Appalachian Trailblazers

Hikers Remember Their Time on the Trail


The Appalachian Trail, often known simply as the A.T., is approximately 2,200 miles long – a distance that feels insurmountable to most. However, for these six intrepid hikers, it merely sounded like a challenge. Whether hiking the A.T. all at once or tackling it in sections, these local outdoor enthusiasts set out to conquer it. Read on for their recollections, stories, and advice from their time on the trail.


By Anna Hill / Photography by Sarah Unger


Man holding his walking sticks for hiking


Richard Park, Sr. 

Lookout Mountain

Trail Name:

“Gazelle”; later, “Old Gazelle”


Richard Park Sr. Hiking


CS: What got you into hiking?

RP: It must be in the blood. I love trails. For the better part of seven decades, I have been walking them, running them, or backpacking on them. When you think about it, trails are also a metaphor for our life experiences: the paths we have chosen (or not chosen), the journeys we have walked, and the company we have kept along the way. 


CS: What was your favorite scenic spot or stretch of your hike?

RP: My all-time favorite would have to be Max Patch summit, north of the Smokies. I love those forests in which I feel very much at home, but exiting the forest with a climb to one of the pristine “balds” on the trail is exhilarating. The 360-degree view of mountaintops in every direction is simply breathtaking. I remember well my first ascent to Max Patch on September 21, 1986, when we broke into singing “The Sound of Music.” I was captivated.


CS: Biggest challenge you faced while on the A.T.?

RP: Of all my enjoyable steps on the A.T., one of the very few that doesn’t fit that category was when I fell face-first onto a rock and broke my nose. I was near a Pennsylvania state park, where a trail angel took me to the hospital to have it X-rayed. Fortunately, I was back on the trail the next day and backpacked 22 miles to catch up to my buddies.  


Richard Park hiking and looking at photos


CS: Where else in the world would you like to hike if you had the chance?

RP: The A.T. was my springboard. I have been blessed to have experienced many trails in this country and beyond. I have hiked the John Muir Trail in California; segments of the Pacific Crest Trail, the Colorado Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail; most of the Long Trail in Vermont; much of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and the Via Francigena in Italy. If I could have added to the list before old age announced its arrival, I would likely have chosen one of the classic treks in New Zealand.


CS: What item in your pack could you not live without?

RP: My cheese quesadillas. What a delicious dinner meal after a day on the trail! Cooking it in olive oil over my backpacking stove made me the envy of anyone around. It’s making me hungry just thinking about it.



Amanda Rich


Trail Name: 



Amanda Rich hiking


CS: What got you into hiking? 

AR: I fell into hiking through growing up in Knoxville and being so close to the Smokies. My earliest influencer is my grandfather – he built trails on his land for my brother and me in Ohio. When I was a little older, I had friends get me into backpacking when I was in college. I was specifically turned on to an A.T. thru-hike by having friends who did it years before I did.


CS: What’s the longest stretch of the A.T. that you’ve done in one go? 

AR: I did the entirety of the A.T. in 2005, which in that year was 2,174 miles. I redid the first 550 miles of the trail a couple of years ago in 2019. I have also done numerous sections of the A.T. in between longer hikes elsewhere – and I’ve also thru-hiked the Art Loeb Trail, the John Muir Trail, and the Tahoe Rim Trail and backpacked in Alaska, Sweden, Germany, and Austria.


CS: What did you learn on your trip? What advice would you give to those who’d like to do it?

AR: If you can get through the head game, you can accomplish anything. Accomplishing an A.T. thru-hike taught me I can get through anything if my head game is there. My advice would be not to overthink preparations. You figure out a lot as you go along. Something very useful about actually being on the trail is that the other hikers are always glad to give advice. Listen to your fellow hikers, digest what they tell you, and go from there. Also, “Hike your own hike.”


Amanda rich hiking


CS: Any interesting memories or stories from the trail?

AR: Lots, but too many to name. My craziest day was summiting Mount Washington in a cloud with 120-mph wind gusts. My hiking partner and I were crawling, and she was only two feet in front of me, but I still couldn’t see her. It was scary, but ultimately a thrilling experience.


CS: What item in your pack could you not live without?

AR: My stove. I have to have warm food at night. A lot of ultra-light backpackers have stopped bringing their stove for the sake of saving weight and lightening the load, but I just can’t do that.



Branden & Anna Jones


Trail Names: 

“Moose” & “Sweet Tea”


Branden & Anna Jones hiking together


CS: What got you into hiking? 

AJ: When we were dating, we talked about how amazing it would be to thru-hike the A.T., but we never took the thought seriously. Three years later, Jennifer Pharr Davis came and spoke at our college chapel service. She used to hold the record for hiking the entire trail in 46 days. It was a few months later that I woke up in the middle of the night and had the clear thought: “We are going to hike the Appalachian Trail.” We wanted to go on this adventure to experience God, creation, and people in new and powerful ways. 


CS: Biggest challenge you faced while on the A.T.?

BJ: The difficulty of the terrain. We knew the trail was no “footpath through the wilderness,” but it was definitely more challenging and technical than expected. The mountains are often tough to climb and the terrain can be treacherous, but we would take our time and push through these challenges. 


CS: What did you miss the most while hiking?

BJ: “FOMO” was a reality. We often missed when celebrations or events were taking place back home, and we couldn’t be there.

AJ: We also missed eating healthy foods! Since fruits and vegetables are heavy, we would not carry those. So, when we got to town and could eat a “real meal,” that was really nice.


Branden and Anna Jones hiking with their dog


CS: What did you learn on your trip? What advice would you give to those who’d like to do it?

BJ: We learned that we could accomplish far more than we ever imagined, and that there is so much beauty in simplicity.

AJ: Advice we would give – cherish every moment. We met some folks who were concerned about busting out big miles for no real reason except to say that they had. But they were not enjoying themselves, at least not as much as they could have been.


CS: What item in your pack could you not live without?

BJ: Thank god for our tent – a lot of the shelters were full of mice. 

AJ: Trekking poles. So much of the terrain is extremely difficult, and the poles help balance and give stability in possibly dangerous situations.



Elizabeth O’Connor

East Ridge

Trail Name: 

“Cap’n Eli”


Elizabeth O'Connor Hiking


CS: What got you into hiking? 

EO: Back when I was an auditor and had to go out to California and Nevada for work trips, my manager insisted we stop on the way home and hike in the Sierra Nevada mountains.


CS: Biggest challenge you faced while on the A.T.?

EO: Five years ago, while doing the 100-mile wilderness up in Maine – often considered the wildest and most challenging section of the trail to navigate – as well as Mount Katahdin, I piled up a litany of injuries. To be honest, I would still be out there if my friend Janet hadn’t shared her Aleve when I ran out of Advil.


CS: What’s the longest stretch of the A.T. that you’ve done in one go?

EO: I’m what people call a section hiker, as opposed to a thru-hiker. Right now, I’ve hiked about half of the trail, doing portions of it at a time. My longest section hike was two weeks. I went from Springer Mountain, the southern starting point of the trail in Georgia, to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. Unfortunately, I had to leave the trail there due to a nasty bug I’d picked up. 


Elizabeth O'Connor sitting next to her pack


CS: Any interesting memories or stories from the trail?

EO: At the Hurd Brook lean-to in Maine, I was awakened at 3 a.m. by poles clicking on the rocks out on the trail. I got up to investigate and greeted Scott Jurek as he passed on his hike of the A.T., which ended up being record-setting at that time. As for memorable scenery, I look fondly back on the White Mountains and Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire – the vistas from the rocky trail above the tree line were stunning. 


CS: What item in your pack could you not live without?

EO: Everything I brought with me was essential, but if I had to choose, I’d say The North Face Canyonlands tent I camped with. One of my favorite times of the day was to lie in my tent in the late afternoon, pleasantly exhausted, and look up at the sky and watch the moving clouds and leaves as my muscles tried to relax after a long day of trekking. 



Janet Hale


Trail Name: 



Janet Hale Hiking


CS: What got you into hiking? 

JH: I was in Girl Scouts, and our troop was very active in hiking and camping, as we were close to the Smoky Mountains. My parents took our family every weekend in the summers to Norris Lake, and I was always outdoors swimming, skiing, or hiking. When I was older and after having raised a family, a friend of mine asked me to go hiking with him. He was interested in section hiking the A.T., so I tagged along with him and really fell in love with it.  


CS: What was your favorite scenic spot or stretch of your hike?

JH: This is so hard to say, since so much of it is my favorite. Virginia was one of my favorite states – it has so many places that are just incredible, and the longest stretch of the A.T. runs through it. 


Janet Hale hiking


CS: What did you learn on your trip? What advice would you give to those who’d like to do it?

JH: I am still hiking the trail with 242 miles to go, but I think that I learned that I am stronger and more capable than I ever imagined. At my tender age of 71, it is not very often that I run into women my age out hiking alone. I feel so confident and love the alone time in the woods to do as I please and to feel what I need. I would like to give other women my age the confidence to go out and do what you love and not let others tell you that “you should not be doing this.” 


CS: Where else in the world would you love to hike if you had the chance?

JH: In 2019, I, along with seven hiker friends, flew to Spain to hike the Camino de Santiago. We hiked all 500 miles of the trail in 29 days.
I will never forget it. Having said that, I dream of going back and walking the del Norte part of the Camino along the coastline. If this pandemic ever goes away, that is where I will be headed.  


CS: What item in your pack could you not live without?

JH: My first aid kit and flashlight – and also wet wipes to clean up with. CS

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