by Ryan Shaffer
Leaving a structured civilization construed of the most updated technology for nearly six months seems less-than-feasible for most. Though, for Ellwood City resident Sarah Beatrice, it was a dream come true. The 29-year-0ld embarked on a 2,185-mile journey through one of the most wondrous attractions along the east coast of the United States, the Appalachian Trail, with only a 26-lb backpack full of only bare necessities.
“It was the most beautiful and rewarding, yet hardest thing I have ever done,” Beatrice said. “It was not just another walk in the woods.”
Each year, approximately 2,000 people travel to Springer Mountain, Georgia in order to embark on a 14-state hike along and through the Appalachian mountain range. Of those adventurists who start the trail, only about 25% successfully complete a “thru-hike.” Beatrice began the trip with two other friends, who both left within the first week.
“I hiked alone for about a month, then I found a group and we continued together,” Beatrice explained. “For me, I always enjoyed the outdoors. I walk the North Country Trail a lot, but it was nothing like the Appalachian Trail. I was glad I found the group. Everyone was amazing.”
Beatrice braved her way through treacherous terrain from March 31 until Sept. 19. “Too Long,” the trail name given to her because of her long strides and fast hiking, found out quickly that staying dry and warm were the most essential aspects of survival during the expedition. She and her group found three teenagers in a shelter one night after a strong, cold rain shower. One of them was in the beginning stages of hypothermia.
“There was a ruckus in the other room around 4 a.m., and were initially upset because we assumed it was just people being loud and obnoxious,” Beatrice discussed. “We just thought it was so rude that they would be making so much noise so early in the morning. A girl from my group named “Brave” went to check on the noise and saw a boy shivering uncontrollably. He was freezing and could barely talk. Then, we saw two others. We gave them new clothes and warm drinks, fed them, and the six of us cuddled up with them for a while. It was really scary.”
While the inclement weather played a major factor outdoors, wild animals also caused concern. Beatrice carried trekking poles through the forests and valleys, and clicked them together in order to keep from startling the wildlife and stirring them from their hiding places. While walking through Great Smokey Mountains National Park, her biggest concern was the possibility of a wild boar attack. Though, the encounter she eventually made in the middle of the night was with a more elusive animal.
“In the ‘Smokies,’ there are bushes everywhere and you can’t really see through the brush,” Beatrice explained. “I was really worried about a wild boar jumping out from behind a bush, because that’s what I heard was out there. One night, at about 3 a.m., I got up to use the restroom and I saw a big cat, maybe 45-lbs, walk across my light. It was a bobcat, which no one sees! I had to throw sticks at it and chase it away.”
The sights on the Appalachian Trail proved breathtaking for Beatrice. She took in a sunset ever a crystal blue lake in Maine, and gazed into Franconia Ridge and the White Mountains of New Hampshire (Photos provided by Wikipedia & Discover New England.com). Also, during her 500-plus mile walk through Virginia, known to give hikers the “Virginia Blues,” she enjoyed the views from McAfee Knob and Tinker’s Cliff (Photos provided by Roanokeoutside.com & Trailheadfinder.com).
“The ‘Whites’ in the Presidential Range were the prettiest to look at,” Beatrice added. “There were so many incredible sights. One evening, we found this beach that overlooked a lake in Maine. I took off my shoes and walked down to the rocks overlooking it and watched the sunset.”
Some days seemed tougher than others, but what really kept “Too Long” going on the lengthy excursion was the “trail magic” provided by hundreds of “Trail Angels.” The ‘angels’ helped those who ventured through the trails with random acts of kindness. They mostly come from local towns and left coolers of snacks, loaned their porches out as sleeping areas, and even hosted cookouts.
“The ‘Trail Angels’ were amazing people,” Beatrice said. “There would be long stretches of trail, and we would get so tired, and all of the sudden we’d randomly see a cooler full of food and drinks. At one point, we wanted to take a couple of days off and visit New York City. We initially had a hookup, but it fell through, then we ran into Fran and Rich. This big truck pulled up beside us and asked if we were lost. We told them our story about New York City, and they drove away after. Then, we see the truck again and it pulls back up beside us. Fran popped her head out of the window and she offered to make us a deal.”
Rich worked for the railroad, so Fran offered up her porch, a meal, and a trip to New York City via her husband’s employer.
“They made us steaks, and let us sleep on their porch,” Beatrice added. “They were so nice. We went to the city, and it was total culture shock because we were on the trail so long. When we got back, we cooked for them and spent another night. Fran was so sad when we were leaving. I can’t thank them enough for their kindness, and for all of the other “Trail Angels.” I really found out how kind people could be to total strangers for no reason at all.”
In her final weeks, Beatrice found the trail to be mentally and physically taxing. The little things made all of the difference, though, as scavenger hunts and seeing milestones kept her feet moving. One hiker, JoAnn McBride of New Brighton, sent pictures to “Too Long” of a note she wrote and left in tree stump along the trail.
“She kept sending me pictures as clues,” Beatrice discussed. “It really kept me going because I wanted to find it.”
Then, reality struck that the journey was near completion when she arrived in New Hampshire and saw a cart from the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
“I saw an old coal train going up the mountain, and I started crying,” Beatrice added. “I was so happy, because it really hit me that it was a huge thing I was doing. I had only seen it in videos, and there it was in front of me. I knew that was only one more state to go.”
After five months and 19 days, Beatrice arrived at the Northern Terminus, and claimed her “thru-hike” status. So many others “yellow-blazed,” or were transported from one point to another, but “Too Long” finished the hike on her own and joined an elite group of trailblazers, including two of her group members that hiked the last 500 miles with her: “Reboot” and “Frankie the Sleeper.”
“When I grabbed onto the Mount Katahdin sign on the northern terminus, I broke into tears and let go of so many emotions,” Beatrice explained. “It was a dream come true.”
She received an Appalachian Trail Conservancy certificate stating that she completed the trail, which she does not plan to do again, at least in the near future.
“One and done,” Beatrice said. “I say that now, but I miss it. I miss the fresh air. I am so much more laid back now…not as involved in drama or pettiness. It really made me patient and more determined.”
Beatrice left the Appalachian Trail with a new set of great friends, and a true lust for life. She continues to do work for the North Country Trail, and plans to visit her new friends in the future.
For more information on the Appalachian Trail, visit http://www.appalachiantrail.org. Peak times to start on the trail are from mid-February until mid-April.
Sarah Beatrice works as a secretary at Beatrice Foods in Beaver Falls, and owns the “Windmaker Sauce” wing sauce company.