“The 100-mile wilderness (in Maine) is beautiful,” he says of the trail high spots. “Glaciers carve all sorts of lakes and ponds…. Grayson Highlands (in Virginia) with all the wild ponies…. So many beautiful places.”
But heavy rains, even snow, meant hiking for hours in wet clothes and meals from dehydrated packs heated on a small camp stove. “You ache all over and you’re hungry. Your feet always hurt,” he says.
“I knew what I was getting myself into, though,” he adds. In fact, the trail had been on his bucket list for decades, ever since the long-time hiker trekked the White Mountains in Massachusetts as a youth and saw Appalachian Trail “thru-hikers” who hike the entire 2,190-mile trail in one season.
Woodward retired after 30 years as a research scientist at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in late January 2022. He started hiking the Appalachian Trail on March 7, 2022. However, planning began a year in advance. Wife Leslie decided to hike too, and they spent months dehydrating foodstuffs. Sons Nick and Alex supported them. Alex even volunteered to housesit and mail the couple additional supplies.
Carrying a 30-pound backpack (Leslie’s weighed less.), the Woodwards started on Springer Mountain in Georgia. It rained the first two days, and within a week, the couple, with dog Bodhi in tow, encountered so much snow they stopped temporarily.
When the weather broke, they moved on and soon set a routine: three nights and four days on the trail then into the nearest town for showers and supplies. On the trail they rose at sunrise, packed up their tent after breakfast and started walking. Bedtime was “hiker’s midnight,” i.e., sundown.
“You start slow,” Woodward notes. “You hike 10 miles a day then stop. You build your stamina. I was averaging about 100 miles a week at the end. With a day off.”
Fellow thru-hikers were as memorable as the natural vistas. “I met people I never would have met,” he says. “Doctors, lawyers, truck drivers. People from all over the world. Australia, New Zealand, France, Scotland.”
Thru-hikers are a “pretty dependable bunch,” Woodward adds. When he fell and gashed his shin, fellow hikers were quick to stop and help patch him up, he says. “Trail Magic … The trail brings you what you need.”
Hikers were also quick to share food. And nicknames. Every hiker gets a nickname. Woodward was “Buttermeister” because he preferred butter or ghee to oil. Townsfolks, shopkeepers and day hikers were also trail angels, offering lifts into town and free hot meals.
Leslie fell and broke a footbone on July 3. “Everything was closed,” Woodward says. But his wife remembered Dayton-area friends had a vacation home in Virginia, close to their Maryland location. Using their satellite phone, the couple found their friends on holiday less than an hour away.
“That’s trail magic,” Woodward says. “Actually, it’s a small miracle.”
Woodward continued alone, with Leslie safely homebound. (Friends took Bodhi home before the extreme summer heat.) He notes the intense heat and humidity were harder to handle than cold. “I had to stop every 40 minutes to cool down.”
At Mount Katahdin, the trail’s finishing point, Woodward says the incline was so steep that trail managers had hammered rebar into the rock face so hikers could hang on tightly.
“And I did.” Woodward said Leslie, Nick and Alex joined him at the summit on Oct. 6. After a short rest—with plenty of hot food—they headed home.
Woodward admits he probably won’t hike the entire trail again, though he misses the trail scenery and the generous people. The Woodwards hope to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc—100 miles through parts of Switzerland, Italy and France—next summer.
Quoting a fellow hiker, he says, “I don’t miss the hiking, but I do miss the trail. I miss the woods and the people.”
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