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May 2013 Online Exclusive

Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Portraits

These men and women were photographed as they thru-hiked the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. They each walked more than 2,000 miles—enduring the Smokies, the Shenandoahs, and the White Mountains—to get

Photo by Chris Bennett

Zach "Casino" Vaughter, 26, of Crested Butte, Colorado

I have so many good memories from my thru-hike that naming one specifically is difficult, but Trail Days [in Damascus, VA] was so much fun. At that point my hiking partners Treefingers and Ramble On and I were in Harpers Ferry (we had been hiking at a pretty fast pace, and were ahead of many of the people we had started with and befriended in the first weeks on the trail) and we got picked up by some friends and driven back down to Damascus for the celebration. It was great to see everyone we had started with and hear their stories and where they were on the trail. The whole weekend was filled with bluegrass jam sessions, trail stories, laughs, and adult beverages; it was a communal celebration of our journey and experience on the AT, and the people that make it special. Aside from Trail Days, celebrating the Fourth of July in Bennington, VT at Chris and Arla’s "The Vortex" hostel with about twenty other thru-hikers was a blast, and I’m not sure I’ve had a better Fourth of July since that one.

Everyday on the AT was my best day, I had so many good days and so many good times with good people throughout my thru. But I guess the obvious one would be August 11th, when I summited Katahdin, marking the end of my thru-hike. I had unbelievably good weather, it was a bluebird day and I was the only one on the summit that morning. It was also a sad day too, because it marked the end of my journey, but one I’ll always remember.

What was your hardest day on the trail? When one of my hiking partners, Treefingers, tore a ligament in his ankle 25 miles north of Hanover, New Hampshire. Treefingers, Ramble On and I had been hiking together since after the Smokies, and Treefingers had to get off the trail for about three weeks to rest his ankle. I had to be at my freshman year of college by August 17th, so i was under a time frame where I had to push on and finish. Treefingers and Ramble On would summit Katahdin a couple weeks after I did, but not getting to summit with those guys was a bummer for sure after we had hiked together for so long.

Take time to befriend and enjoy the company of others you meet on your thru-hike. The AT community is full of some of the kindest and most interesting people you will ever come across and that’s what makes the AT so special. The people I met on my thru-hike were what made the experience so impactful on my life. Aside from that, enjoy your time on the trail, both the good days and the bad days, because it’s over quite quickly in the grand scheme of things.

Best piece of gear: Western Mountaineering UltraLite 20-degree sleeping bag. My bag was subjected to so much abuse and I never had so much as a stitch pull on me. I still use it quite regularly, it has seen considerable use since my thru-hike – from overnight backcountry ski trips to sleeping in the back of my truck on dirtbag climbing missions, my UltraLite has kept me toasty on many a chilly night. Also my backpacker mandolin; being able to play some bluegrass tunes after a 25 mile day made camp that much better.

Base pack weight? 11.3 lbs. (March-April), 8.2 lbs. (May-August)

Favorite trail food: Fresh tomato sandwiches with mayo and pepper on french bread. I only carried these right out of a re-supply or town stop, but so nice to have after a few days of heavy Lipton meals and Snickers consumption.

Go to the next hiker.

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