Last month, on his 75th birthday, Edmonds resident Bob Baker completed his trek along the Appalachian Trail, having taken about five million steps in a total of seven months of hiking.
The trail crosses 14 states, from Georgia to Maine. To avoid what he calls “a bubble of people” who converge on the southern trailhead in early spring, he began his trip in April 2018 at about the halfway point, walking from West Virginia to the northern terminus in Maine. By August, he had hiked 1,166 miles. Baker returned this year for the other half, heading out in February from Springer Mountain, Georgia, hiking three months and covering 1,026 miles — 2,192 miles in all.
He isn’t new to the outdoors. Baker was an avid mountaineer for 30 years, making technical climbs of Mount Baker and Mount Rainier as well as peaks in Colorado and Alaska.
“After awhile it became too expensive and too difficult,” Baker recalled. “My wife, Judith, encouraged me to find something new to obsess over.”
He turned his attention to the crown jewels of long-distance hiking: The Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) and Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that run from border to border, more than 3,000 miles, and the Appalachian Trail (AT).
Because he grew up on the East Coast, Baker found the legendary AT immediately attractive. “I spoke with people and read different accounts from those who hiked all three trails, and without exception, every one of these ‘triple-crowners’ said the AT was the most difficult.”
The primary reasons are elevation gain and terrain. “The AT has significantly more ups and downs, typically more than 4,000 feet in a day. In northern Vermont and New Hampshire as well as southern Maine, the elevation gain is up to 8,000 feet. That beats you up,” Baker said. “The PCT is higher in the mountains but elevation is more gradual. Much of the trail is groomed for horses so it’s wide and smooth. New Hampshire was mostly a rock scramble.”
Yet he fell relatively few times and was never seriously injured, thanks to his climbing experience. “I have good footwork and never push myself,” said Baker.
And he was well prepared, spending the better part of two years before his epic hike researching the AT and following hikers posting their treks online. “I was on a virtual hike for awhile,” he laughed.
Then it was time to go. “I hiked solo most of the time. Last year, I ran into maybe four or five people in a day, but this year, even though I started early, there were weather delays so that the bubble of people caught up with me and I was seeing 30 or 40 hikers a day.”
Carrying a pack that weighed up to 35 pounds, he hiked an average of 14 miles each day, dropping to half that in rough terrain or serious elevation gains.
“The trail is pretty well marked,”he said, “although occasionally I wandered off. When all you do is stare at your feet, which you have to do because of terrain, you get into a bit of trance.” That’s when the GPS came in handy. “There’s an arrow that guides you right back to the trail.”
His hiking routine meant walking five days a week then heading off trail to recover and resupply. “There are all these little towns along the trail, mom-and-pop stores,” he said. “There’s no Uber or Lyft. You have to arrange things ahead of time.”
Custom calls for hikers to assume a trail name and his was Iceager. “I was a member of a climbing team on Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) in Alaska. Our team name was Iceagers so this was a tip of my hat to them.”
Of course, there were hardships and challenges — brutal terrain, bad weather, the chronic ache of a strained Achilles heel. He ran across a bear cub — could mama bear be far behind? He saw a bobcat, a poisonous copperhead and three porcupines, as well as less- threatening critters including turtles, deer and wild turkeys.
“The biggest risk on the trail is ticks,” he said. “I met half a dozen people diagnosed with Lyme Disease and there was also the hantavirus from mice.”
One challenge he didn’t have was his age, even though people over 70 are a rarity on the trek, according to data from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “I’m grateful I can do it. But last year was easier than this year. I did hurt more this year,” he admitted.
Outweighing any negatives are the AT wonders.
“It was phenomenally beautiful,” said Baker. “Above the treeline in northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, there were 360-degree views.”
Baker noted that the superficialities of life soon fall away. “No one cares who you are or what you do. It doesn’t matter.”
He remembered one hiker, a “high-mileage guy,” who was walking faster and farther every day than Baker. “He told me, ‘The point is you’re out here.’”
More than anything, it was about his fellow travelers.
“There’s a community of people on the trail and you develop relationships with them. You might not see them for 500 or 600 miles but when you do it’s like long-lost friends and really joyous,” he said. “These people are uniformly positive, unassuming, full of energy and just a joy to be around.”
Baker heads back to work now as a real estate broker to “refill the cookie jar,” but has his eyes on another hike: “The PCT’s John Muir Trail, 250 miles through Yosemite, is in spectacular country.”
He’ll tackle it with the full support of Judith, his wife of 22 years. “When I was active in mountaineering, I think it drove her nuts for awhile,” he said. “But over the years, she came to understand that being in wild places is where I need to be.”
On the trail, Baker saw a quote written on a piece of wood that he remembers still. It’s a line from “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien, which says: “Not all those who wander are lost.”
— By Connie McDougall