Local hiker finds peace on Appalachian Trail

FAIRMONT – To the people who traverse it, especially the repeat customers, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail isn’t just an opportunity to hike 2,100-plus miles of wilderness, mountains and meadows – it’s a chance to abandon their modern identity and adopt a simpler, quieter way of life.

That’s part of the appeal for Fairmont resident Wes Pruett, who just returned from his sixth trip to hike segments of the Appalachian Trail.

The A.T., as it’s commonly referred to, stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Pruett left on April 28 for Ashville, N.C., and returned to Minnesota two weeks later, after walking about 135 miles. Since his first time on the trail in 2006, when he and his wife, Barb, hiked most of Shenandoah National Park, Pruett has walked much of the southern half of the A.T., logging 930 miles altogether.

“It takes a while to settle into it and shut your brain off, but that’s one of the things that’s most attractive about the trail: You leave behind your normal life. … There’s a strange amalgamation of different kinds of people, and it doesn’t matter what your socio-economic status is, or what you do for a living,” he said.

Pruett, a Montana native, has always had a passion for the outdoors, but he caught the A.T. bug from his daughter, Sarah. She is one of a relatively small group of people who have completed a thru-hike, walking the entire trail in one season, an endeavor that typically takes five to six months.

Despite the trail’s official name – the Appalachian National Scenic Trail – the route through the backbone of the Appalachian mountain range was not purposefully designed to overlook the scenery. Instead, it was forged where property rights were available, in order to get hikers from point A to B and so on, and it’s actually notorious for its many P.U.D.s – pointless ups and downs. The first portion of the trail opened in New York in 1923, and it has evolved since then into its current state, though it’s exact length is debated as it changes from year to year as it’s re-routed around various developments.

Preparing for the hike isn’t easy, especially on the plains of southern Minnesota, but Pruett likes to walk outside carrying his 30-pound pack to adjust to the extra weight. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, like this spring, he’ll take his pack to the gym and spend some time on an elevated treadmill or a stair-stepper.

“The reality is I don’t know that anybody is really prepared,” he said, not even fitness buffs. There’s simply no workout that can prepare a person for hiking all day, day after day.

“Virtually everybody hurts,” he said, “but you know what they say: Pain is inevitable but misery’s an option.”

That philosophy is useful on the trail, especially when the weather gets rough. This past trip, most of the days for Pruett were cold and windy, with a misty rain and persistent fog.

“There were not many nice days, but if you wait until you get a nice day, you’ll never make any progress,” he said.

Obviously the A.T. isn’t for everyone, but anyone considering it should definitely do their homework beforehand to get the most out of the experience. The research will pay off, particularly when it comes to packing. When each ounce counts, less is more when considering what clothing, food and sleeping accommodations to bring.

“If you carry more stuff, you’re more comfortable at the end of the day, but the people with the most success carry less. Anything between 20-30 pounds is considered good,” Pruett said.

The trail has rustic sleeping shelters spaced a day’s walk apart, but they vary in their conditions and can easily get crowded, so Pruett packs a tent and sleeping bag. He also keeps stashed in his pack enough food for three to five days – the typical distance between towns – and a change of clothes.

“I like to have clothes for sleeping in and hiking in – that’s considered a luxury by some people,” Pruett said.

Like many of his fellow hikers, when he gets to one of the small towns positioned along the trail, Pruett restocks his supplies, washes his clothes, and enjoys a shower and a real meal.

Many of the people Pruett has met on the trail are in a transition stage of their lives, particularly the thru-hikers. Pruett, age 61, has observed two typical types of thru-hikers: those who are young and have just completed some level of their secondary education, or those who are around his age. The reason for the stereotypes on thru-hikers is that not many people can take half a year off from their jobs or their families to go hiking, though there are some people in the middle, who for varying reasons quit their jobs and literally head for the hills.

“The A.T. has become almost symbolic for moving on to a new part of life,” Pruett said.

For himself, he simply enjoys the simplicity of life on the A.T. The quiet, he says, gives him “an opportunity to live more in the moment, and to do that in nature is particularly rewarding for me.”

For more information on the Appalachian Trail, there are numerous websites, including www.appalachiantrail.org, www.nps.gov/appa, and whiteblaze.net