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Smith treks 2,200 miles into retirement

TRIUMPH: Tom and Sharon Smith celebrate reaching the end of the Appalachian Trail after hiking its approximate 2,200 miles.

BY SHARON BARDONNER - sbardonner@ftimes.com

When Tom and Sharon Smith decide to take a hike, they don’t mess around.

Smith, retired assistant director of the Frankfort Community Public Library, burned through four pairs of trail shoes and his wife Sharon burned off too many pounds as the couple crossed out an item on their bucket list by trekking the entire 2,189.2 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Smith recently recounted his trip to the members of the Frankfort Rotary club.

Smith said adios to 11 years at the library when he and Sharon saw the right window to realize one of their dreams. He also felt it it would be an opportunity to experience every foot of one of America’s most traveled trails before its popularity wrecked too much of its natural appeal and more native species living alongside became extinct.

Before leaving the Smiths invested in ultralight packs, sleeping quilts and Therm-a-Rest Neoair sleeping pads so that they only toted from 16-22 pounds total. Of that, said Smith, only about 12-13 pounds were food and water.

Vegans, he and Sharon ate a lot of beans, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, watching many other hikers chow down on honey buns to grab some cheap calories, Smith said.

“But poor nutrition will defeat you in the end,” he warned.

A $30 Sawyer water filter served them well the entire trip, he said. Sometimes the water they purified was captured with leaf funnels during a rainfall.

Along the trail, they saw about five bears along with lots of little salamanders and newts, many of which are endangered. 

He also took a bad tumble in Maine during the first leg, twisting his ankle and getting banged up. 

“But you just keep walking on them,” he said. “The body is an amazing thing. You keep training, working out and it recovers.”

They began by hiking from Massachusetts to the trail’s northern terminus on Mount Katahdin in Maine so they could travel south as the summer waned and fall and winter approached. They then traveled back to their starting point in New England and trekked to the trail’s end at Springer Mountain in Georgia.

They averaged 11.5 miles per day through the tougher terrain of the first 600 miles and pushed along at a clip of 14-15 miles daily hrough New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Going south, they found the elevation in Virginia more challenging but the trail conditions were much easier, Smith said. 

From Damascus, Va., to the Smokey Mountains near the end, their pace increased to about 17 miles daily. “But we were fighting daylight too,” Smith said. “We had headlamps but we tried not to hike in the dark.”

Weather conditions varied from cool mornings that called for puffy jackets that transitioned into warm afternoons when the two hiked in t-shirts and shorts. One rainy day they stayed put to awake to snow, 22 degrees Fahrenheit and an 11-degree wind chill.

Smith said they also always heeded the instructions of the National Forest Service employees they encountered – out of respect for how much these people do to protect the trail.

“If they said, ‘Don’t go up there,’ we didn’t go up there,” he said. The Smiths also didn’t build any fires so they could avoid putting any undue pressure on the trail.

Smith said Sharon quickly abandoned her idea of wearing waterproof boots, finding that they took three days to dry out, and bought new footwear after starting the trip. Tom’s trail shoes, comparatively, would dry quickly. At day’s end, they would take off their wet socks and wet shoes and put on dry socks for sleeping.

“But then you put your wet socks and wet shoes back on the next day,” he said. “Eventually your socks will dry even if your boots stay wet.”

Those who developed the trail never imagined it would be something people would hike in its entirety, Smith explained. 

“Were you ever afraid?” someone asked Smith. “Not really. There are a lot of people paying attention to (the trail), taking care of it. Some people would hitchhike near the trail and the townspeople living in those areas would know that.”

Smith also referred to ridgerunners, paid to trek assigned parts of the trail to help other hikers, answer questions and perform trail and shelter maintainance. Local hiking club volunteers also frequently walk the trail to help with preservation.

“It’s the people and culture of the trail that keeps it safe,” said Smith.