Below the Beltway

Mike and Nate Hit the Trail – The Appalachian Trail

Long-planned trip finally underway for the teenagers

Crossing a wooden bridge in the Stairway to Heaven section of the AT. (Photo: Mike Auld)

Alexandria, VA – Mike Auld and Nate Hancock graduated from West Potomac High School on June 4. Three days later, in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, they said goodbye to their families and stepped foot on the Appalachian Trail. After years of dreaming, months of planning, weeks of preparing, and days of packing, these two good friends were finally seeing their dreams become a reality.

“It started on a whim and evolved from there,” said Nate. “We talked about a hike and an overnight of some kind. Then Mike said hey, what about the Appalachian Trail? And I said, why not?”

Mike’s cooking skills have proved invaluable on the trail, especially for Nate. (Photo: Nate Hancock)

Mike and Nate spoke to The Zebra on Mike’s cell phone from Kent, Connecticut, where they were taking a break to recharge mentally, physically, and electrically. Kent is a hiker-friendly enclave just off the Appalachian Trail.

The boys plan to do a flip flop, beginning at Harper’s Ferry, considered the spiritual midpoint of the 2,193-mile trail, and heading to the northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine. They’ll fly or drive home, relax for a few days, then return to Harper’s Ferry and hike south to the trail’s end at Springer Mountain in Georgia. They estimate they’ll conclude this grand 6-month, 14-state adventure by December. All on their own. Pretty impressive for two 18-year-olds.

Both said it was a surprisingly easy sell to their parents. “They wanted to keep tabs on us, of course,” said Mike. The boys carry a Garmin unit that lets the parents know where they are. “That was my request, for peace of mind,” said Elisabeth Auld, Mike’s mom. “But we were really confident they’d be fine. They’ve both been in Scouts since 5th grade and they have over 100 nights of camping, including overnight hikes, under their belt. Both have had leadership positions in their troop, so they know how to plan and to make decisions.”

It’s all smiles most of the time. Except for when it rains. (Photo: Mike Auld)

Harold Hancock agreed. “They did everything necessary to be prepared. I’m impressed by their decision-making as situations arise on the trail. This is a unique opportunity, and they may not have this kind of time again to do something this ambitious.”

The boys are averaging about 12 miles a day, hiking 6-8 hours. They share carrying the load by splitting up the food, stove and other items. Each has his own tent for some personal space, ironically enough out in the wide open. COVID-19 is not a big factor. Hikers naturally keep their distance, and the boys wear their masks for any forays into towns.

Mike and Nate are truly in their element, thrilled to be in a strange, new, and wholly wonderful world. Mike said, “Being out here is so cool – to see the distance we’ve already traveled is awesome.” Nate agreed, and added, “My favorite part is the freedom we have. We’re our own bosses, with no one telling us what to do. We know what to do.”

One surprising aspect of the trail life made an impression on the boys. As Mike said, “There’s this thing, they call it trail angels or magic – it’s sheer, almost unbearable, kindness.” Case in point: Hiking through Pennsylvania, the terrain is rocky and there are few opportunities to collect drinking water. Mike said, “At all the trailheads and road crosses, there were large collections of gallon jugs of water that some dude left there for people, knowing water was scarce. I’m talking 30, 40, 50 jugs of water. Everyone is so nice up here. It blows you away.”

While the boys miss their parents, their dogs, their beds, and more, there’s no place they’d rather be right now. When Mike revealed they’d already covered 20 percent of the trail, they were both wowed into silence for a moment. Mike spoke first, “It’s crazy when I think of trips with my family driving up to New York City or skiing in Vermont. We’ve already walked past New York, and we’ll be in Vermont in a couple of weeks.”

Nate takes a breather while Mike snaps some photographs, somewhere south of Darlington, NJ. (Photo: Mike Auld

There are plenty of life lessons they’ll take away from this adventure. Nate explained he’s learning to live more simply. “I really don’t miss the things I used to do all the time. My phone, my computer – I’m happier without them,” he said. “I’ve lost 20 pounds! I’ve learned if I really put my mind to something, I can stick with it and do it.”

Mike said, “My life lesson is all about ‘this too shall pass.’ Leading up to the trip, everything had been getting cancelled and it was stressful, but on the trail, it’s less significant. It’s taught me that in the heat of the moment, things always seem worse than they really are.”

Follow the adventures of Mike and Nate on Instagram: @n_and_m_at_adventure

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