On Sept, 21, Alex Voigt snapped a picture of himself atop Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine. The picture was not only symbolic of the nine-hour hike Voigt took with his father that day, but marked the end of a more than six-month journey that began in Elk River, Minn. and ended here, at the northern end of the Appalachian Trail.
When Voigt biked out of his father’s driveway in Elk River on April 7, with food and camping supplies strapped to his bike, there was no way of knowing what the next six months would hold for him. All he knew was he needed a change, an experience that would pull him out of a life that had started to seem static and uninspired.
“I felt my life was stagnant,” Voigt said. “I felt there wasn’t much room in my job for personal growth. I felt that things weren’t getting better for me, they were just staying the same or getting a little worse.”
After graduating from SCSU in 2008 with a degree in mass communications, Voigt worked for several years as a journalist in southern Minn. During this time, he would go on short weekend trips in which he challenged himself with various outdoor sports. Eventually though, he felt the need to do something more drastic.
“I felt like I needed to detach myself from my previous life,” Voigt said. “To me that is total freedom. That’s what living is: getting beyond myself and the shackles of stagnation.” After interviewing a couple who rode a tandem bicycle from Mankato to the southernmost tip of South America, Voigt was inspired to go on a journey of his own.
“After a while I started to think to myself that the reason I found their story so fascinating is because I kind of want to do something like that,” Voigt said. “I put that on my backlog thinking, ‘Ok, someday that’s something I’ll be able to do.’ Eventually you get that mindset of, ‘Why does it have to be someday? Why can’t it be now?’” After months of brainstorming, Voigt decided he would bike from Elk River to Ellijay, Ga., about 1370 miles. From there, he would set out to hike the famed Appalachian Trail.
Voigt planned his bike route through a website called adventurecycling.org. He used another website to find people who would give him free accommodations along the way.
“The coolest part of the bike ride for me was was working out different stays with different families through a website called warmshowers.org, which is kind of like couch surfing for cyclists,” Voigt said. “I would usually stay with a local family of cyclists. We’d just hang out and shoot the breeze about cycling.” Staying with local families turned out to be a great resource for Voigt, because they could give him shortcuts and other advice about riding in the region.
As he eased into the first few days of his trip, the biggest challenge wasn’t so much the physical demands as much as the complete lifestyle change that demanded a whole new mindset.
“To me the bike ride wasn’t so much exhausting as it was just about getting used to the daily routine, getting used to breaking down camp, thinking about getting food, thinking about how you want your day to be, just getting used to that whole life of being a nomad,” Voigt said. As he adjusted to the nomadic lifestyle, Voigt began to experience the fruits that such simplicity can bring.
“It wasn’t like a normal vacation where you’re just hanging around in one place and drinking Coronas, but it was relaxing mentally because I was decompressing and breaking my life down to its simplest form,” Voigt said. “It was just me, my travel and where I’m getting food and sleeping. When life is that simple, it’s liberating, and the bike was the adjustment for that.” As the transition to the nomadic life set in, Voigt was in for another major adjustment as the bike portion of his journey ended and the hike began. While Voigt had been physically prepared for biking the 1370 miles to Ga., it became clear in the early days of his hike that the Appalachian Trail would demand more of him.
“The first couple weeks of the hike were just grueling,” Voigt said. “Even hiking 12-13 miles was tough.” When Voigt decided early on to tag along with a group pulling 16 mile days, he said he felt as though his body had “gone through a meat grinder” by the end of the day. Despite a rough first stretch, Voigt’s body soon adjusted to the rigors of the trail.
“I just got in better shape as I went,” Voigt said. While Voigt soon began averaging 15 miles per day, he didn’t want to limit himself by keeping to any stringent daily time or distance goals.
“I didn’t want to make it a pass or fail type of trip,” Voigt said. “People that do that are constantly regretting if they don’t follow their plan.” For Voigt, just being on the trail was a personal victory. “The fact that I quit my job and made that leap- that alone made it a win for me.”
Eating properly to sustain himself through such demanding daily activity was another learning curve for Voigt. It became clear that he needed to up his intake of calorie-dense food after he lost 15 pounds in the first three weeks on the trail, despite eating 3500 calories a day.
“Losing all that weight became kind of unsettling,” Voigt said. He increased his daily caloric intake to 5000 calories per day just to maintain his weight.
“You try for dense calories as much as possible. But it also became important to eat things that could be made as fast as possible,” Voigt said. “My lunch was basically whatever I could stuff into a burrito in two minutes. Lunch was tortilla shells stuffed with anything from peanut butter and Nutella to granola, trail mix, gummy worms, M&M’s and avocados.” While some thru-hikers send themselves food and supplies to pick up at post offices along the length of a trail, Voigt suggests not doing that if you can avoid it, for a couple reasons.
“The cost of mailing yourself food negates any savings,” Voigt said. “Also, your food preferences change as you go. After Harper’s Ferry, I stopped sending myself resupply boxes.” Voigt said that between trail magic (food or supplies left for hikers by “trail angels”) and local grocers along the trail, it wasn’t difficult for him to resupply on food every couple of days.
Although this was a solo trip for Voigt, he ended up spending much of his time with fellow hikers he met on the trail.
“It was lonely at times but not that bad. There were more people on the trail than I thought,” Voigt said. The personal interactions Voigt had with other hikers and “trail angels”- those who help thru-hikers by offering food or a free place to stay – had a positive impact on his experience.
“The best lesson I had from the trail was realizing that even though we all hail from different backgrounds, we’re all kind of doing our own thing, but yet we’re all there to just enjoy it,” said Voigt. “It was that shared experience that made it almost a utopian society of hikers. All those hippie ideals, that supposedly went away but are still there, including all the beards.” It was because of a connection Voigt had made with another hiker that he witnessed what would be one of the most beautiful scenes of the trip.
“I had actually planned to take a zero day- a day where you don’t hike at all,” Voigt said. “I was at a comfortable hostel, drinking beer and playing games. One hiker approached me and suggested we hike out at evening to McAfee Knob. I wasn’t on board at first, but I decided to do it. We went to the Knob the next morning and it turned out to be the perfect sunrise.” McAfee Knob wasn’t the only instance on the trip in which embracing discomfort rewarded Voigt.
“The hardest parts of the trail were the White Mountains in New Hampshire and southern Maine,” said Voigt. “They were also the most rewarding because the views in the White [Mountains] are just beautiful and very different from any other part of the trail.”
As Voigt reflected on what the journey meant to him personally, it was clear that he had experienced the kind of change he’d intended to.
“I consider the trip to be a moment of definitive change,” Voigt said. “Everyone comes to that point in their life where they need a change. A lot of people either won’t change and come to grips with that because they are afraid or because of comfort. I didn’t want to grow old with regrets.” He discussed the importance of having these types of experiences in life.
“One of the greatest compliments of a life is having those stories,” Voigt said. “Don’t live your life trying to be obsessed with trying to rise fast in your job. Make it about having a story to tell. Make it about those experiences. Yes, there are things I could’ve done that would’ve had more prestige, but 50 years from now, I won’t care about all that. I’m going to look at this experience and think, ‘You know what? That was cool’.”
As Voigt drank beers in the hotel with his father and stepmother the night after hiking Mount Katahdin, the reality that the trip was finally over didn’t easily settle in.
“I was kind of in disbelief,” Voigt said. “The hardest part of the trip in general was transitioning to essentially a different life. You have to commit yourself completely. When it all ended, it was kind of a disbelief thing.” Voigt discussed how the transition to normal life has been over the past month.
“I feel like I am adjusting back but I still miss that enjoyment of living out of your backpack and the freedom and liberation that comes from that way of living,” Voigt said.