Each year approximately 2 million individuals hike some part of the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Maine to Georgia for about 2,190 miles.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that since the trail first opened in 1937, only about 18,000 thru-hikers have completed the entire trail— a pretty exclusive group. Only about one in four of those who start out to hike the entirety succeed.
One of those 2,000-milers who made the entire trek is Luke Vance of Vinton.
Most hikers (90 percent) begin their journey in early spring in Georgia and finish up five to seven months later in Maine. Because of his job obligations as an athletic trainer at Cave Spring High School, Vance reversed the route and started in Maine on July 4 and completed what has been described by hikers as a “mammoth” and “grueling” venture on November 18 in Georgia.
Vance, 29, grew up in Vinton, the son of Julie and Richard Vance. He graduated from William Byrd High School with the Class of 2007, participating in football and wrestling.
He went on to graduate from Radford University in 2011 with a major in athletic training and earned his master’s degree at the Citadel in South Carolina with a major in biology.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail has long been his dream. He decided that he best seize the opportunity for the hike now at a point in his life when he had the scheduling flexibility to take the time from work and schooling. If not now, his dream might be delayed for years.
He said he fell in love with the Appalachian Trail when he returned to Roanoke after college. Local landmarks on the AT, such as McAfee Knob, sparked his interest in the colossal undertaking.
Vance said the trip was not actually what he expected it to be. “Maine was a big wake-up call” with challenging terrain featuring roots, rocks, and huge boulders to ascend— more of a rock climbing expedition to begin with. Plus, the trails there were not as well maintained as those he was used to around Roanoke.
Although the trail in Maine was quite difficult, he found it to be “majestic” and among the most beautiful areas of the trail, along with the mountains of Virginia, and his favorite Roan Highlands in Tennessee.
Vance said that at the beginning of the trail in Maine and New Hampshire with the very rugged mountain terrain, he averaged about 12 miles per day; at the southern end, he was averaging 30 miles a day. He said he had a flexible goal for the amount of territory he wanted to cover daily to stay on schedule.
He had trained by walking the local trails and considered himself to be physically fit when he started out; however, over the course of the hike, he lost about 50 pounds— not a weight loss method for the masses.
He prepared many of his dehydrated meals before leaving home and had his family ship them to him at towns along the way— addressed to General Delivery. He would “show an ID and walk out with enough food for the next five days.”
Vance carried a hammock for sleeping, but also stopped at hostels along the trail. Hostels also have all-important laundry facilities. Campfires were not part of his routine; he carried along a mixed fuel stove. He wore out four pair of shoes along the 2000-plus miles— two pairs of boots and two trail runners.
While he was technically hiking alone, he said he was always around many people, and occasionally hiked with groups along the way. When he reached Virginia around mid-October, he was able to stay with friends and family, but still continue to hike parts of the trail each day.
He said he was fortunate to experience mainly good weather throughout his trip with few extremes. Temperatures varied from the teens and below in the Smoky Mountains, to three digits in August and September as he got farther south. He did encounter 50-70 mph wind gusts at one point.
Other than some blisters and various aches and pains, his health was good throughout with “no big injuries.”
As for navigating the trail, luckily it is well marked with about 165,000 white blazes painted on trees, rocks, and signs along the way. Cell phone service was spotty, but thanks to modern technology even when cell phone service was unavailable, a GPS locator app on his phone kept him on course.
With mountains and woods comes wildlife. He was attacked on his first full day of hiking— by a hissing spruce grouse, the “forest chicken” in Maine, who was protecting a nest.
Vance did encounter a few bears, which he says are more apt to run away than attack; they don’t really want to interact with people— “they just want your food.” He was unpleasantly surprised camping one evening when he shined his light up in a tree and saw a black bear about 15 feet above him.
He said the most enjoyable and memorable part of his endeavor was the people he met— both on the trail and in the towns the trail passed by. He encountered people from all walks of life, leaving him with an experience of both the trail and of America that met his expectations and beyond.
He noted that many people who hike the Appalachian Trail are young people just out of college, but there are also many retirees— all living their dream. There were hikers from many different countries, especially from Germany where a documentary on the Appalachian Trail has been popular.
A very select group of outdoor enthusiasts aspires to hike not only the Appalachian Trail, but the “Triple Crown,” which includes the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. Vance says that’s not on his radar for now— maybe in the distant future.
He was met by his family and girlfriend in Georgia on November 18 at the end of the trail, having survived the trek through 14 states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia.
As for what’s up next, Vance was employed as an athletic trainer at Cave Spring for three years and is reworking his schedule with Carilion Clinic now that he has returned from the trail. That’s until next summer.
Vance has been accepted into James Madison University’s Physician Assistant Program, which he will enter in August 2018. His mother proudly notes that he was selected out of over 600 applicants for one of only 30 spots for a two and a half year program that includes classroom and residency work. He left the trail in Harrisonburg briefly for the interview.
Look for scenic photos from his months on the Appalachian Trail on The Vinton Messenger Facebook page.