Six weeks ago, couple Jenna and Nick Walton reached the top of the highest mountain in Maine.
After six months of hiking and going through several pairs of shoes, Jenna had injured her shoulder after falling crossing a stream. She couldn’t move her arm or carry her pack, but trekked up the mountain alongside Nick anyway.
Jenna, 35, an Eau Claire native, and Nick, 43, originally of Fort Atkinson, waited in line with day hikers to snap a photo at the iconic wooden sign carved with the word “Katahdin.”
They ate lunch and spent a moment alone, at the peak of Mount Katahdin, celebrating — and mourning — the end of a six-month trek on foot from Georgia to Maine.
“We had a moment, as they say,” Jenna joked. “We finally got teary-eyed ... We’d been doing this for six months and we were finally done.”
“My body was very ready to be done,” Nick said. “(But) I would have liked to have kept hiking.”
Jenna and Nick traveled the grueling Appalachian Trail on foot, beginning on March 12 at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia and ending Sept. 22 at Baxter State Park in Maine.
The trail winds up mountains, across high ridges and through farm fields, rocky landscapes and forests.
Only one of four hikers who begin the Appalachian Trail complete a “thru-hike,” or a complete trek of the 2,190 miles of trail, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Only about 20,500 people have become thru-hikers since the 1930s.
Taking the plunge
Jenna grew up in Eau Claire, graduating from Altoona High School in 2002. She met Nick at UW-Green Bay, and before settling in Madison in 2019, the couple decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, commonly called the A.T.
Both studied biology in college and loved camping and hiking, so taking the plunge for six months on the trail seemed like a perfect fit.
“We just decided we were both going to quit our jobs, let go of our apartment, put all our stuff in storage and just go for it,” Jenna said.
Their preparation consisted of testing their tent and weighing their gear — finding lightweight backpacks, tents and sleeping systems are “kind of a big obsession in the hiking community,” Jenna said. At the beginning of their trek, their packs weighed about 25 pounds.
Appalachian Trail thru-hikers typically bring one set of clothes to hike in, one to sleep in, a few pairs of underwear and socks — and not much else, the couple said.
They quickly fell into the rhythm of the trail, Nick said: Wake up, break down their camp, hit the trail, eat, find a place to stay each night, set up their tents and sleeping equipment and begin the day all over again. They’d stop at towns every few days to re-supply.
But climbing up and down mountains “over and over again” brought some aches and pains in the beginning, especially sore legs, Nick said.
Many hikers don’t hunt on the trail, instead bringing food that’s easy to cook on a camp stove — instant ramen and mashed potatoes, Jenna said. The couple would occasionally forage for berries during the summer.
“People ask if you’re going to hunt or forage for all your food, but it wouldn’t be practical, and you couldn’t get enough calories that way,” Jenna said. “After about a month your body really ramps up into high gear and your metabolism goes nuts.”
‘Hiker hunger’ means they had to eat every two to three hours. At night, they hung their food on a cable and pulley system or in a “bear box” to stop creatures from rummaging through their supplies.
“Word usually travels quickly if there’s a bear actively swiping people’s food,” Nick said.
Flora and fauna
The hikers bumped into several bears, mostly in Virginia, but most of the creatures ran after seeing humans, Jenna said: “They see you and hear you before you even see them.”
They encountered a handful of rattlesnakes, several kinds of salamanders, and one memorable night a venomous black widow spider in their tent drove them to sleep outside.
“It was gone in the morning, and that was somewhat disconcerting,” Nick joked. “We never saw it again.”
Most hikers carry cellphones, Jenna said, and the couple was no exception, using an external battery to charge their phones between towns. They also carried a satellite communication device with an SOS feature in case of emergencies.
The trail itself was easy to find, clearly marked and highly traveled.
In their six months on the trail, the couple found a “trail community” that turned into a tight-knit group.
“You just keep running into the same people and start to form friendships,” Jenna said. “Over time (you become) what they call ‘tramilies,’ or trail family.”
“The Appalachian Trail is an exceptionally social trail,” Nick added. “... If you want to interact it’s very easy to meet people and form friendships.”
Hikers don’t typically go by their real names. Instead many are given “trail names” by their fellow hikers, or sometimes themselves. Jenna was nicknamed “Baby Bear” by the members of their trail family: “One day we were climbing up a mountain, and everybody decided my hiking pace was just right, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”
Nick, a former ornithologist with a penchant for J.R.R. Tolkien references, was given the trail name “Peregrine,” a reference to a character from fantasy series Lord of the Rings.
The couple often encountered day hikers or “section hikers,” who travel a portion of the Appalachian Trail instead of the full 2,000-plus miles.
“The main joke is that you can always tell the day or weekend hikers by their smell,” Jenna laughed. “They smell fresh. I did not realize how bad I could smell until this hike.”
Injuries occasionally slowed them down. Jenna caught norovirus early on, which commonly happens when people stay in cramped spaces, and a urinary tract infection, she said. The worst injury was on the last day of the trek, when she injured her shoulder near Mount Katahdin.
Through the six-month haul, they didn’t come close to quitting, Jenna said — but as they approached Katahdin, the traditional end point of the A.T., “I knew I was physically and mentally ready to be done.”
The trail attracts different people — young adults after college, former military service members, retirees, even some hikers in their 80s, the couple said.
Jumping into “such a big adventure” was frightening at first, and grueling on the trail, Jenna said: “But we both were really excited, and we both wanted it bad enough, and I think that’s part of what helped us to finish.
“It’s not easy to quit your job, ask for a six-month leave or lease your apartment … (but) if it’s something you want bad enough … you need to make it a priority and do it.”