Q&A with marathon trail hiker Hayden D. Wilson

Q&A with marathon trail hiker Hayden D. Wilson

August 25th, 2011 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

On June 6, 2006, Hayden Wilson, now 66, stands at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Mount Katahdin, Maine, at the start of his second thru-hike of the trail. Since 2001, Wilson has hiked about 11,000 miles of trails, including complete thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Chattanooga Times Free Press features reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Dunlap resident and marathon trail hiker Hayden D. Wilson about conquering three of the longest trails in the country, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken while hiking and why the simplicity of hiking appeals to him.

CP: Why do you do these long hikes?

HW: It's the satisfaction of putting your belongings on your back and starting out on a journey -- not just a trip or a walk across the road but a journey that starts at one part of the country and takes you all the way to an entirely different part. Whether that's from Georgia up to Maine or from the Mexican border all the way into Canada. On the Pacific Crest Trail in 2004, we actually stuck our legs under the border fence to say that we started in Mexico and walked into Canada. I think that's just an enormous sense of satisfaction. Every morning, you get up and know what you're doing and where you're going .

CP: Sounds like something 9-to-5 workers would welcome, that sense of simplicity and purpose.

HW: I love it. It is uncomplicated. The farm is complicated. Everyone's lives are complicated, no matter what they do. We've all got so many complications in our lives, but on the trail there are so few complications. You just get up in the morning and you start walking. You have to like to walk, but it is such a simple life style. (Laughs.) The sheer simplicity appeals to me.

CP: Have you always loved walking?

HW: I never did that much of it until I retired. The first year I retired, I was asked to accompany someone through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, which is probably the most beautiful section of Appalachian Trail. I did that, and then, I thought, "Well, gee, maybe I can walk the whole darn thing next year." The next year, I did.

CP: How long was that first stretch you hiked?

HW: It was only about 145-150 miles. It seemed a lot longer, and I learned a lot, such as gear choices. I think every trip, you refine your gear choices. You drop your weight and get gear that is more appropriate. You find things that make the hike more easy and less complicated. From that trip to the Appalachian Trail the next year, I changed virtually everything.

CP: What are some things you realized you needed to change?

HW: Weight is everything. If you're thru hiking, you become obsessed with weight. The lighter your pack is, the farther you go. The lighter your pack is, the less food you have to carry because you're moving farther. The lighter your pack is, the less water you carry. Especially in the west, water is a big deal. For me, most of it is dropping weight -- finding a lighter pad to sleep on, getting a lighter and warmer sleeping bag, dropping out gear I didn't need.

CP: What are some pieces of gear you realized you could do without?

HW: I didn't need as much comfort as I thought that I did. I think that's one of the things. By that, I mean, I didn't need as thick and heavy a sleeping pad as I had. I didn't need to carry as much as I did, so I didn't need as big a pack as I carried the first time, which was a heavy pack. I didn't need all the fuel and stove weight that I was carrying the first time. Everything circles around weight.

I actually have had outdoor experience, I just didn't have thru-hiking experience, which is different. It's a different focus. There are a lot of people who are good in the outdoors and can carry a lot of weight - which they do when they're hunting or in the military - but when you're thru hiking, you become very focused on mileage. You have to be.

A lot of people will talk about how they're only out there to smell the roses and will get up late and go to bed early and have their coffee and do all these other things, but you don't put the mileage in if you're sitting around drinking coffee.

Thru hiking is about walking. You get up in the morning and start walking and you take a break in the middle of the day and then you walk until the evening. It's more pleasant than it sounds, but that's what you do.

On the PCT, most people cover 25 miles a day. Most people on the Continental Divide Trail are doing 25 miles a day. The fast people are doing 30-35 miles a day. To get from one part of the country to the other, you have to turn around a lot of miles, and you can't do that with a lot of lying on your back.

CP: How many miles do you average?

HW: It depends on the trail. If you do the math, on the Appalachian Trail, the average person takes six months to finish. Some will do it in four months; some will do it in eight months. On the Appalachian Trail, you have the opportunity to do that; it's very forgiving. Twelve miles a day, average, will get you there in six months.

That's doable, especially once you get your trail legs under you, but the Appalachian Trail is a tough walk, especially when you get up north. New Hampshire and Maine are extraordinarily brutal walking.

My average on the Appalachian Trail is 17-18 miles. People can get there doing eight miles a day. All it requires is persistence to keep going.

The Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails don't offer as much leisure, as far as time goes. You can't start too early in the year because of snows. Most people go north on the Pacific Crest Trail, and the normal date for beginning the High Sierras is June 10-15, so there's no point getting to the Sierras prior to that. People can go through, but it's difficult.

On the northern end of the Pacific Crest Trail, September can be a good month or a bad month in the Cascades, depending on the year. October is always a bad month; the weather comes in. You have a window you just have to get through. You can't start too early or too late. On the Continental Divide, it has the same constraints, only it has more mountains to get through on both ends. You're more pushed for time on both of those trails.

CP: What is the appeal of such long-distance hiking?

HW: It keeps coming back to the same thing. The first thing is being in the most remote regions of the lower 48 states. The East Coast is a pretty crowded area, but when you're on the Appalachian Trail, you feel like you're away from everything. You aren't really because there are houses off to one side and houses off to the other side - and in areas like Pennsylvania, you're walking through some towns - but you're still going through the most remote part of the eastern U.S.

The Pacific Crest Trail goes through the largest wilderness area in the lower 48. You'd think it would be in Montana or Colorado, but it's in California. By the time you get up into the northern Cascades, you're pretty far from everything. The Continental Divide Trail is pretty remote. There's an appeal to traveling through an area like that so few people get to travel through.

The other appeal to me is being able to pack everything you need, at least for a few days, on your back and going out there and depending on your feet and yourself and your ability to go from place to place. I think it's enormously satisfying.

Most people who complete the trails, especially the Appalachian Trail, which is the one most people hike, if you talk to anyone who reaches Mt. Katahdin, they'll tell you it changed their life and was the most satisfying experience they've ever had. I feel it every time I finish one of these trails, and I always wonder if I can do another one.

CP: When did you finish the Appalachian Trail for the first time? What did you think the first time you reached Mt. Katahdin?

HW: It was in August - about Aug. 18 or 19.

The first feeling is just an enormous sense of relief. No matter how old or how young you are, everyone seems to get this sense of euphoria that they've finished this journey and accomplished something they set out to do that, for most people, takes six months of commitment to ups and downs and blisters and injuries and self doubt. Everyone has complications at home, too, but they feel this sense of euphoria.

The other feeling you get at the end of the trail is that, "No matter what happens, I will never ever walk another trail like this for as long as I live. From now on, if I camp, I will car camp, and I'm just going to veg out in front of the TV for two or three years before i get up." (Laughs.) I think people have that feeling, too.

CP: Did you have those feelings?

HW: I had it, yes. In fact, I didn't hike at all the next year. Most people don't. You meet so many people on the Appalachian Trail when you start north, and the feelings of friendship are so intense. It's like the military or all your high school buddies. It's an intense feeling that you don't get much later in life.

You get to Mt. Katahdin, you're through and swear you'll never hike again. Most people don't, but some time the next winter, something starts nagging at people. The people who don't have very good jobs start saving money, and the people who have good jobs start figuring out how they are going to take time off.

In 2004, I headed for the Pacific Crest Trail. There's what they call the kick off party for the Pacific Crest Trail when all the gear manufacturers get together in late April. I go to the kick off party, and it was like old home party with all the people I knew from the Appalachian Trail two years before. On the Pacific Crest Trail, I was on the trail with over a dozen people I knew from the Appalachian Trail the year before.

They had done the same thing. They hadn't hiked the year before either. It happens over and over on the trails. The big surge is the year after. People take the year off, and then they get the urge again, so they spend all winter dreaming .

CP: When did that feeling happen for you? Did you dismiss it at first?

HW: I just dismissed it, even when spring came around. I'm a birder. I'm in the ornithological society here, and I did a lot of traveling that year as a birder. When it started nagging me was that fall and that next winter. I started thinking, "I've got to hike again. I'm not going to spend the next year working and driving around looking at birds. I've got to hike."

So, I started looking whether to do the Appalachian Trail again or to do the Pacific Coast Trail. It just starts sneaking up on you. By the next spring, after you've been inside all summer, you've got to go, you've just got to go. Everyone at kick off was so excited. The old, the young -- everyone is bouncing around like kids ready to hike.

CP: When did you fall in love with hiking?

HW: I think I fell in love with it when I got off it and looked back. (Laughs.) Throughout the Appalachian Trail that first time, I just loved getting up in the morning and walking. I just absolutely loved it. I got up, and I was ready to go. I enjoyed the hiking and the walking, but I don't think I realized how much I enjoyed life on the trail until I was off the trail, rested up and got tired of sitting in front of the TV.

CP: Did it change your life?

HW: For me, maybe less. I think it changed the direction of my life because it started me focusing on hiking. As far as it changing everything else, I've done a lot of other things. I didn't feel inadequate that I needed to feel affirmed by finishing the trail.

Some people need more of a sense of affirmation, and I think that [finishing the trail] is the first big thing that a lot of people have done. Goodness, it's such a goal to say that you're going to walk through that long a trial with all its ups and downs. Everyone has days they want to quit and go home.

I can't say it was a life-changing moment. It was an accomplishment. It was something I was proud of. I'm still proud of having finished the Appalachian Trail and finishing it from the other direction. I just feel good about it.

CP: How soon into walking the trail the first time did you have your first "down" day?

HW: My first down came when I had shin splints and started hurting all the time. I didn't really have a mental down on that trip. It was tough hiking with shin splints and dealing with shin splints. For a while, I feared that the splints would take me off the trail, but I think anyone who has been on the trail will talk about that.

There's a common phrase called the "Virginia blahs." People talk about getting to Virginia and your energy starts to die and you start thinking about the people at home. Guys on the trail leave their girlfriends at home or even their fiancees at home. Things like that drag on people. You just have to work through it.

That aspect, I didn't have. My family was very supportive of my being on the Trail.

CP: Do you have children?

HW: Two grown sons and one daughter.

CP: What was their reaction to your initial decision to walk the Appalachian Trail?

HW: Everyone was supportive on that. They've always been supportive. My ex-wife was actively involved in sending supplies and things to me on the trail. There was no dramatic reaction.

A lot of people's families are afraid of them doing something like the Appalachian Trail out of the fear that it's "in the middle of the wilderness," which it isn't, but mine didn't worry about that.

If you talk to other people who do the Appalachian Trail or one of the other trails, you'll hear that their mother was worried to death that they're going to die. There are always those stories.

CP: Did having their support make hiking the trail easier?

HW: I think it makes it easier, definitely. I just don't think they were worried. In farming, you do a lot of different stuff you have to do on your own. I just don't think they were worried. The only one who seems to get worried now is my daughter. She just says, "Be careful, dad. Be careful."

One time, I called her in Colorado. I was on top of one of the mountains. One of the mountains went over the spine [of the Continental Divide]. In Colorado, the divide is a spine that isn't as wide as this table. You could walk and straddle the Pacific and Atlantic drainage.

I had been trying to decide to take that route, which was sketchy, or the official route which dropped you all the way down to the valley, about 3,000 feet, and then climbed back up the other side. The wind was howling, and I was afraid to take that route across there, so I called her to tell her I did what I knew she wanted me to do and was walking down the mountain. (Laughs.)

CP: How old were you for the first trip? Did you meet many people your age on the trail?

HW: I was 58. The demographics on the Appalachian Trail tend to be first young people who are just out of high school or college. Then there's a 40-ish group of ex-military who are out there. You miss all the 30s and 40s, who are still caught up with families and their careers and children. Then, you pick up retired people again.

Most of the people on the Appalachian Trail at a given time, would be 20-somethings, but there are a good representation of older guys and ladies out there. That year, the economy was bad, and quite a few people had been laid off -- IT people, mainly. They were out there between jobs. That's true on all the trails.

CP: What physical training did you do to prep for the trail the first time?

HW: I was running then. Actually, I had been in the Chattanooga Track Club, which is road races and things like that. I was running on a pretty regular basis at that time. That was the only physical conditioning I was doing. Running is a fairly decent preparation for the trail.

CP: What is a more appropriate exercise?

HW: I think I've gotten better with it now doing the stair master. The trails are a lot of ups and downs, a lot of climbing and descending. General body building doesn't work for people. You'll meet guys out there who tell you they were 220 pounds and were working with weights before the trail when they started and now they're 180 pounds and have just dropped their entire upper mass. I can't count the number of guys I've talked with who started off with weight training before the trail, bulked up and lost it when they started.

CP: What kind of shape were you in to begin with?

HW: I was skinny, so it was an easy start for me. I didn't have a lot of difficulty starting. I was in decent trail shape. I've tried to be in good trail shape for every one of them. At my age, I have to exercise. It isn't a chore; I feel better when I exercise.

Many people start off the Appalachian Trail without any physical truing at all and have a terrible time with it. But if they persist, they can still finish the AT, and many, many of them do. You can start out on the Appalachian Trail with eight mile days. The shelters are about 8-10 miles apart. You can start out with those days and if they persist and keep going and look at other people's gear and change out their gear on the southern outfitters and lighten up and persist, they can still do it.

CP: How much does your trail kit weigh?

HW: I'm obsessive with it. My trail weight - and I wouldn't be an ultra light backpacker - is about 13 pounds. If I'm on a summer walk on the AT, I can be down to 11 pounds. That's base pack weight, without water and food. That's just pack.

On the AT, you don't have a lot of water to carry and there are re-supples pretty often. If I'm in the Rockies or the northern Cascades, where you have to carry more winter gear, I'll be up to 13 or 14 pounds.

It takes a while to get it down there, and it takes money to get it down there. I was talking to my cousin about a piece of gear I bought. I'd spent $100 to save two or three ounces. He looked at me and informed me that if I stopped eating for a week, I would save a lot more than two or three ounces and it wouldn't cost anything.

CP: What is your trail diet?

HW: There are a lot of people on the trail who eat almost exactly the same thing I do, but most people carry a stove and heat things up. I don't carry a stove and haven't for about 8,000 miles, maybe more than that.

Breakfast will be something like muffins, if I can come to a good grocery store or a quick stop that has a 400-500 calorie muffins they have. I'll eat those or Honey Buns for breakfast.

For snacks, I'll eat peanuts or snack crackers. Snickers bars are a staple for everyone on the trail. I'll go through two or three a day. There are some people who want to do something different and use a different brand, but Snickers are the main brand.

I'll eat cheese and luncheon meat, especially cheddar cheese. I'll eat bagels, tortilla chips, potato chips or tortilla chips.

I'll put mayonnaise on everything. I have found out that mayonnaise doesn't go well on oatmeal, but everything else you can put mayonnaise on. Many people bring olive oil and put that on their food, especially ramen, to up the calories.

On the AT, where you have more opportunities to do this, I walk out of town almost always carrying a pizza or a sandwich or anything like that. I've walked out of town carrying Kentucky Friend Chicken. You resupply as you go.

People will eat everything I told you, but dinner for most people will be something heated up. They'll heat up ramen noodles or kous kous. The people who eat best are vegetarians. They plan ahead because it's hard to buy anything vegetarian on the trail. Many vegetarians will spend the whole summer freeze drying foods to send to themselves.

CP: What time of year did you start the Appalachian Trail the first time?

HW: I started March 25 or 26. The timing was important because of the snow. When you start on the AT, the only time constraint is that Mt. Katahdin usually doesn't open until mid June. They're very, very strict up there. They will fine you if you try and get on the mountain beforehand. Even though it isn't that tall, the conditions are extraordinarily raw in that part of Maine early in the year. They shut it down by Oct. 15. They may have shut it down before then if a storm comes in and it gets raw. It is a difficult walk. In some places, you could fall very easily.

If you're coming southbound, you probably don't want to start until mid-June. Some people jump around that by flipping. They get up to Pennsylvania or Vermont, realize they won't get to Katahdin in time, so they'll flip and go to Katahdin and come south to where they stopped.

CP: You mentioned many people had "down" days on the trail. Did you ever have moments when you thought, "I just can't finish this?"

HW: It never occurred to me that I wouldn't finish the AT, except when I was worried my shin splints would take me off. I didn't ever want to get off the trail.

I did the Appalachian Trail two times, and it never occurred to me to get off. I did the Pacific Crest Trail in 2004, and it never occurred to me. I started up the Pacific Crest Trail in 2009 and I only made it to Donner's Pass. I have failed on a third hike. I consider that a failure. That is 1,055 miles up the trail.

I had blown my knee out in the Sierras that year. It was a cold June, and there was a lot of post holing in the snow. Somewhere in all that post holing, I tore the meniscus in my knee. I have failed one time in a thru hike. I did the Continental Divide Trail as a section hike. I did it over a course of four years. I got off Pacific Crest Trail in 2004, and I did 800 miles through Montana in 2005. Then, I did Colorado. I finished New Mexico this year .

CP: How did you determine you actually completed it?

HW: I went to where I got off the last time. I made sure everything touched. A thru hike is doing the trail completely in one year. You can go in any combination, but it's a completion in one year. A section year is how most people do it. Some people will section hike the Appalachian Trail and do it over 10 or 15 years, just doing it bit by bit.

CP: Why did you want to thru hike?

HW: For me, the motivation is that the thru hiking is much more satisfying than section hiking. It's the journey. I love that continuous journey, and you don't get that with section hiking.

CP: Do you hope to finish the Pacific Crest Trail a second time?

HW: I hope to go out next year and finish the PCT. I will start at Donner's Pass. Everyone has their own philosophy about that. I have met people on both trails who have dropped out of a thru hike because of an injury, and both men on both trails have dropped out two times in the past. They came back to do it again and insisted on starting at the beginning. They dropped out again, both of them, before they completed it. That meant both of them had done more than the length of the trail, but they'd never finished the whole trail.

I understand their thinking. They wanted to do a thru hike. There's magic in doing a thru hike. There's just magic in it. But I've done one thru hike there. I would like to start exactly where I left off and finish the trail. If I'm still energetic the next year, maybe I'll do a third hike. If I I'm still functioning. I'd like to finish it, though. I feel badly that it is incomplete .

CP: What was it like for you to have that realization that you needed to stop?

HW: That's just a downer on anyone who does that. It's especially a downer when you get back and you haven't done it. I've talked to a lot of people who wanted to get off who didn't have any physical problems but were emotionally down with the trail.

My advice to those people in those situations is always the same: go into town, get a motel and just rest for a few days. Most of the time, that works. If you've got a physical problem, it's more complicated than that.

The people who get off and head straight home usually regret it. I don't see what else I could have done [on the PCT], but I still regret it.

CP: How did your family react?

HW: They wanted to know why I was back and why I hadn't finished. (Laughs.)

CP: What are the challenges specific to hiking each of the three trails you've walked?

HW: The greatest challenge of the Appalachian Trail is that it's a tough hike. There is nothing flat on the AT; it's all ups and downs, especially the farther north you go the more difficult the tread becomes. By the time you hit Maine, rocks and roots is about all you're walking on. It's just difficult trail. That's the Appalachian Trail challenge. You can't do high mileage. Even the most fit hikers have a hard time doing high mileage.

The biggest challenge of the PCT? I think the biggest probably just getting through Southern California. No one hikes Southern California unless they're thru hiking. The High Sierras are gorgeous.

Many people will take a few weeks and hike through gorgeous sections like that. Areas of the Cascades are just like that, like the area around Mt. Hood. Those are just beautiful areas, but most people don't care so much for Southern California. It's hot and dirty and difficult walking. I think that, for most people, by the time they get through that, they're feeling good and cruising and ready to finish the trail.

The Continental Divide Trail is a different creature. Everything is challenging about the CDT. In "Yogi's Guide Book" Bryan Tasmund was commenting on the Continental Divide Trail and said that every day there's something on the CDT. Either you can't find the trail or it's sleeting or it's sweltering heat or you're doing a boring road walk. It's just a difficult animal to deal with.

You do not need any mapping skills to do the AT. You don't even need to carry a map. If you walk 100 yards and don't see a white blaze, you walk back that 100 yards until you do see one. On the PCT, you need some map skills, but you don't spend every day pouring over the map.

On the CDT, you better be thinking about where you are and what you're doing and not day dreaming all day long. You can't be listening to the iPod or thinking about what's going on at home. You better focus on what you're doing or you'll find out that you're not where you need to be. You need good map skills and GPS skills, which take time to learn. In the Continental Divide Trail handbook, the first page reads: "Embrace the Brutality." Most people, when they talk about the Continental Divide Trail say that's an apt phrase.

CP: When did you officially finish the CDT?

HW: I finished it the first week in June. I started at the border of Mexico and went up to just north of Creed, Colo., which is over 700 miles. I had been putting New Mexico off. New Mexico, like California, is everyone's least favorite part of the trail. When you get up to Georgia O'Keefe country, it's better. But the southern end ... seems to go on forever. It's not as pleasant.

CP: What does it mean to you to have completed these three trails and receiving this Triple Crown distinction?

HW: That's all the triple crown is, recognition of completing those trails. For me, I just think it's just a sense of accomplishment. I just feel good that I've done it. That's all it comes down to. I really am just appreciative of the fact that I have been able to hike over this much of the country and been able to complete all three of those things.

CP: Does it mean more to you to have completed them at your age?

HW: I think it does. Without question, I think the best hikers on the trail -- the fastest and the strongest -- are the 30 year olds. They're still strong and fit and are mature enough to handle all the challenges and persevere. Good gracious, it would be a lot easier to do it at 30.

It's harder for someone my age to do it. When you read the trail journals, when you get over 50 years old, life's infirmities start to intrude on people's hikes, even the people who try and stay in condition. I'm probably more obsessive about conditioning than most people.

I try to do two hours [of exercise] three times a week. I worked out at home for years. I have a universal machine at home and a treadmill at home, but after a while, you just get so sick of working out by yourself. That's why I work out at the Rush. I do yoga, too. I joined [the Rush] two years ago.

CP: How far have you hiked, in all?

HW: I retired in 2001, and I've walked over 11,000 miles since then. I've averaged over 1,000 a year and took two years off -- 2003 and 2008.

CP: What's next for you?

HW: I want to go back and finish the PCT. It's simple for me. What other hikers do is start looking at Europe and Australia and trails everywhere else. People ask why I want to hike the Appalachian Trail again and don't look at Europe, but I like it here. These trails are extraordinary. Really, nowhere else in the world has trails that are this quality.

Europe has a lot of trails, but they tend to go through urban centers. There's a lot of mileage, but they are not remote trails. Australia has remote trails, but people who have done it have said it's hard to find the trails.

I want to go back and finish the PCT. I did 400 miles on the Appalachian Trail last spring before I did my Continental Divide Trail section, and I'd like to go back and finish it for the third time, starting at the end of that 400 miles. That would be a section hike. I like the Appalachian Trail and I like the PCT.

CP: I notice you're leaving one of the three out.

HW: Yes. Very few of the people who have done all three will say the Continental Divide Trail is their favorite trail. Most people will say the Appalachian Trail or the PCT. The Continental Divide Trail is just raw. It is just extraordinary in the scenery, but it's a rugged trail.

CP: Do you worry you'll get too old to do hike?

HW: Absolutely. I don't worry about it. I know it's going to happen. It could be inevitable. It could be next year. I might not finish the PCT. I see it as inevitable. It's not something I worry about it.

The time will come when I can't hike any of these trails. At 66, it can't be too far away. When it happens, it will happen. I've done more than I ever dreamed I would do, as far as hiking. If anyone had asked me during that first trip in 2001 whether I would do any of the rest of this, I would have said that, no, I wouldn't have dreamed of doing any of these things. I'm grateful to show you a bandanna for getting even halfway there [on the PCT].