Journey across America
Boyhood friends look back at 2,180 enlightening miles on the Appalachian Trail
"The whole experience has been so surreal that I can't pinpoint the moment when living like a mountain-man became the norm, but sleeping in a bed last night was a strange feeling."
- Alex Letvinchuk, April 21 blog item
On their first morning in North Carolina, two Manchester twenty-somethings awoke before dawn to find their sleeping bags covered in a few inches of snow.
A three-sided shelter had failed to protect them from an icy storm.
"All the backpacks, your clothes left out, the water bottles and everything, frozen and covered in snow," recalled Ollie Cardin.
Barely a week from the start of a planned hiking trek from Georgia to Maine, Cardin and best friend Alex Letvinchuk were facing one of many challenges.
During a snowstorm later in Tennessee, they pressed on through thigh-high snow while other hikers stayed put.
"To me, it was a little bit of a pride thing," Cardin said. "I thought two guys from New Hampshire, if there's a reason I go home, it's not going to be because of the snow."
But the odds were against them. Only about 1 in 4 hikers who start in Georgia hoping to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail - 2,180 miles through 14 states - actually completes it.
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"Every day, probably around mile ten, when my legs start to fatigue and my feet beg me to stop I think of the alternative. What would I be doing if I wasn't hiking? Would I be sitting at a desk somewhere cursing myself for taking a monotonous job just so I could pay my college loans? Would I still be living at my parents house cursing myself for not having a better monotonous job so I could get out of the house? Would I be happy?"
- Letvinchuk, March 8
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The trip was hatched during a hike along the Franconia Ridge in late summer of 2011. Letvinchuk was skeptical. "I didn't think he'd be up for it," he said, referring to Cardin.
But during their college break for Thanksgiving, the boyhood friends who grew up together on Manchester's Bayberry Lane signed on for early 2013, nine months after Letvinchuk graduated from St. Anselm College and Cardin from the University of New Hampshire, for "one last big adventure that we could do together," Letvinchuk said. In the meantime, they saved money and trained at the Manchester YMCA, countless steps on the Stairmaster and endless miles on the treadmill, taking turns wearing a weighted vest to simulate a backpack.
"We spent enough time with each other and been at each other's throats before. It'd be kind of like old times again," Letvinchuk said. "If there's one person that I know I could be around for four or five months, it's this guy."
On Feb. 27, they started their trek from Springer Mountain, Ga., greeted by 2 inches of snow.
"As soon as you got on the trail and strapped on the pack, you knew any amount of training that we did was really not going to prepare us adequately for the trail," Letvinchuk said.
Camaraderie with other hikers developed fast. A few days after starting out, on Letvinchuk's 23rd birthday, a fellow hiker stuck a match in a chocolate bar and sang "Happy Birthday."
In North Carolina, an Ohio man told them he was dropping his plans to complete the trail after about a month of hiking. He missed his wife, had a cattle farm to tend to and was awaiting a new grandchild.
Thinking of the 1 in 4 statistic, Letvinchuk said, "As cynical as it sounds, if another person quits, statistically the odds are ... getting better."
Scott Hopkins, a Virginia hiker who met the Manchester pair in North Carolina, recalled their perseverance.
"They were stubborn - New Hampshire stubbornness," said Hopkins, who began his trip three days after the Manchester friends. In Virginia, Hopkins started regularly traveling with the pair.
"Hiking with them, it helps me keep going in the tough moments, when all you want to do is stop for the day and go into town (but) you have to keep hiking," Hopkins said.
The Manchester men started and ended their days together, sometimes hiking with other people or by themselves.
A turn in the weather boosted their spirits.
"The snow stopped right when we reached Virginia," Letvinchuk said. "It was a real big confidence booster to beat the snow."
The Manchester friends spent all of April hiking through Virginia, enjoying "a real nice month" of dry, mild weather, Cardin said.
Once they reached roughly the half-way point at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, they sat around the campfire. "We looked at each other and said, 'We've got a shot,'?" Letvinchuk said.
Last year, about 2,500 people started the northward trek from Georgia, a warmer and easier path than beginning in Maine. A total of 1,017 northbound hikers registered and were photographed at the Harpers Ferry visitor center of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which helps oversee the management of the trail. As of last week, 539 of those hikers had self-reported to the conservancy that they had completed the entire journey with more notifications expected, according to Laurie Potteiger, the conservancy's information services manager.
She said most people take five to seven months to complete the trip that she called "very grueling. People find it much more difficult than they anticipated."
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"You're constantly thinking about the next meal you can have once you're in civilization. I have had countless dreams that solely revolve around food."
- March 25
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Their days started between 5 and 6 a.m. with breakfast -- a choice of strawberry, blueberry or brown sugar Pop-Tarts. "I toasted my Pop-Tart once. That was a real treat," Letvinchuk said.
They would pack up camp and start hiking around 7 a.m., aiming for 18 to 22 miles a day. Sometimes, they could cover 2 or 3 miles in an hour, depending on the topography.
Lunch wasn't scheduled, sometimes dictated by finding "a nice spot" at a summit or state park, Cardin said. The menu consisted of peanut butter on tortillas and granola bars.
They hiked until around 7 p.m., set up camp and ate dinner around 7:30 or 8. Dinner often featured Ramen noodles, a bag of pasta, a pocket of tuna and more granola bars. Then off to sleep at nightfall.
They carried about four days' worth of food, occasionally walking up to 2 miles to resupply in a nearby town. Once or twice a week, they stayed overnight at a hostel.
The pair typically averaged five to seven days in between showers. Letvinchuk on his blog wrote that someone asked, " 'why does it smell like old peanut butter and jelly sandwiches over here?' That would be me."
Each invested more than $5,000 in equipment and living costs.
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"I don't feel like a twenty-three year old anymore. Everyday is a struggle to leave my tent. Every hill sucks the dwindling energy from my body. This is no longer a physical battle, but then again, was it ever?"
- May 29
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The pair knew they would punish their bodies.
"It was just a matter of can you ignore the pain and just keep going? You know everyone's going to hurt," Letvinchuk said. "Anyone can physically do it. It's just walking. It's just how long it's going to take you."
Mental endurance became a greater force.
"You can always slow down to kind of rest your body, but you're not leaving the trail. You're never escaping it," he said. "Even when you go into town, it's never a rest. You've got to go in, resupply your food, do your laundry. You're always thinking about it. You're always surrounded by trail thoughts. Your body hurts and you could end it all now. You could end all the pain -"
"- just with a phone call," Cardin said, finishing Letvinchuk's sentence.
But they pressed on, two full weeks through Pennsylvania, with its trail filled with jagged rocks that made it difficult to take solid steps at times.
"It was a frustrating state, just because it's real flat, not a lot of views, kind of boring," Letvinchuk said.
Then they spent a little more than a week getting through New Jersey and New York State before arriving in New England the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, which featured cold and rainy weather.
"When we started seeing the Mass. plates, that was cool," Letvinchuk said.
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"It will continue to be stories of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, a story of pain and perseverance. These next 600 miles will be harder than any other we've hiked, but with every conflict comes the glory of completing the greatest story of my life."
- May 29
They covered 150 miles in Vermont in early June and got a morale boost when they hit the New Hampshire border on June 11 - with still 442.3 miles to go.
Five friends met them at different parts of the New Hampshire trail to offer the use of a shower, laundry machine and/or a place to sleep, acts hikers call "trail magic."
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy Web site said "New Hampshire and Maine are the hardest" to hike.
"When you get to New Hampshire, it's a lot more mountainous," Letvinchuk said. "You're above the tree line pretty much for the first time. The views in New Hampshire are just breath-taking."
In New Hampshire, the trail ranges in elevation from 400 to 6,288 feet, the latter the summit of Mount Washington, which they reached on Cardin's 23rd birthday.
"To get a clear day on top of it must have been a good treat for him, a good birthday present," Letvinchuk said.
They entered their final state on June 19, soon to face more rain in Maine.
"That was one of my low points on the trail, just getting mentally beat by the mountains and the weather. You know you're so close, but especially in southern Maine, you still have 281 miles to go," Letvinchuck said.
A little more than a week before the finish, the Manchester men set up their tents in a random place. Letvinchuk went to a wooden bridge to fill up his pan of water to cook his meal.
"The bridge broke and I lost my cup and pot in the river, so I basically went without food for that night," he said. "I ate one of those packs of Ramen (noodles) raw. There were just so many mosquitoes everywhere. I kept thinking how miserable I was."
But the night before reaching the trail's end, Letvinchuk pondered the journey.
"I was staring up at the trees, and I was really kind of sad I was going to step away from this lifestyle, how comfortable I had gotten," he said.
"You do it long enough," Cardin said, "and it becomes familiar."
The next morning, a little before 9:30 a.m. on July 7, they reached the finish line at a sign on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park. Letvinchuk's dad, Peter, hiked up to meet the pair. Hopkins made it, too.
"It was a strange feeling, especially the last few days because you knew this section was ending, like when you graduate high school or graduate college," Cardin said. "You're happy, you're excited, but there's a little bit, it's over."
"It's very bittersweet," Letvinchuk said.
After a six-hour drive back to Manchester, Letvinchuk texted his hiking buddy around 2:30 a.m., telling him about new tents he had just found on the Internet.
Cardin said he might go on a day hike this fall. Letvinchuk is looking for something bigger.
For now, they are relishing life at home.
"You just appreciate all the small conveniences more. Everything being at your fingertips," Cardin said.
Letvinchuk said he had missed driving a car. Cardin said he appreciated being inside a car during a recent rain storm, deploying defrost or air conditioning at will.
As for their next challenge, Letvinchuk is looking to form a film company with friends. Cardin is awaiting word on applications for medical school.
The four-plus month trip gave the men time to contemplate life and human nature.
"There's a lot of kind people out there," Letvinchuk said. "Everyone is inherently good, no matter what background or socioeconomic standpoint you come from."
"I look at everything quite differently now. I think problems I will face going forward won't be as monumental," he said. "Knowing there are worse things out in life. You could be stuck in a snowstorm. Even in a bad situation, just keeping a sense of level-headedness is real important. When I was having a bad day, I would tell myself at least it's not snowing right now."