A little over three years ago, while I was getting ready to set out on the Pacific Crest Trail, I was spending a lot of time on various web forums related to through-hiking and the PCT. At one point, I received a message on one of the forums from a fellow aspiring PCT hiker named Uncle Tom. “You hiked the AT 2007? I did too… I live right nearby in Lincolnville.” This was pretty startling to me. We had both hiked the AT in 2007, and both planned to hike the PCT in 2010, and we both came from two small, adjacent towns on the Maine coast. To put that in perspective, the combined population of Belfast and Lincolnville is just about 9,000 people, which means the likelihood of two people from that area being on the AT in 2007 and the PCT in 2010 is pretty low.
Uncle Tom and I never met on the Appalachian Trail, and we only hiked together infrequently on the Pacific Crest Trail, but we’ve been close friends ever since that chance meeting. We both love the Camden Hills State Park and the coastal mountains nearby. We both love the long-distance backpacking communities. We’re both easily excited by adventures and the outdoors. Meeting Tom is one of the most important lasting results from my Pacific Crest Trail hike of 2010. You don’t make friends like this every day.
In about a month, Tom and his crew from the AT and PCT (known as MeGaTex, for the home states of the first three members of the group) will head south to New Mexico, and walk north for six months along the Continental Divide Trail. I won’t be joining them in person, but you can bet I’ll be following along on the Internet. Tom’s Trailjournals account for the PCT was one of the most popular journals on the site in 2010, and I can imagine his CDT journal will be even better. (You can also follow his adventures on his personal website)
In preparation for his hike, I had some long conversations with Tom that I’ve edited a bit to form an informal interview. I hope you enjoy it, and even more, I hope you enjoy reading about the third and final hike of his Triple Crown (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail– the big three).
Guthook: What brought you to the AT in the first place?
Tom: I’m an outdoor person. That’s mostly it. I don’t think a day goes by when I stay in the house all day. I grew up on a farm and we’re outside people… I heard about the Appalachian Trail around [the late 60s while in college] and read that big two-volume Rodale Press book about AT thru-hikers. I was amazed at what these folks experienced, how they ate, and that they made it to Katahdin by just plodding on. The idea that I could hike it was planted some 37 years before I started the walk… I retired as soon as possible, at age 52. It made sense, as I could collect a reduced pension and work part -time to make up the balance. I needed to do something different.
Guthook: How did the decision to hit the PCT form? Right after the AT, or later?
Tom: While on the AT in 2007, I encountered several section hikers who had previously completed both the AT and the Pacific Crest Trails. They were very encouraging about their experiences on both of those National Scenic Trails… I remember them discussing the vastness of the panoramas out West, and the wide variety of landscapes one encounters out there. I had never hiked in the desert, nor had I experienced more than a partial day hike in Washington state. Since I had a positive experience on the AT, the idea took root.
Guthook: Did you have any big epiphanies on either trail?
Tom: I had a lot of big epiphanies on both trails.
My biggest came during my readjustment in the fall/winter of 2007 when I was trying to overcome depression and resume my pre-AT lifestyle. After I reached the summit of Katahdin… I was really struggling to get back to work, make some money, and plug myself back into the life I was living pre-AT hike. It was getting emotionally darker and darker, and I remember the physical darkness of December in Maine as almost unbearable…
Then I got a surprise phone call from a man named John, who I had met at one of my twice yearly Maine Coast Men’s weekends… I told John that I was tired of going downhill and that I wanted to stop being screwed up and get back to business, to “plug back in”… He told me, “Maybe you aren’t screwed up. I consider you a genuine hero, and you should consider the possibility that what you are trying to plug back into is what is screwed up, not you. You might be fine, but may not be able to see that right now.”
From that point forward I slowly regained my sense of true self, and began to distance myself from the trappings of our material culture in a meaningful way…
The emptiness that I experienced when I engaged in [shopping, rock concerts, and other activities from before the hike] was actually not a reflection of me being depressed, but was a necessary condition for me to work though to eventually realize what I truly liked to do.
I came to appreciate and immensely enjoy the simple act of walking in the woods, riding my bicycles on the roads and wooded trails near my house, reading outdoor adventure stories, and to play my accordion, start singing from my heart, and make music with my friends…
I also have unexpected moments of appreciation, of walking what I term “world class sections of trail”. These “world sections of trail” are actual physical portions of the landscape, where there might be a combination of boulders, ledges, land contours, trees, shrubbery, and light patterns that combine to elevate the whole experience to be highest expressions of natural art, or the ultimate landscape architecture. They happen more than you might think. It’s a true blessing.
Guthook: What’s it like hiking as a 63-year old with people mostly half your age?
Tom: The only thing that would ever feel strange to me is to ponder embarking alone, without the benefit of the strongest team that I can hope to assemble…
When we were finalizing up our plan to hike the PCT, General Lee [the GA of MeGaTex] told me, “ Don’t you be playing that age thing on me, ever. Don’t want no part of that”. I never talk about how tough it sometimes is to get older and creaky while I’m on these Trails. Truth be told, I feel really good out there after a few weeks of honing down. I don’t grumble because I’m generally enjoying the whole ride, or at least most of what I remember about it…
Another aspect of the multigenerational MeGaTex hiking family that we do solve problems better as a unit that if we were alone. The younger guys are more prone to surprise forays off the trail to celebrate the Fourth of July, to visit a big city, to divert from walking for a while. For example, when we were hiking through California, it was tough enough to keep moving on the PCT in the High Sierra, but they suggested a detour to spend a few days in the Valley in Yosemite, to hike up the back side of Half Dome, and to see what might happen. My natural tendency was to conserve energy and keep moving forward, but I joined them, and was pleased that I did. They shake me up, get me to stretch my outlook.
In balance, I lend a measure of planning to our endeavors. I’m not a super organizer, like my hiking pal Tenzing, AKA the Prudent Planer, as he’s known far and wide. I do like to have plan B, and sometimes even Plan C on the back burner, in case things don’t work out. MeGaTex now hikes with the awareness of what might come down when plan A starts to unravel.
That’s all for now. You won’t meet too many people out there who are as fun to hike with as Tom, so if you happen to be on the Continental Divide this summer and see a six-foot tall guy with a wide grin and grey ponytail, keep an eye out for good times ahead.
Good luck on the Triple Crown, Tom!