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Local woman reflects on hiking the Appalachian Trail

Matthew Lane • Oct 21, 2017 at 7:30 PM

KINGSPORT — The Appalachian Trail (AT) is one of the most iconic hiking trails in the United States, stretching some 2,200 miles across the eastern part of the country, from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine.

It draws millions of hikers each year, from amateurs looking to spend a day on the trail to more serious enthusiasts who take the five-month journey from one end to the other.

For 23-year-old Caylin Qullin, a Sullivan South High School graduate who recently completed the entire AT, the hike was about self-discovery, something she had wanted to do for five years as a way to challenge herself. Basically, it was a nice adventure, she said.

“I really liked the nature aspect and I wanted a challenge. I learned a lot about myself and feel like I grew as a person,” Quillin said.

Though her parents originally tried to talk her out of hiking the AT, they eventually came on board with the idea once they realized how much she wanted to do it.

“If you've not gone through it, it's really hard to explain and understand it,” she said. “But I'm definitely a different person than when I started the trail, and I think it helped with my confidence.”

Caylin began hiking the AT at the traditional starting point of Springer Mountain, Georgia, on March 17. She left with a tent, a sleeping bag, two pairs of shoes, a couple of outfits, a down jacket and a rain jacket.

The first pair of Salomon boots lasted her about 1,200 miles. The second pair carried her all the way to Maine.

“You pretty much wear the same thing every day,” she said. “During the colder months, I wore a fleece pullover and running shorts because even then you get hot hiking.”

In addition to your gear, hikers typically carry four to five days worth of food at a time. Lots of Pop Tarts for breakfast and pasta pretty much every day for dinner. But forget about bringing Ramen noodles; too much salt and the little packets just aren't good for you, Caylin said.

“I started out eating oatmeal and I tried to be healthy, especially at first, but it's impossible to do when you get really hungry,” she said. “You'll end up eating anything you can get your hands on. My meals involved a lot of fat and sugar, like cherry cheese danishes, which I didn't discover until I got to Vermont.”

The Appalachian Trail crosses 14 states and is virtually all on public land (99 percent). The AT crosses towns and roads fairly often and has numerous supply stops and outfitters along the way where hikers can resupply, receive packages from friends and family and take a break from the arduous journey.

The fastest known time someone has completed the AT, without vehicle or crew support, was earlier this year. Joe McConaughy completed the trail northbound in 45 days, 12 hours and 15 minutes. Caylin said she started out hiking eight to nine miles a day, then worked her way up to 15 to 16 pretty consistently.

One day she hit 28 miles.

As the weeks went on and she got used to hiking every day for five months, Caylin kept up a pace of 17 miles a day or more, though rarely hiking more than 25 miles a day. Toward the end of her journey (she finished on Sept. 10), Caylin said she really began enjoying the time on the trail and wasn't in such a hurry to finish up.

“You hike all day, get up as early as you can manage, then hike until you’re tired,” Caylin said. “I'd listen to music every now and then, pod casts, but mostly I spent a lot of time in my own head, daydreaming and zoning out.”

One notable story from the trail involved some bears. While in the Shenandoah National Park, Caylin said she had two very close encounters with bears. Both times she was alone. The first one, the bear was right on the trail.

She banged her trekking poles on the ground, shouted at him to make him move, but the bear just looked at her lazily. Eventually the bear walked off the trail, though it did hang around in the bushes and watcher her walk by.

The second time Caylin saw a bear, it was about 3 feet away from the trail.

“I was less scared this time, so I just said 'Hey bear, good bear' ... and he didn't seem aggressive, so I slowly walked by him, keeping one eye on him as I passed. He just stared at me,” she said.

After reaching Mount Katahdin, Caylin's parents flew up to Maine and the family had a short vacation in the Pine Tree state, then flew home to the Tri-Cities. Now with the AT done, Caylin said she's considering the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada.

The first week home after spending five months on the AT was somewhat weird for Caylin. Life on the trail is very different than life for the rest of us.

“I didn’t feel like my brain was changing until halfway through the trail. Since I hadn’t been home in a long time, I had not been socializing,” she said. “You’re with a different group of people, and you form your own culture, and you slowly learn to not care what people think.”

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