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Road Less Traveled

Ken Begley

I HAVE A SIDELINE writing stories for a local newspaper. Every now and then, even in a small rural community, you’ll find folks who blow your mind. One such individual is a retiree named Junius R. Tate, who goes by J.R. and who spent his youth in Washington County, Kentucky.

Tate hiked the Appalachian Trail, which crosses 14 states from Georgia to Maine and is roughly 2,200 miles long. It takes a determined hiker about six months to complete.

Tate has hiked the entire length four times, spending as little as $1,000 per journey. The first time was in 1990, when he was age 53. He hiked it again in 1994 and 1998. Then, in 2006 at age 69, he completed the trail for the final time. He turned 70 one week later. On these journeys, he carried a backpack weighing around 50 pounds through every sort of weather you can imagine.

Tate wrote a book called Walkin’ on the Happy Side of Misery: A Slice of Life on the Appalachian Trail. He then wrote a second book called Walkin’ with the Ghost Whisperers: Lore and Legends of the Appalachian Trail.

After Tate completed his third hike, CBS News did a feature on him. The Tennessee State Senate made him an honorary ambassador for his work promoting hiking. He spent many years giving hundreds of talks to folks who wanted to hear his story and perhaps hike the Appalachian Trail themselves.

Tate’s hiking began when he retired from the Marines in 1980. He farmed for a while in western Kentucky before moving to Virginia, where his son was studying medicine. It was there that he began to take up trail hiking as a hobby. One day, a young friend asked him to hike the Appalachian Trail with him. So he did.

I asked Tate, “How does someone prepare to hike the Appalachian Trail?” He said the best way “is to put lots of extra weight in your backpack and power hike up and down hills.” He said he put a load of Encyclopedia Britannica volumes in his pack and hiked up steep hills.

You can also just “head up into the mountains and do a hundred or more miles with a little extra weight,” he said. Whatever you do, don’t go out without proper preparation, he advises.

A hiker needs to decide whether to “thru-hike” or “section-hike.” A thru-hiker completes the trail in one continuous trip. A section hiker might take years to complete the trail by hiking sections each year until completing it entirely.

You can start at either the north or south end of the trail. About 90% of thru-hikers begin in Georgia. They’re called “north bounders.” Meanwhile, “south bounders” start in Maine.

Why do most hikers start in Georgia? North bounders can start hiking as early as Jan. 1, though most begin in mid-March or early April. Tate always took the northbound route. He’d begin his hikes in early April. That gave him time to reach the trail’s end at Baxter State Park in Maine by the end of September. The park usually closes to hikers on Oct. 15.

In Tate’s opinion, south bounders are a different breed, usually loners and fast movers. They have to start in June or the first half of July, and end their hikes in Georgia’s chilly December. The earlier you start out from Maine, the worse the southbound hiking conditions tend to be. Obstacles include high water, black flies, a ton of mud, and downed trees from the previous winter. South to north is a much more pleasant hike.

I asked Tate about the possibility of running into some bad folks out on the trail. He said it’s safer on the trail than going to the local convenience store. In the past 50 years, while millions have spent time on the trail, there have only been 13 murders.

Still, Tate advised taking precautions. The best way to stay safe is “to hike with a partner or friends,” Tate said. “Most hikers like to hike alone during the day and meet up at a selected place for the night. Extra caution is needed at road crossings.”

The trail seldom crosses roads. Dubious types will sometimes wait at those crossings, looking for thru-hikers. Some will offer to give hikers rides to the nearest town for a price. Tate had a healthy leeriness of accepting such rides.

The most miles Tate hiked in one day was 25. He tried to hike 15 to 18 miles daily, on average. Each time he thru-hiked, he felt the trail got a little easier and he had to do less prep work because of his experience.

Over his four Appalachian Trail trips, Tate hiked roughly 8,800 miles. He estimates that he’s hiked another 3,200 miles on other trails, including the 500-mile Colorado Trail and the 270-mile Long Trail in Vermont.

Tate recommends three books for folks who want to hike the Appalachian Trail. The best, he thinks, is the Appalachian Trail Data Book, available through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “It lists important information on where shelters and campsites are, road crossings, food resupply points and distance from the trail, among other things,” he said.

Two other books are important, although they mirror each other, so a hiker would likely only want one of them: The A.T. Guide by David Miller and the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers’ Companion.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a book captivate me as much as Tate’s accounts of his hiking journeys. They’re highly readable even if you don’t plan on becoming a thru-hiker. They can make you laugh and, at times, raise the hair on the back of your neck.

Still, it seems that Tate’s greatest joy came not from conquering the Appalachian Trail four times. Instead, it was the folks that he met along the way and kept in contact with. The end of his first book gives follow-up details on all the hikers that he stayed in touch with after his hikes.

Finally, Tate’s favorite trail food was Snickers candy bars. He ate a bunch.

Ken Begley has worked for the IRS and as an accountant, a college director of student financial aid and a newspaper columnist, and he also spent 42 years on active and reserve service with the U.S. Navy and Army. Now retired, Ken likes to spend his time with his family, especially his grandchildren, and as a volunteer with Kentucky’s Marion County Veterans Honor Guard performing last rites at military funerals. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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