During Matt Haines’ 159 days hiking the Appalachian Trail, he witnessed lots of changes. The terrain shifted from lowland forests to windswept alpine peaks; the moon waxed and waned; accents changed from Southern to Yankee. Perhaps most notably, his palate broadened as he struggled to keep up with his 5,000-calorie daily expenditure.
“When it’s cold, Spam looks like gelatin, and you push it out like a push-pop onto a tortilla,” said the Bywater resident. “Watching that come out, I knew it was gross, but when you’re so desperate for calories, you’re like, ‘This is going to be delicious.’ ”
At 2,190 miles traversing 14 states, the Appalachian Trail is the world’s longest footpath. Each year, more than 3 million people hike a portion of the trail, but only 6,807 people have walked (and in some places, scrambled, jumped or climbed) its entirety since 2010, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Though every “through-hiker” has their own reason for taking the arduous journey, Haines did it to recover from heartbreak.
“2017 could have been the year that I was bummed about getting dumped, but now it will always be the year I hiked the Appalachian Trail,” Haines said.
A New York transplant who moved to New Orleans in 2009, Haines spent seven years working at TeachNOLA, where he recruited and trained teachers to work in low-income schools. Ready for a change, he quit that job to hike the trail. To prepare for the trail’s physical demands, he continued his normal regimen of running 6-7 miles a day and bike commuting. On April 23, he took a Greyhound bus to Atlanta and began the hike at the Amicalola Fall State Park Visitor Center in Dawsonville, Georgia.
Haines documented his journey throughout the hike, journaling and spending days at public libraries typing up his experiences. Published at Mid-City Messenger, his chronicles garnered a large social media following. Sometime, Haines received as many as 40 Facebook friend requests a day.
When a proud New Orleanian drops everything for a months-long trek along the Appalachian Trail, there's a good chance fellow hikers will come…
He started at an ambitious pace, covering 22 miles his second day on the trail. In the first week, he lost 10 pounds, and his Achilles tendon, left quad and left calf protested. Hobbling and sore, Haines wasn’t sure he’d be able to complete the hike.
“The closest I ever came to quitting was early on,” Haines said. “To be hiking 15-20 miles every day with a 35-pound backpack, there’s no preparing your body for that.”
Fortunately, he recovered when he took a few days off from hiking to attend a nearby friend’s wedding. He hiked the first three quarters of the trail alone, using the solitude as an opportunity to “meet myself and engage internally.” His days followed the same simple schedule: “You wake up, walk until it gets dark, set up your tent and read a book,” Haines said.
Although rattlesnakes, bears, severe weather, rough terrain, hypothermia and norovirus pose real threats for hikers, for Haines, the hardest part was the constant hunger and thirst.
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“It feels like you’re always rationing,” he said. “You can never drink as much water as you want, because it takes a long time to filter, and you can never eat as much as you want, because you have to carry it.”
The lightest, most calorie-dense foods tend to be the junkiest. Haines’ diet consisted of Pop-Tarts, peanut butter crackers, ramen, tortillas, Spam, gummy worms and tuna fish. In addition to restocking his food supplies in towns, he made sure to hit up all-you-can-eat buffets.
“Getting into town, you can eat as much as you want,” Haines said. “It’s the only time of your life you can eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream— they’re incredible calories to have.”
During the last quarter of the hike, Haines made friends with six hikers, with whom he camped with every night. The group, “Team Turnips,” gave Haines his “trail name,” King Cake, and his “trail name trail name”— a nickname for a trail name. They called Haines “Dad” because at 34, he was older than most of the 20-something group.
“There’s an existing culture (on the trail) and a vocabulary that the trail shares, but there’s also the vocabulary of the people you’re with,” Haines said. “We always call each other by our trail names, which is kind of hilarious.
“While the experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail is not universal, the desire to leave behind your life for a little while and rediscover yourself on an adventure is,” Haines stated. “So I think reading about someone who bumbled out into the woods to get rid of the things that weren't making him happy, and to rediscover the things that did, is a fun story to follow.”
Haines finished the hike on Sept. 29 and raised $6,300 for Live Oak Wilderness Camp through an online fundraiser. Though it’s common for through-hikers to get depressed upon returning home, that hasn’t been the case for Haines. He’s working odd jobs — security guard, dog walker, TV extra — while he embarks on his next challenge: writing a book about his experience on the Appalachian Trail.
“The same excitement I felt about getting up to hike, I feel about getting up to write,” Haines said.