- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

QUARRYVILLE, Pa. (AP) - Many of those who hike all 2,189 miles of the Appalachian Trail within 12 months have their climactic celebration on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine, with a knot of other finishers.

A lesser number of them end their journey on Springer Mountain in Georgia.

Warren Wolf, 67, a resident of Buck in southern Lancaster County, rounded a bend May 4 near a quiet street in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to complete his long trek through 14 states.

“Last Chance,” as he was known up and down the famed trail, saw his wife, Nina, and friends waiting for him and a snip of pink tape set up as an impromptu finish line.

He dropped his trekking poles, buried his head in his hands and wept.

All who undertake the Appalachian Trail - thousands start the hike each year, with about 1 in 4 finishing - have their own story. They have their own motivation for leaving normal life behind and immersing themselves in a simpler, if still emotionally and physically difficult, journey.

For Wolf, it felt as if he had a “last chance” to follow a dream buried in his soul for nearly 30 years.

It had its beginning in a chance encounter with an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker at a camp store in Maine in the summer of 1976. Wolf was in the store when a guy with a long black beard came through the door. He was soaked to the bone, and his hiking boots squished when he took a step.

“That’s a thru-hiker on the AT,” the clerk whispered to a puzzled Wolf. At the time, Wolf had never heard of the trail that traces the Appalachian Mountains.

Wolf asked the guy how far he had hiked. When he replied that he had started his hike in Georgia, Wolf scoffed.

But when Wolf realized the guest was perfectly serious, a seed was planted. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool. That’s something I could do someday.’ “

A retirement plan

The possibility resurfaced when Wolf retired at age 58 as a supervisor at RR Donnelley. He thought about it, but realized he wasn’t in good enough shape.

Then in 2014, his wife bought him Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild.” The author was a troubled woman who had never camped before and who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada to find herself.

“If she could do that, why can’t I do it?” Wolf recalls thinking. “I came home and started buying gear, and off I went.”

He quit as volunteer coordinator of the Lancaster County Penn State Extension Master Gardener program. And to get into shape for the trek, he hiked many of the tougher trails in Lancaster and York counties.

Because of the huge spike in long-distance hiking - inspired by Strayed’s book and its movie adaptation, as well as by Bill Bryson’s book and movie about his neophyte experience on the Appalachian Trail, “A Walk in the Woods” - hikers were being encouraged to hike the trail in sections to reduce the pressure on the pathway.

So Wolf became what is known as “a flip-flopper.” He started his hike at Harpers Ferry on May 25, 2015, and headed north. Fully bearded, he reached Mount Katahdin 1,150 miles later, on Oct. 2.

After a week’s break, he hiked from Hampton, Tennessee, to the trail’s southern terminus in Georgia, finishing Nov. 13, 2015.

The last section, from Tennessee to Harpers Ferry, he began in March of this year to finish May 4.

Wolf had to take 27 days off because of injuries along the way.

Once, he tripped while carrying a pot of boiling water at a trail shelter in Pennsylvania, severely scalding a leg. A staph infection from a bug bite sidelined him for 20 days. He was hampered by shoulder injuries from two falls. One was severe; he hit his head on a rock.

His wife was invaluable, shuttling him to and fro, picking him up after injuries and forbidding him to quit a couple times when his will flagged.

A changed man

Wolf’s trail journal, filed electronically from the scene almost daily, gives vivid accounts not only of the moose, bears, copperhead snakes, spruce grouse, wildflowers and butterflies encountered along the way, but of the human encounters that so shape the Appalachian Trail experience.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the hike, Wolf says, was a renewed faith in the goodness of most people and a realization that there is still kindness in the world.

“I went into the hike feeling like people didn’t help each other out like they did when I was younger. Like they turned a cold shoulder towards people in need,” he says. “Not all people, but people in general,” he clarifies.

“On the trail, everybody helped each other out, and no one judged you. You were accepted for what you were: a brother, a hiker amongst hikers.”

He became close to many people he knows only by their trail names.

There was “trail magic,” the unexpected appearance of free food and cold drinks at road crossings or trail shelters. The “trail angels,” who spent their time shuttling hikers to towns and back. And the nearby property owners who welcomed hikers to camp on their lawns because they knew how important the journey is to each of the hikers.

Back home, Wolf is well on his way to gaining back the 27 pounds he lost on the trail. After 11 months of going to bed hungry, getting up hungry and hiking hungry all day long, he’s having a hard time not eating whenever he can.

He’s slowly getting used to sleeping indoors again and to the sounds of vehicles. But he still shies away from events with a lot of people.

“It’s just too noisy, and it’s too crowded,” he says. “I don’t know how to say it, but I just struggle in dealing with negative vibes from people.”

He embraces relationships, and his friends feel more important than before. He’s lost his desire to collect old farm machinery. “Material things don’t mean as much to me as they did before,” he says, trying to explain.

“I think what I’ve learned is, I don’t need too much to be happy.”





Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com

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