Aaron Anderson was at a unique time in his life and did not want the moment to pass him by.
The Owasso native, who had earned his college degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2016, had watched many of his friends finish their higher education obligations and immediately jump into the job market or serious personal relationships.
Anderson wanted to choose a different path.
“I really wanted to do something bigger than myself,” Anderson said.
Anderson chose to hike the Appalachian Trail, a nearly 2,200-mile journey that stretches from Georgia to Maine and overlaps into 14 states along the east coast. Anderson began the longest foot-only path in the world on March 15 and concluded the trek earlier this month.
“It was a bucket list item for him,” said Chris Anderson, Aaron’s father. “I’m extremely happy for him he got to complete it.”
Anderson’s longest prior outing on foot was a 16-mile hike through Devil’s Den in Arkansas. His journey along the Appalachian Trail began at Springer Mountain in Georgia.
Anderson began with an 8-9 mile-per-day pace, a fairly mild pace for most hikers. Anderson, who had spent 18 months preparing for the AT, said he intentionally started out slower so his body to acclimate to the conditions. As his body adjusted, Anderson was able to increase his pace to a peak rate of 15-25 miles a day.
“You could feel that your legs are so much stronger,” said Anderson, who regularly put in 12-13 hour days on the trail. “They are so much more capable. It’s like your body and mind realize what you’re trying to do.”
Anderson, who lost a little more than 40 pounds over the five-month journey, said his diet consisted of high-protein food like oatmeal and trail mix. Burning between 4,000-6,000 calories per day, Anderson said keeping up his pace and energy required a high-calorie intake.
“People have this notion that you have to eat healthy when you do this,” said Anderson, who carried a filtered bottle for water and would boil his own coffee every morning. “But you ate the junkiest junk food you could find. It was high-calorie and it lasts. I would go to McDonald’s and order eight triple cheeseburgers or seven Taco Bell burritos. Those would last me several days, of course.”
Traveling the AT during the spring and summer times, Anderson said he dealt with extreme conditions such as snow, rain, heat and numerous thunderstorms. He even got once got caught on a bald mountain in a lightning storm.
Chris never doubted his son would be one of the 20-25 percent of successful thru-hikers that complete the AT each year, but admitted to being scared about two months into Aaron’s journey. Around the time of Mother’s Day weekend, Chris learned an Oklahoma man had been killed on the AT. He did not hear from Aaron for a few days until finally learning he was safe.
“That was as frightening of a moment as it gets for a parent,” Chris recalled.
Aaron said the largest portion of the trail, about a 500-mile stretch, took place in Virginia. Chris joined Aaron for a weekend during his time in Virginia.
“I was amazed at the pace he kept. I couldn’t go at that fast. I think they were ready to send the search party after me,” Chris laughed of the 20-mile stretch he hiked.
The remainder of Aaron’s hike included Clingmans Dome, also the highest mountain in the Smoky Mountains at 6,643 feet. After flatting out, Anderson said the terrain changed again going through Maryland and Pennsylvania.
“That part of the trail is also called Rocksylvania,” he said. “You’re more climbing than you are hiking.”
As the spring turned into summer, Anderson made his way through New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He conquered the 4,000-foot peaks of the Green Mountains in Vermont and the grind of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
On July 28, Anderson walked by the welcome sign to the state of Maine, the 14th and final along the trail.
“At that point, it seems so attainable, but still seems so far away,” Anderson said.
Anderson was one of about 1,500-2,000 thru-hikers that will attempt the AT this year. Anderson recalled certain times throughout the hike, he would go days without seeing another person. At different points along the trail, Anderson met up with some of the same fellow hikers.
“Most of the people were just salt of the earth people, just extraordinary humans,” Anderson said. “You’re forming these great bonds that you wouldn’t form otherwise.”
When Anderson reached Mount Katahdin in Maine on Aug. 9, it marked the finish line of the 2,184-mile trail. Anderson had spent four months and three weeks surviving the physical and metal challenges of the grueling hike. For Anderson, it was the end of a two-year journey since he first began to research and set out to accomplish his goal.
“A mixed bag of emotions,” Anderson said of his initial reaction to conquering the Appalachian Trail. “I was very excited but at the same time, I was very sad. I was not going to be climbing mountains every day. I’m not going to be conversing with these other hikers I’ve spend a 1,000 miles with. It really was a bittersweet moment.”
The 2012 Owasso graduate is now back at home, recuperating from his 147-day hike. Anderson is looking for the next challenge in his life. He’s now ready to join the workforce, hopefully as a history teacher.
But he’ll always have the memories of hiking the Appalachian Trail thanks to this phone, which he used to capture the picturesque scenery and moments along the way. Anderson said he has not ruled out writing a book about his journey at some point in the future.
“If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, 3,000 pictures is a lot of words,” he said.