5 1/2 months
3 pairs of shoes
With his service in the U.S. Army coming to an end, Hillsboro native Mathias Callison was looking for something to do and found it in the pages of Bill Bryson’s book, “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.”
Like Bryson, Callison set out to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.
“The first time I read it, I didn’t think that it was something I would want to do, but I read it a couple times,” Callison said. “He’s a favorite author of mine, and eventually it just kind of got in my head that it was something that I should try to do and that I could do.”
Callison began his journey April 14 at the southern terminus of the trail at Springer Mountain in Georgia.
While he was on his own at first, Callison was never really alone. He met lots of other hikers who shared the trail with him and made the hike more bearable on rough days.
“I started hiking alone, but you’re very rarely by yourself on the Appalachian Trail, especially in the height of the season because there’s so many people that use it – between through-hikers and section-hikers, and just general-day hikers,” he said.
“There were definitely a couple of times where – I never said I was done, but it was getting to me a bit,” he continued. “In Virginia I got caught in a thunderstorm at one point in time and just had sort of a bad day. Fortunately, in Virginia, I was hiking with a girl named “Rocket Power” [real name Robin Bruns] and she kind of helped me stay in the game down there, a lot.”
Hikers have several “rights of passage,” including getting a trail name. Like “Rocket Power,” Callison had a moniker – “Regular Goat.”
The name began as “Mountain Goat,” which Callison liked, but after one particular day, he found that “regular” was a better way to describe him.
“I went into Roan Mountain, Tennessee, and ate at a place called Bob’s Dairyland,” he recalled. “They have a big boss burger which is like three patties and bacon – when you’re on the trail, you’re always hungry. So I ate that and drank a milkshake.”
Callison took off on the trail and had a hard time of it because of the meal he had.
“I said, ‘no more Mountain Goat, it’s just Regular Goat now,’” he said. “I guess I told some people that story and it kind of stuck.”
The location of the trail makes it easy for hikers to enter towns to refuel, grab a bite to eat and get a hotel room. Most of the time, though, they stay in shelters, scattered out along the trail.
“Generally speaking, you would be staying in your tent or in what they call shelters,” Callison said. “The whole trail has shelters along it and depending on the section, they’re a half-days walk, so you can walk from one, pass one and go to the next one or you could stop at all of them. I liked to go to shelters even if I wasn’t going to sleep [there] just because it was a good way to play out how many miles I was going to do that day.”
Callison took advantage of getting a hotel room more often because he got stuck in rain several days and the unseasonably warm weather got to him.
“The worst thing was the heat,” he said. “As I got further north, it just kind of kept getting worse and worse. The whole time I was waiting for it to be that cold snap, but it never really happened. I think the worst of it was probably in New York and New Jersey.”
Hiking a trail which runs through 14 states provides a wonderful opportunity to experience the beauty of the country. Whether it was rocky like Pennsylvania or mountainous like New Hampshire, the sights are amazing.
“I think probably the best part of the trail, sights and terrain-wise, is New Hampshire and Maine just because the mountains are much more prominent,” Callison said. “The highest mountain is actually in the Smokies. It’s Clingman’s Dome. The second highest is Washington which is in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
“Then you get into Maine and there’s all these lakes. You have really big vistas up there because most of the mountains – the tops of them are Alpine or sub-Alpine so there’s no trees,” he continued. “You get above tree line a lot more up there. It’s very rewarding to hike up a mountain and get to those vistas.”
Along the way Callison had some exchanges with wildlife – non-threatening, of course.
“The wildlife – there’s not really much issue,” he said. “I only saw one rattlesnake on the whole trail and then I saw about four bears, but they were always surprised by me and would take off.”
The worst thing that could happen with wildlife is if a brave bear or critter stole your pack from your campsite. Callison said hikers learn quickly to hang their food in a tree to keep it safe.
The Grayson Highlands in Virginia is inhabited by feral ponies, thanks to the Virginia Forest Service.
“It’s kind of bushy and the ponies eat down those species that they don’t want there,” Callison said. “They put those ponies in there to maintain that terrain which is kind of cool.”
Taking on a trail that is 2,200 miles long, Callison prepared himself as much as he could and knew he would go through a lot of equipment – especially shoes. Three pairs to be exact.
“I knew that would probably happen,” he said. “I chose to wear trail runners instead of hiking boots just because of the weight and the comfort issue. My first pair got me about nine hundred miles. The second pair, I think I only got about six hundred miles out of because it was through Pennsylvania, so they went really quickly. Then the last pair finished the trail out, so that was pretty good.”
Callison said he truly enjoyed the experience. While the trail was challenging and exciting, the best part of his journey was meeting the people who are now a part of his life.
“The people I met were really, really cool – especially Robin,” he said. “Just everyone I hiked around – hearing everybody’s experiences was a really interesting thing for me. It was a great way for me to kind of get out – I’d been in the Army for seven-and-a-half years, and it was a sort of decompression.”
Callison said a lot of the people who live near the trail were very welcoming which made the trip easier.
“The AT isn’t really a wilderness trail anymore when you get down to it because it’s so near civilization,” he said. “There’s very few places on the trail where you couldn’t catch a ride somewhere if you had to. It’s more of a social experience these days, but that’s good. That’s sort of what I wanted.”
Callison has now joined the fraternity of Appalachian Trail hikers and will be included in the Hiker Yearbook for 2015. There is also a registry at the trail head in Harper’s Ferry which keeps track of how many hikers come through in one year.
“Everyone who comes through there, they take your picture and you put your name, trail name and contact information down,” Callison said. “They give you a number based on what number you are through Harper’s Ferry, north bound for that year. I think I was 500-something through Harper’s Ferry and by the time I got to Maine – because I kind of slowed down in Pennsylvania and I slacked a lot in Maine – by the time I finished I was 700-some, so quite a few people passed me up.”
Now that his journey is over, Callison is pursuing an associates degree in outdoor leadership.
He left the Army with the rank of Sergeant, E-5. He served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand and the Philippines.
He received a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at West Virginia University and is now enrolled at Central Wyoming College in Lander, Wyoming.
“The reason I picked that is because the National Outdoor Leadership School is also based in Lander and they have an agreement with CWC where you can do a semester at NOLS and you can get credit for it at CWC.”
His education may take him away from home for now, but Callison is a Pocahontas County boy at heart, and he plans to return.
“I will definitely be back to Pocahontas County,” he said. “My parents [Joel and Stella] live here. My brother [Mike] lives here. I always have ties here. This is always home for me. At some point, I’ll be back.”
As for more trail adventures, Callison is open to many possibilities.
“I watched a little documentary on the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] and it seems kind of cool, so you never know,” he said. “It starts at the Mexican border and then it goes through California, Oregon and Washington, ending at the Canadian border. It has a much more varied terrain because it starts in the desert and then you go through the Sierra Nevadas and get into all the woods up north.”
Wherever the trail takes him, Callison is prepared, as long as he has a good pair of shoes and a bear-proof bag.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org