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magazine home > archives > spring 2001 > features

At 22-years of age, Archie Hamilton wanted a new perspective on life. So The U of M philosophy student temporarily shed his school books to embark on an educational trip filled with thrills, spills and the unexpected: Hamilton set out to conquer the rugged and awe-inspiring 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail.

On the Right Path
by Greg Russell

Lightning bolts crashed down around the young hiker as he fled on foot from a tumultuous rainstorm.

Desperately fleeing the onslaught, he tripped and slid down a mountainside, bounding head over heels before coming to a rest. Archie Hamilton's search for answers had momentarily turned to a search for shelter.

  Hamilton on the Appalachian Trail
Archie Hamilton took a year off from his studies at The U of M to hike the Appalachian Trail

"I felt like my life was in danger," says the soon-to-be graduate of The University of Memphis.

Hamilton would eventually find shelter, but his quest - to find answers to life on a trip deep into nature - would yield something unexpected: more questions.

"The trail doesn't answer questions as much as it provides more," says the philosophy student. "But in some respects that is good."

The 22-year-old took a year off from the University last year to hike the 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail. "I was at a point in life where I had gotten stuck in a routine. I needed to get out and have a change in my life and to look for different perspectives on things," he says.

So Hamilton embarked on an odyssey that would change him mentally and physically. He would find himself in the midst of a lightning storm on a mountain top, face to face with wild beasts and hiking alongside retired admirals and generals.

Of the approximate 3,000 hikers who annually set out to complete the trek, only a handful - 200 or so - finish the entire trip. The trail begins in North Georgia and winds its way through 14 states before ending on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. It weaves over mountain tops, meanders through valleys, and occasionally makes its way across towns. It is a trip that took Hamilton 198 days. He says there are an estimated five million footsteps on the trail.

"I went through two pairs of tennis shoes, and I lost 22 pounds," says Hamilton. "I got bronchitis on the trip, and my knees still hurt."

Hamilton became interested in the trip after listening to stories from two friends he lived with who had "thru-hiked" the trail. "They talked about the trip all the time," he explains. "I knew this was something I wanted to do."

The Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail begins on Springer Mountain in Georgia and stretches 2,167 miles to Mt. Katahdin, Maine

Of the estimated 3,000 who are on the AT each year, only about 200 complete the entire trail
The time spent to hike the entire trail is usually five to seven months. The best time to begin the hike is early April
Temperatures on the trail can reach from near zero to around 100 degrees, depending on the time of the year
Earl V. Schaffer of Pennsylvania was the first person to complete the trail continuously, doing so in 1948

So Hamilton embarked on his trip March 20 of last year at the AT trailhead on North Georgia's Springer Mountain. "My pack was too heavy - I think it was 52 pounds - when I first started the trip," he recalls with a laugh. "I quickly shed several items."

Hamilton mostly ate bagels, peanut butter, tuna, candy bars, Ramen noodles and granola. He slept in his tent most nights even though the AT has shelters every few miles. "The coldest night was 12 degrees in the Smoky Mountains," he says.

"You experience about every possible emotion while hiking the trail. You walk and you think for eight hours a day. It becomes your job." He estimates he spent about 80 percent of the trip alone.

The young hiker would make occasional trips into towns near the trail to restock food or to spend a night in a hostel or hotel to "freshen up."

Hamilton says he averaged 15 miles a day, with 29 miles being his longest jaunt. He notes that the trail's length is not the toughest challenge he faced. "Most people can do the physical part," he says. "It is the mental part that is the toughest. The mental part is what knocks 90 percent of the people out. It is tough being out there by yourself for that length of time, without anybody to turn to."

Hamilton's journey was filled with unexpected drama.

"In New Hampshire, I woke up at midnight with a bull moose looking down on me, about five feet away," he recalls. "I didn't know if he was going to charge me or not. He was not Bullwinkle for sure. It was scary. He eventually went crashing through the woods."

Hamilton says he was chased by Texas Longhorn steers. "We got too close to some calves," he recalls. "A bull backed us up against some rocks." He says he once "let out a scream" after seeing a bear unexpectedly while hiking at night.

He met a wide variety of people on the trail, including "K-Bear," his favorite hiking partner. "There are two main age ranges: the college age and then the 40-to-retired range," Hamilton observes. "There were a lot of retired military people out there as well as lawyers, teachers, doctors, grandmothers - there was a lady out there who was 70 years old. You get to know people quickly. There is not a lot of small talk. People are really honest out there."

Hamilton, whose trail name was "Mr. Bunker," says his favorite areas of the trail are Maine and Virginia's Grayson Highlands. He notes he also enjoyed sidetrips to Washington, D.C., and New York City. "From the trail, you can see New York City" he says. "Those are about the two biggest extremes you can imagine. I think I gained five pounds while I was in New York City . about all I did was eat."

Hamilton says his family was supportive, although his mother was "shocked when I told her I was going." His father, Eddie Hamilton ('65) of Memphis, drove 1,600 miles to Maine to meet his son at the end of the trail and share his accomplishment.

"He is one of a few people who accomplished what a lot of people dream about; my hat is off to him," said the elder Hamilton. "He came back with a different perspective on life."

The younger Hamilton agrees.

Hamilton atop Katahdin  
Hamilton spent 198 days hiking the 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail  

"Your perspective on life definitely changes," he says. "I have changed a lot as a result of the trail. The thing about hiking the trail, it took me six-and-a-half months to complete, but the richness of that experience could be spread out over years. What you go through in one day would fill a week.

"You have all that time to think. You really start to see what means the most in life. You are living at the simplest level. You've got your pack and everything you need to live inside it.

"You shut off the materialistic stuff that seems to come with American culture. You definitely start to see the value of friends and loved ones. You also come to value all we have, like the comforts of a hot shower and shelter."

Hamilton says it took him a few weeks to become accustomed to living in Memphis again, but he is happy to be taking classes in a more conventional educational setting.

"People said if I dropped out of school to do the trail, I would never return," he says. "But I love taking philosophy classes. Being back in the classroom is great."

Hamilton says he recommends the trail or even shorter hikes to everyone. "I think most people can use some time out in the woods," says Hamilton. "The problem today is that people don't think anymore. Being on the trail causes you to think and contemplate life."

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