Hiking Appalachian Trial 'kind of like graduating' for Clear Spring man

September 12, 2011|By JANET HEIM |
  • Alan Downs of Clear Spring hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 4 1/2 months.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

CLEAR SPRING — Alan Downs got into Scouting because he was interested in all the camping involved.

He hiked on the Appalachian Trail twice with his Boy Scout troop, but never imagined where a chance conversation would lead him.

As Downs waited during his Eagle Scout Board of Review, just shy of his 18th birthday, his Scoutmaster shared his own dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, called through-hiking.

The seed was planted and Downs, 23, tucked it away as he headed to Shippensburg (Pa.) University to study criminal justice. He graduated in 2010 and began applying for jobs, with the understanding that it would probably take about a year to find something in his field.

“I’ve wanted to do it since Scouts. My Scoutmaster told me about through-hiking the trail. It was a dream of his. It became my dream,” said Downs, of Clear Spring.

In the meantime, the Clear Spring High graduate worked in a warehouse while his job search continued. As all his job opportunities fell through, Downs began realizing he had the perfect window for hiking the entire trail.

“I had the money, had the time and didn’t have commitments holding me down,” Downs said.

He began researching online, interested in the gear through-hikers ended up with, so he didn’t buy supplies he didn’t need.

Downs, who has completed the JFK 50 Mile five times, said he’s always in shape. His training for the Appalachian Trail involved little more than the two-night practice hike near Pine Grove, Pa., on the trail and his usual fitness routine.

“I pretty much went from zero experience to hiking the AT,” Downs said.

With about two months of planning, Downs packed a lightweight backpack for the trip. In it he carried a set of clothes in which to sleep, rain jacket and pants, jungle hammock, a midlayer jacket, waterproof stuff sack for a book and trail guide, compact cookstove, fuel with duct tape wrapped around it, penknife, tent and hiking poles, and a small amount of food.

“They were strangely supportive,” Downs said of his parents, Andy and Cindy Downs, who also have a younger son.

Downs flew to Atlanta on March 31. He hired a shuttle service to get him from the airport to the trailhead at Springer Mountain in Georgia.

“I hit the first blaze of the AT on April 1,” said Downs, who earned the trail name Lemur because he started out sleeping in a hammock and because his facial hair grows in in stripes.

While six months is the amount of time hikers are advised to allow to cover the 2,180 or so miles — mileage can vary slightly due to erosion and washouts on the trail — Downs said it took him 4 1/2 months to go the distance. He said the Georgia-to-Maine trail covered 2,181 miles when he hiked it.

He returned home Aug. 14, with about a month of downtime during the journey to recover at home from Lyme disease while he was passing through Maryland and to spend some time in New York City as he headed north.

Downs had four 50-mile hiking days during his trip, hitting the trail at 3:30 a.m. and hiking into darkness.

By the end of the hike, Downs had discarded the rain jacket and pants, replacing them with a large trash bag with holes cut out for his head and arms, sleeping clothes, hammock and penknife. In the end, his pack weighed about 11 pounds, almost double that when he was carrying food and water.

Downs spent about $3,500, mostly on food and transportation, for this trip. He kept in touch with home as he was able, using his cellphone and emailing from local libraries near the trail.

“You make friends really fast,” Downs said. “It’s like an extended family. You’re all going through the same thing — definitely some lifelong friends.”

“It was very bittersweet,” he said of completing the trail. “It’s kind of like graduating. It was really fun. I didn’t want it to end.”

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