Editors Note: This column first published on Oct. 6, 2019.
For a man who four years ago thought the Appalachian Trail was a small group of unconnected paths, Matt Fox has made himself into a first-hand hiking expert.
In the last two years, Fox has walked more than 4,800 miles over treacherous terrain, completed two major U.S. trails and recently prepared for a 900-mile European hike to “keep in shape.” He plans to hike the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail in 2020.
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If he completes the CDT, he will have conquered the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking in the U.S., including the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.
And to think in 2015 the man who calls himself a “trail addict” knew little about the Appalachian Trail, the most famous U.S. trail that begins in Georgia, crosses 14 states, and ends in Maine.
In 2011, the same year he graduated from Lakota East High School, Fox and his twin brother, Nicholas, joined the U.S. Army, a family tradition started by their older brother, James, 31.
Fox served five years in the Army and one tour of duty in Afghanistan. One of his assignments in 2015 was working as a tower guard for eight hours a day, from midnight to 8 a.m.
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One night, another soldier from Florida asked Fox on the radio if he had heard of the Appalachian Trail. The soldier told him about the trail’s storied history and length.
“I didn’t believe him,” said Fox, 27.
Once that introduction was “planted” in Fox’s head, he decided: “I got to do this thing.”
Fox now has the stories, sore muscles and, thanks to his mother, two scrapbooks chronicling his journey over the Appalachian Trail. He began the 2,190-mile hike on March 4, 2017 and finished Sept. 2, 2017.
Then, not being content, he finished walking the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail last month.
When asked why he started hiking, Fox gave several reasons: He wanted to lose the weight he gained during his first year in nursing school, and after being diagnosed with PTSD, he figured spending six months in the wilderness would reduce his anxiety. He met several veterans in the woods who said they were hiking for the same mental wellness.
When he began the AT, he weighed 245 pounds. Six months later, he weighed 186 pounds. He burned more calories than he could consume.
His pack and gear weighs between 15 to 30 pounds depending on the amount of food, water and equipment. He averages about three miles per hour.
When Fox is hiking, his mind turns into a calculator. Everything is a math problem from estimating his “dedicated pace,” extreme elevation changes, time of sunrise and sunset.
He described himself as “very stubborn” and “once I get an idea in my head, I’m not going to quit. That’s not part of my mentality.”
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Case in point: While hiking the Pacific, he got shin splints. He was six miles from one town, 30 miles from another. He found a shelter built by a skiing club and spent 24 hours on his back. The next day, he walked 30 miles through 10 feet of snow. Then spent two days there, resting his leg.
“Most rational people would have gone back,” he said with a smile. “But I was really determined. The Army instilled that.”
There were times when Fox and other hikers met what are called “trail angels” because they perform kind acts for hikers. They helped two elderly men repair a shelter, and in return, one of the men offered Fox keys to his vehicle to drive into town to get groceries.
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Another time, a man Fox had known for all of one hour offered to loan him his pick-up truck.
While on the trail, at times walking alone, other times in small groups, Fox said boredom can become a hindrance. Listening to chirping birds or repeated stories from fellow hikers gets “really draining” after 200 miles, he said.
So he plays word games, listens to Podcasts and books, and discusses the books with fellow hikers at lunch or camp.
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Fox lives with his parents, and since returning home from the Pacific last month, he’s getting “really stressed” just sitting there. A hiker doesn’t do well at rest.
As Fox looked through the scrapbooks, he couldn’t help but think about the ramifications of the radio talk with his buddy.
“That’s crazy to even think about,” he said. “I don’t know where I’d be without that conversation.”