2018-02-01 / Front Page

I WOULD WALK 2,000 MILES

Scout treks Appalachian Trail in 6 months
BY RYAN GIBBS


Jackson Hawkins at the edge of McAfee Knob, a panoramic overhang on the Catawba Mountain in Virginia, which is considered to be the most photographed site on the Appalachian Trail. Jackson Hawkins at the edge of McAfee Knob, a panoramic overhang on the Catawba Mountain in Virginia, which is considered to be the most photographed site on the Appalachian Trail. Partying at Mackerel Cove with your fellow high school graduates is one way to spend your senior summer.

Hiking 2,200 miles through 13 states while climbing 6,000 feet above sea level is another.

Jackson Hawkins, who graduated in May, is the newest member of the 2,000 Miler club following his trek across the Appalachian Trail. Along with Eleanor Russell, Hawkins departed Maine in July from Mount Katahdin and finished in December at Georgia’s Springer Mountain.

“It was just blissful,” said Hawkins, 19, of Rosemary Lane.

The Appalachian Trail, completed in 1937, is considered the longest trail in the world exclusively for hiking. The idea to traverse the East Coast mountain range surfaced during the duo’s first year at Tabor Academy, a boarding school in Marion, Mass.


Hawkins at the summit of Mount Katahdin, the highest point in Maine, which is where he began his 2,200-mile hike to Springer Mountain in Georgia. Hawkins at the summit of Mount Katahdin, the highest point in Maine, which is where he began his 2,200-mile hike to Springer Mountain in Georgia. “It was just an idea in the back of our minds” he said. “It was something we thought of freshman year.”

The trail less traveled

While it began as a pipe dream, the two classmates seriously began considering the excursion as graduation neared. After some “nitty-gritty planning,” Hawkins decided to delay his first term at Middlebury College in Vermont. Because they had such a small window before the spring semester, which begins next week, Hawkins and Russell decided to traverse the trail from the north, which is the route taken by less than 20 percent of the hikers. With cold weather looming at the back end of the trip, however, they didn’t have a choice.

“It is far rarer for someone to go north to south,” he said. “If we had tried to go north, we would have hit winter weather very quickly.”

After developing a timetable and determining the necessary gear, Hawkins and Russell set off toward New England’s most rugged range. “You go right into the White Mountains, which is arguably the most difficult section,” he said.

Hawkins, however, is no stranger to the terrain. During visits to his uncle’s house in New Hampshire, he’s become familiar hiking the Northeastern peaks. He said these experiences gave him an advantage over northbound travelers who have difficulty climbing the New England mountains after months of hiking switchback trails in the South.

Preparing his whole life

Hawkins always has been an outdoorsman. From Tiger Cub to Eagle Scout, his decorated Scouting career was crowned in December 2015 when he became the first Jamestowner in troop history to receive the William T. Hornaday Award for conservation. To put the rarity of the award into perspective, there are about 2,500 times more Eagle Scouts than Hornaday honorees.

Using these Scouting survival skills, the pair embarked from Maine in July and completed the New England portion of the trail by September. That stretch was highlighted by a traverse through the ridgeline of the Presidential Range, including Mount Washington.

While it can be the highlight for many 2,000 Milers, climbing New England’s highest mountain wasn’t intimidating for Hawkins because he’s already done it twice. Also, they scaled neighboring Mount Madison the day before, which meant he did not to have climb the entire 6,288-foot mountain from its base height.

“There was some uphill, but most of it was pretty flat,” he said. “But it was very windy and foggy, and, of course, it was all slippery with jagged rocks. Classic White Mountain hiking.”

Hawkins’ most memorable moment came at the summit of Mount Washington. As Hawkins and Russell were leaving the visitor center to continue their journey, the clouds below them parted. Because that stretch isn’t a challenging hike, Hawkins said, he was able to appreciate the beauty.

“We were walking along one of the highest ridgelines in New Hampshire with views down the entire valley,” he said. “It was just spectacular.”

While Hawkins — trail name Granola — has no idea how many mountains he climbed during the trip, he covered most of the major peaks. His favorites, because of their spectacular sunsets, were Avery Peak in Maine and Hump Mountain, a bald Roan Highlands peak on the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

The long and the short of it

Although they spent most of their hike in the wilderness, Hawkins and Russell made regular stops in nearby towns to restock supplies and food. They typically slept in shelters maintained by trail clubs, especially when the weather wasn’t cooperating. They also befriended people during their travels, ultimately reaching the Georgia finish line with a group of six hikers, which Hawkins called his “trail family.” Their hometowns ranged from Arkansas to New York.

Hawkins typically covered about 12 miles daily while in New England. By the time they neared Georgia, they were averaging about 19 miles to stay ahead of bad weather. Overall, Hawkins estimated, they averaged 14 miles a day for the entire hike.

The exception to their planned pace came when they reached Maryland. They covered the entire 41-mile section through the state’s southern panhandle in a single day. Hawkins said their mad dash to the West Virginia border was part of a “Maryland challenge,” a grueling test popular with hikers.

West Virginia also took no time to complete; only 4 miles of trail runs through the state’s extreme eastern tip. The next state in their journey, however, was the complete opposite. Nearly a quarter of the entire Appalachian Trail goes through Virginia, and it took Hawkins nearly a month to walk across the state.

Hawkins and Russell arrived in Georgia at the beginning of December. Once they were across the border, it took them four days to reach Springer Mountain. Hawkins said reaching the pinnacle was a bittersweet experience.

“I was just super excited to be almost done, but I was also kind of sad,” he said. “I had formed really strong relationships with all my friends who I was hiking with. Finishing meant we’d have to go back to our jobs or school. It was definitely melancholy, but I’d say the presiding emotion for me would be excitement at finishing this huge journey.”

Hawkins said his monumental journey did not register until he was traveling back to Jamestown with his parents. They had driven from Rhode Island to Georgia to meet their son at the mountain for a celebratory lunch. The family arrived in the Ocean State two days later.

The biggest takeaway from his six-month trip, Hawkins said, was the serenity of life without material things.

“I was just walking all day and everything I had was on my back,” he said. “It’s really made me think about what I need.”

Return to top