 1 a.m. Regardless, he awoke at 5 a.m. to hike another 30 miles in order to make up for lost ground.

About half-way through, in mid-June, he returned home through July because of tendinitis in his foot. It was so bad that he couldn’t even move his foot.

“Mile 1,417.7, Dennytown Road, in New York,” he recalls. “Physically, I could not walk. My foot was smoked.”

Crisostomo picked him up from New York and drove him home, where he went to physical therapy for about a month. But “Eventually, it was getting to the point where I just wanted to be on the Trail,” he said.

Against doctors orders, he canceled the remainder of his appointments, paid his balance, and returned to mile marker 1,417.7.

The following day he hiked 20 miles, soon reaching Storm King Mountain, when he was caught in the thunderstorm. Because of those and other experiences — a breathtaking sunrise on top of Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire; sitting on a cliff’s edge at McAfee Knob in Virginia; grueling hours of hiking over the Mahoosuc Range in Maine — “the trail,” as Gummeson affectionately calls it, is now a part of him.

“Every time I go back it’s like a special place. It’s like a home,” he said. “As hard as the challenges are that you face every day, to get up every day and have a new challenge every morning — tomorrow I need to scramble over the Jones Nose, or hit this high peak.”

The simplicity of life on the Appalachian Trail gave him a sense of purpose, which he says he misses.

Looking to the future, Gummeson says he wants to study agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and is thinking about a career in tree work as an arborist. But if the opportunity ever arises for him to hike another trail comparable to the Appalachian Trail, such as the 2,650 mile-long Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the United States-Mexico border in California to Canada, he says he won’t think twice about it.

“I wish I could do it tomorrow, but it’s one of those things where you have to save up, and I have school loans, too, holding me back,” Gummeson said. “If you gave me $5,000 and said ‘go hike the Pacific Crest Trail,’ I wouldn’t hesitate.”

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.