A five-month, 2,190-mile solo hike has been anything but lonely for Bobby O’Donnell.
Since he set out on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia —
12 states and over four months ago — the 24-year-old Easton native has experienced “incredible acts of kindness” from fellow hikers, a welcome change from his fulltime job as a paramedic.
Not ready to settle down for medical school, and seeking closure after the death of a close friend, O’Donnell set out on his journey April 11 on Springer Mountain. He crossed the 2,000-mile mark on Tuesday, and he expects to reach the end point — Mount Katahdin in Millinocket, Maine — on Sept. 2.
O’Donnell, who grew up hiking the demanding trails of New Hampshire, said the Appalachian Trail is not the most physically challenging trek he’s done.
Mentally, though, this has been the challenge of a lifetime. He considered quitting on the fifth day, way back in Georgia. A mouse chewing a hole in his tent, cellphone troubles, and a bad Achilles’ tendon made the opening stretch frustrating. But he pressed on, remembering the preparation he made and the family and friends who believed in him.
O’Donnell was a four-year golfer at Oliver Ames, and a team captain his final two seasons. He played varsity tennis for three years, captaining the Tigers as a junior and senior.
We spoke with O’Donnell recently by phone as he hiked through New Hampshire. This is an edited version of that conversation.
Q. Aside from your hiking background, what inspired you to take on this huge challenge?
A. Anytime in my life where I need peace and solitude, I spend it in the mountains. It’s just such a natural place of comfort for me.
A lot of my coworkers hike, and that’s how I got introduced to a lot of the different mountains and trails that I love up here. And one of my coworkers that I have a hiked with a lot, her name was Rachel and she was very encouraging and supportive of the [Appalachian Trail]. We spent a lot of time in the White Mountains together. She was the one who pushed me toward making the leap. Unfortunately, in December 2016, Rachel passed away. That was the real motivating factor that I needed.
I came up and over yesterday the mountain that we scattered her ashes on and last night actually camped on the summit of the last mountain that we hiked together. So it’s been kind of a nice therapeutic and healing journey.
Q. What was it like to tell your friends and family of your plan to hike 2,190 miles in five months?
A. Based on my lifestyle for the last three years, there’s been a lot of people that have been conditioned to me being away for a fairly long period of time. The pattern since I finished undergrad [at Saint Anselm College] is really been working 70, 80 hours a week for three to four months and then go travel for three to four months.
It was difficult to tell my parents. It’s understandable. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if I had a child, and they told me they were going to go hike in the woods for five months. I’m sure that was stressful, and for me it was just the next thing. When I first made the decision to hike the trail, there was a lot of apprehension. But my parents got excited and they started doing research on the [Appalachian Trail], and asking me questions about the trail and making me think of things that I hadn’t even thought of.
Q. What’s the highlight of the journey for you thus far?
A. [Aug. 9] was hands down my favorite night on the trail. It was the most beautiful camp I’ve ever had. Twin Mountain [in the White Mountains], which is about 4,900 feet and it was about 7:30 at night. And I found this little nook between the rocks and the summit, put my tent up, and watched the sunset over Franconia Ridge and I was all alone and it was so incredibly quiet and peaceful. Every once in a while you’ll have one of those moments that belongs to you and only you. And no matter how I try to explain it or tell you what it was like to be there, even with pictures, no one would ever know what it was like. So that moment really does feel like it belongs to you.
Q. What’s it like to be nearing the end?
A. It’s kind of a bittersweet. Now, suddenly you have all these things that remind you you’re getting to the end. I recently got my last pair of shoes, my guide book is running out of pages. In one aspect it’s really exciting to have made it this far. On the other hand, I don’t want it to end, because I’m recognizing that it’s a very important chapter in my life that is coming to a close. It’s definitely exciting and a little melancholy.
Charlie Wolfson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.