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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 to the point where they posed for their portraits. Only the vast and lonely wilderness of Maine's north woods stood between them and their goal: Mt. Katahdin, a behemoth of a mountain that stands like a beacon to every thru-hiker. For some the journey couldn't end soon enough; others enjoyed every step along the way.
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Photo by Chris Bennett

Nick "Grizzly" Matus
, 26, of Charlotte, NC

Best memory: In southern North Carolina, I was very ill and having a difficult time. In the darkest point, I was passed by a small group of hikers from the Tennessee Eastman Hiking & Canoeing Club. They noticed I was struggling so they ended up hiking with me the whole day, then took me to a hostel and bought me a dinner fit for a king. They did this for two days until I started to feel my energy return. Almost five months and 2,000 miles later, while I was reaching the peak of the second-to-last mountain, I experienced my first full view of the final climb up Mt. Katahdin. Sure enough, Pam and Ellie, two of the three hikers that took me under their wings, were resting at the top of the mountain taking in that same view. Life on the trail was filled with unexplainable coincidences, but this one sure took the cake.

What was your best day on the Trail? Everyday. Imagine for a moment not having an alarm or even a need for keeping time. Imagine not having a schedule, an appointment to make, or a deadline to meet. For 171 days in 2006 I didn’t watch TV or talk on a phone. If I wanted entertainment I shared stories around a campsite about a bear encounter or a falling tree (which makes an awful amount of sound) or I would sit on top of a mountain watching a sunset and then wait for the stars to fill the sky. If I wanted a glass of water I would walk to a crystal clear spring and drink from the source. Sure there are ups and downs, but each day brought a feeling of true freedom and connection to the world that few get to experience.

What was your hardest day on the trail? Early in my trip I left Standing Bear Hostel, just after the Great Smokey Mountains, and headed towards Max Patch Bald and encountered a steady rain. That rain turned into freezing rain, then sleet, and then snow. Everything I had turned to a block of ice, beard included, so I became determined to make it over Max Patch and Bluff Mountain and push all the way to Hot Springs, NC. After 33.4 miles and 14.5 hours of bitter cold and physical punishment, I made it to Elmer’s Hostel in Hot Springs and was treated to a warm brownie, hot chocolate, dry clothes, and a well deserved day off the trail. It was one of the hardest and yet most rewarding days that I had on my hike.

Advice: Fundamentally you must allow yourself to adjust your level of comfort to what the trail allows, not to what you expect. When things are going good cherish those moments, and when things are going bad step back and assess what you are being taught. Either way just keep going forward.

Best piece of Gear: Tarptent… mine was essentially what they call the Contrail.

Base pack weight: 35 lbs. in the winter and 18 lbs. in the summer.

Favorite trail food: Anything left out by trail angels, whether it was a soft drink left in a cold mountain stream or a hot dog prepared by a local scout troop. Unexpected kindness made the most simple foods taste like a 5-star meal.

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