“It’s not what you look at, but what you see,” says Emerald Estock in one of his last journal entries in early August, as he was preparing to summit Katahdin, Maine and Baxter Peak, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, after crossing 14 states on foot to get there. A car enthusiast as well as an avid outdoorsman, his cherished Porsche would have to wait for his return. His feet would carry him this distance for now.
It took 5 ½ months, two pairs of boots, two sets of clothing, one for daily wear and one to sleep in, five bears, two moose, numerous rattlesnakes and the company of hikers from all over the world for Westhaven neighbor Emerald Estock to experience the pinnacle of his lifelong dream of completing the Appalachian Trail journey, solo, gluten and dairy free.
It’s not often that you come across folks named Oddbird, Bat, Yappy and Beacon but if you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, you find out quickly that it is as common as Jim, Joe and Tom. Emerald was christened “Oddbird” by fellow hikers due to his odd eating habits, at least in comparison to what other journey makers were eating. “It’s a tradition,” Emerald says with a smile. “Everyone is given a name by other hikers and that’s what you go by.”
As someone who has to follow a gluten free, dairy free diet, Emerald’s food choices were well thought out in advance of embarking on his almost 2200 mile hike. “My diet was more restrictive. Most hikers can carry dried food in their pack and their packs will weigh about 20 pounds,” he says. Emerald’s dietary restrictions forced he and his wife Laurie Weakley to find an alternative food supply for him that would give him energy and nutrition but still be gluten and dairy free.
“Laurie came up with a great recipe for pemmican,” he says. “The recipe was one part dried beef and one part dried beef fat.” According to dictionary.com, pemmican is a dried meat pounded into a power and mixed with hot fat and dried fruits or berries and pressed into a loaf or into small cakes. It was originally prepared by North American Indians. “Polar explorers used pemmican a lot too,” Emerald adds. The addition of pemmican to his backpack made his pack weigh approximately 40 lbs. instead of a more common weight of 20 lbs.
“We packed twenty eight boxes ahead of time and stored them in our storage area here at home,” he recalls. “Amanda at Goin’ Postal (in the Westhaven Town Center) was an important part of our support team,” he boasts. Wife Laurie chimes in and adds, “Amanda was a lifesaver a few times when I messed up the drops and she still made sure it got to him.” Laurie flew to meet Emerald at different stops along the trail over the course of the 5 ½ months.
Laurie and Amanda would make drops to Emerald at different locations along the trail. “A few of the towns are trails towns,” he says. “It is a part of the trail. I used little hotels on occasion to shower and stay in and use their mail services. Other hikers use post offices to receive shipments but then you are tied to their hours of operation. Some hotels market to hikers for that reason,” he adds. Don’t be mistaken though. There may have been a few small hotels along the way, but much of the almost 2200 mile trek was spent on foot, in tents and in any of the two hundred and fifty, three sided shelters provided along the trail.
“I averaged 16 miles per day for the trip. My shortest day was five miles and my longest was 29 miles. I didn’t really have much severe weather but I had a bit of all kinds of weather,” he recalls. “I left February 17, 2012 and started in Springer Mountain, Georgia. I didn’t hit any snow in the Smokies and I was surprised. I thought I would. It snowed in Virginia sometime in March. The last half of the trip was pretty warm,” he adds.
The Appalachian Trail is one of three scenic trails in the United States that make up the “Triple Crown.” These trails include the 3100 mile Continental Divide between Mexico and Canada, the 2500 mile Pacific Crest Trail which zigzags its way from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington and boasts the greatest elevation changes of any of America’s National Scenic Trails, and the Appalachian Trail which is one of the longest continuously marked footpath’s in the world. It measures roughly 2,180 miles in length. The trail goes through fourteen states along crests and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range from Springer Mountain to the Trail’s northern terminus at Katahdin, Maine. The ending point in Maine is more grandiose so you find many hikers going South to North instead of the other way around.
Did you know that only 1 in 4 people who “thru-hike” or make the entire journey from one point to the other will actually complete it? Emerald can now count himself a member of this club. The trail is quite fascinating. Here are some interesting facts –
•Thousands of volunteers contribute roughly 220,000 hours to the A.T. every year.
•More than 250 three-sided shelters exist along the Trail.
•Virginia is home to the most miles of the Trail (about 550), while West Virginia is home to the least (about 4).
•Maryland and West Virginia are the easiest states to hike; New Hampshire and Maine are the hardest.
•The total elevation gain of hiking the entire A.T. is equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times.
•The A.T. is home to an impressive diversity of plants and animals. Some animals you may see include black bears, moose, porcupines, snakes, woodpeckers, and salamanders. Some plants you may encounter include jack-in-the-pulpit, skunk cabbage, and flame azalea.
•Foods high in calories and low in water weight, such as Snickers bars and Ramen Noodles, are popular with backpackers, who can burn up to 6,000 calories as day.
•Most thru-hikers walk north, starting in Georgia in spring and finishing in Maine in fall, taking an average of 6 months.
For Emerald, it took an intense 6 month preparation. He is semi-retired from a family real estate business and after being the care taker for his mother until her passing in August 2011, he was unable to take longer trips. It was at that time that he decided he should seriously pursue his dream of hiking the trail. “I did section hikes before I left to get some practice in,” he says. He departed for his journey from Springer Mountain at the age of 50. He turned 51 on July 30, almost at the end of the 5 ½ month trek.
“Pennsylvania was ridiculous,” he says of the harshness of the trail. “It is all rocks and quite unpleasant to hikers. You just have to keep going. It was a physical challenge but even more so a mental challenge. The weather can influence your mood. It’s kind of a mental game,” he says. “You just have to push through. There were days when my body didn’t want to cooperate. It would be a surprise if someone said they didn’t have a day where they didn’t want to quit,” he adds when recalling the challenge.
Hikers wear a SPOT device, a beacon of sorts, that allows you one way texting to keep people informed of your whereabouts and allows hikers to put a “pin” in a Google map to mark their location. There is also a red alert button. It is satellite based and if a hiker finds themselves in trouble, they push that button and a service sends help. It’s quite remarkable.
And then there is always the eating. “Most hikers usually lose weight during their trip. There is this thing called “hiker hunger” and it is a real thing. You are burning so many calories each day, a hiker gets to a town and seeks out the all you can eat buffets and eats more food than one would think humanly possible. I witnessed it!” he says with a chuckle. “My situation was a little different since I was restricted so my weight didn’t fluctuate much. I was getting a lot of calories and protein. It was a real treat though to enjoy fresh fruits and veggies.”
Completing the journey in Katahdin was quite emotional, as one might imagine. “Yes, it really was and reacclimatizing to home has been emotional too. Stepping into our house for the first time in 5 ½ months was emotional. I miss the simplicity of that world. I summited on August 5th and was home in Westhaven on August 7th, two days ahead of schedule,” he says.
Now that he is home, he’s happy to be there. He’s settling in to life off the trail and re-familiarizing himself with simple things like mail and traffic and computers. But one thing is for sure, his Porsche has patiently been awaiting his arrival and no doubt, Emerald has been awaiting that reunion as well.
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