Greensburg attorney Jim Antoniono walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Main in about five months this summer.
But he admits that even after researching the endurance hike and talking to people who had done it, he wasn’t prepared for the rough terrain that stretches from the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains to the northernmost reaches of the country.
“No one tells you how terrible the terrain is,” he said. “You are walking on roots and rocks about 95 percent of the time. You have to look down to watch where you are walking because if you look around, you’ll trip.”
The trail, roughly 2,200 miles, is only two to three feet wide in most parts as it passes through farms and forests, over mountains and up rocky climbs, he said.
Mr. Antoniono, 68, lost 30 pounds on the journey he began April 20 in Georgia. He started the hike at 185 pounds and finished at 155 pounds in early October.
“Three or four times, I thought my life was in jeopardy,” he said. “The trail was not well-marked in New Hampshire. I got to the top of a mountain and I went right instead of left. There was a 2,000 foot drop-off and the trail abruptly ended. I thought I was going to fall down the mountain.”
He walked in rain and snow storms, and he thought he was developing hypothermia at one point because it was so cold. He was in a rain storm another time and had to cross a raging river by jumping across rocks.
But the end was the hardest.
“You read about how hard it gets about Vermont,” he said. “They say, ‘You’ve already done about 80 percent of the trail in miles but only exerted about 20 percent of the effort. And that’s true.
“Some of the rocks are straight up, you just go up and down these mountains in New Hampshire and Maine, they are not gradual, it’s like rock climbing, there are huge boulders. And they are slippery going down.”
Mr. Antoniono had planned to take a couple of weeks off just after the halfway point of the hike — for a family wedding and to visit with his wife, daughter and grandkids in Pennsylvania.
But two health problems forced him off the trail for some rest. The first was a stress fracture near his right ankle in Virginia that went away after he took a break and stayed in a motel for nine days.
The second was a mysterious rash that put him in a hospital briefly in Vermont. He had stopped at a man’s house along the trail for the night and did laundry that was mixed with other hikers’ clothes.
One doctor told him he had a reaction to “poisonous parsnips,” but he was never sure. He got an antibiotic and went home for a break.
“I think that was God’s way of saying, get off the trail and get some food,” he said. “I flew home and gained back 4 pounds in two weeks from my low of 155.”
On the trail, he walked an average of 18 miles a day, usually rising with the sun and setting out at 7 a.m. He often didn’t stop until it got dark at 9 p.m. in the summer.
When the terrain got harder in New England — and the days got shorter in fall — he averaged about 14 miles a day.
He carried a backpack weighing about 25 pounds, which included a hammock, small stove, sleeping bag, change of clothes, food and personal items.
“I didn’t eat breakfast,” he said. “And I wasn’t big on power bars, so I’d eat peanut butter bread maybe or some cookies and candy bars as I was walking. I’d try to cook something warm at night when I’d stop, maybe beef stroganoff and mashed potatoes.”
He stayed in touch by smartphone with his wife Susan each night and kept a blog and posted pictures.
“There are shelters on the trail every eight or 10 miles,” he said, “so about a third of the time, I’d stay in those. It was usually just a three-sided structure that protected you from rain. There were floors where hikers could put their sleeping bags. There was usually a privy and water and maybe a picnic area.
“Another third of the time, I’d put up my hammock just off the trail between two trees,” he said.
“And another third of the time, I’d go into a nearby town to sleep in a hotel and get a good meal and a shower. There are all kinds of people who make their living transporting people to and from the trail. So I’d get a ride on a shuttle van and go into town to eat and get some supplies and then go back to the trail in the morning.”
“The mental aspect is what was hard for me at first,” he said.
‘‘I started out looking at elevation maps in the morning to see what I would walk that day. You’d expect to get to the top of a mountain, but the top never came, it just went on and on. Finally, I quit looking at the maps, and the mountains melted away.
“I was fighting the trail. I’d get upset if I wasn’t headed north, if the trail turned west for a while. I finally decided it doesn’t matter when the mountains come or if the trail takes me in circles, I still am walking off the miles. Once I got that in my head, it was easier."
Bugs were another challenge.
“The gnats in Pennsylvania were bad, and in Massachusetts, mosquitoes swarm you, so you need a hat and a net to enclose your hammock at night.”
He walked alone most of the time but advises others to hike with a partner.
“Most people hike with someone, and that really helps pass the time,” he said.
“I think about 2,000 people complete the trail each year. But a lot of people walk three days and take a break and stay in a town for a day or two. I tried to do it without taking days off, I approached it as a job, getting up every morning and doing it.
“I was in the distinct minority walking alone. And one time I went three days without seeing anyone else on the trail.”
He met all kinds of friendly people along the way, at the shelters and in hotels, which he found amazing.
“It was the most neutral place in the world — as far as gender and age,” he said, “and race meant nothing. You see all kinds of people and everybody hikes their own hike."
He’d walk a couple days with one couple, or meet up with someone later on the trail that he had met at a shelter.
“I felt safer walking the trail than walking down the streets of Greensburg at noon. People have asked me did you take a gun? Absolutely not."
Mr. Antoniono had thought about walking the trail for several years, but he couldn't figure out how to take time off from his law practice. Then, after doing the 36-mile Rachel Carson trail, from Harrison Hills Park to North Park in Allegheny County, for four years, he began to think about it more seriously.
When a lawyer who is a friend of his son was looking for a job a year ago, that’s when he decided he could take an extended break from his law practice.
Read more about his journey at http://grandpajimat.tumblr.com/.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org