Celebrating Life, Humanity and ‘Sublime Beauty’ on the Appalachian Trail

Story by Julian Cochran, Upper School Computer Science Teacher

Around 7 a.m. on Monday, July 26, 2021, my hiking companions Sundance, Skippy, Grumpy Cat, Squirtle and I — along with a handful of other hikers, some who had been with us since Georgia and others new to the group within the past few days — huddled between a group of large boulders on a section called “The Spur” on the Hunt Trail, the last section of the Appalachian Trail leading from Katahdin Stream campground to Baxter Peak, the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. 

No alarms had been set to wake us up that morning. Pure adrenaline, some anxiety and an overbearing desire to finish the longest and most intense journey of many of our lives had us all up and packing up to hike by 3:30 a.m. The 5-plus-mile walk is the last and arguably most difficult challenge of the entire Appalachian Trail, but it is also a paradox. Most hikers are excited for the completion of their journey while simultaneously mourning the end of a grand adventure. I was beyond excited to get off of the daily “pain train” that had dominated my body and mind since halfway through Vermont, yet emotional to be at the end of an intensely long, spiritual journey. 

In fitting fashion, the AT, clearly a fan of Dylan Thomas’ poetry, was throwing one final, exasperating and dangerous challenge at us, unwilling to let us “go gentle into that good night.”

FLASH-ZAP-BOOM!

We were in a huge storm above the treeline on the tallest piece of granite in Maine. We were completely enshrouded in clouds, so we couldn't see from which direction the storm was approaching. But we could most certainly hear it and feel it as we sat in the pouring rain and driving hail. 

Flashback to fall semester 1990: I took a semester off from Davidson College, where I earned my undergraduate degree, to attend a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Fall Semester in the Rockies course. Based in Lander, Wyoming, NOLS teaches its graduates how to survive in some of the most intense and remote wilderness environments in the world. The Wind River Range in Wyoming was my group's base for our backpacking section, and it was there that we learned how to assume "lightning position" if ever caught above treeline in a bad thunderstorm. 

Thirty years later, on the side of Mount Katahdin, having walked about 2,190 miles since beginning my walk at Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia on Saturday, Feb. 13, I put that training to use. I donned my rain gear to stay warm, got into a crouching position with my feet close together and did the best I could to stand on my backpack to insulate my body from any possible electrical charge from the ground underneath me if lightning struck near us. After 20 minutes, we had a tough decision to make. Should we stay put, hide from the lightning and possibly risk hypothermia, or get up and keep hiking uphill in the midst of a raging thunderstorm? 

Like we did countless other times, we chose to walk forward. Thankfully, the weather soon made that choice easier. We could see the storm start to move past us. Even though it was raining, we were hiking, the secret to staying warm on the AT. As we pushed toward the summit of Baxter Peak, softly the clouds began to drift away. As we crested the last ridgeline of the trail with the famous Katahdin sign in view, we did so in bright sunshine and blue skies. The journey was over. Many screamed and yelled. Several cried. All shared moments of quiet reflection. I hugged strangers whom I only knew by their trail names as though they were a beloved family member. We all realized that starting the next morning, we would no longer wake up with a goal of walking 20-plus miles through remote woods to meet our goal. The smiles, inside jokes, spontaneous events and constant grind were all finished. It was a sublime, emotional rush. 

Months past my Katahdin summit date, I still am somewhat in disbelief that I was able to walk through 14 states from Georgia to Maine along the spine of the venerable Appalachian Mountains. For me, the hike was the most intense physical, mental, emotional and spiritual challenge I have ever willingly undertaken in my life.

Julian Cochran, aka "Goldie" (second from right) completed his Appalachian Trail journey alongside (from left) Adam Howland ("Grumpy Cat," a retired U.S. Army master sergeant from Fayetteville), Arley Betancur ("Squirtle," a retired U.S. Army infantry officer from Perry, Georgia), Tom Harwood ("Sundance," retired from the U.S. Army and now a contractor with the U.S. State Department), and Kylie Ford ("Skippy," now working with Americorps in Bethel, Alaska).


Marking a Milestone

My motivation to walk was simple. In 2010, I was diagnosed with and later recovered from colon cancer. In 2015, I started thinking of ways to celebrate my 10-year survival mark. I enjoy backpacking and appreciate the personal challenge and mental peace the activity brings me. In June 2015, I completed my first thru hike — in which a backpacker walks the entire length of a hiking trail from end-to-end in one go — by hiking the Foothills Trail, a 77-mile trail that runs along the border of North and South Carolina from Table Rock to Oconee state parks. I enjoyed the experience and started reading online trail journals and watching YouTube videos to learn about what it would take to thru hike the Appalachian Trail. 

After considerable research, in December 2019 I decided to apply for a semester-long leave of absence through DA's faculty sabbatical program. The sabbatical program was established by longtime DA supporters Keith and Brenda Brodie in 1987, and I believe it is one of the greatest and most appreciated faculty benefits DA offers. With my youngest child not able to drive herself to school until spring 2021, her mother asked me to wait an extra year to embark on my hike. I am so thankful she did, as waiting an extra year surely saved my hike attempt. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, or ATC, requested that all thru hikers leave the trail in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In January 2020, DA informed me I had been granted a sabbatical for spring 2021. I spent the next year planning, deciding what to carry in my backpack and taking multiple shakedown hikes to see how well I could do with as little as possible on my back. To walk the entire trail and be able to return to DA in time to start varsity boys soccer tryouts in August, I decided to depart from Georgia in early February with winter still in full effect. For the last few days before leaving and about the first three days of my hike, it rained nearly non-stop and the temperature hovered in the low 40s. I spent a significant amount of time questioning all of my major life decisions, especially the one that had me outside, soaking wet and hiking up and down the many hills of north Georgia.

Throughout my hike, whether in the middle of winter or summer, I said to those who questioned my motivation, "How better to celebrate being alive than to spend six months absolutely destroying my body on a daily basis?" From Georgia to the middle of Pennsylvania, I said that to people with a smile on my face, thinking it was a funny yet true assertion. From Pennsylvania to Maine, unfortunately I lived that statement. The physical and mental challenges of a thru hike are massive. I doubted my ability to finish so many times mainly because of the physical toll the walk took on my body. I had dreamed of the experience of an AT thru hike, but I think I did not spend enough time considering how walking 20 miles per day, for months on end with little to no days off, would affect my body. 

As for the emotional and spiritual parts of the hike, they are best described as a constantly changing sea. Some of the worst days were followed by the most sublime, often bringing me to weep at the beauty of living outside every day and counting only on my body to move me along the trail while carrying all of my possessions that could keep me alive in a small bag on my back. Single days could run from, “I hate this, why did I decide to do this, I can't do this anymore!” to, “There is nowhere else I would want to be than right here, right now, seeing, smelling, touching and living in these immense, ancient and beautiful forests.” I had close contact with countless creatures of the forest, including some blood-pressure-elevating encounters with rattlesnakes, black bears and a moose in Vermont. 

I often was reminded of Jim Valvano’s famous assertion that “… there are three things everyone should do every day. No. 1 is laugh. No. 2 is think — you should spend some time in thought. No. 3 is you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That's a heckuva day.” I lived Valvano's “three things” every day and I loved it. Walking, often alone, in the woods and up and down mountains all day for 20 miles gives the hiker ample time to get completely lost in thought. Audiobooks helped with the mind-numbing boredom at times, while other times I found myself far away in thought only to realize that I had just walked 10 miles without a break. The process can be incredibly meditative as well. 

Along the journey, hikers become incredibly in tune with their bodies and the thousands of calories required to combat weight loss and the infamous “hiker hunger.” No matter how much food one eats, a thru hike demands the expense of more calories than any hiker can consume. The Mid-Atlantic road crossings frequently gave hikers the option to eat massive amounts of town food (read: food that hasn't been rehydrated by boiling water on a backpacking stove) in the middle of the day. A lunch of two double cheeseburgers and a large pepperoni pizza could make anyone feel superhuman and push the mind to see a 28-mile day as easy. Of course those long days weren't easy even with a 5,000-calorie meal, and at the shelter or campsite in the evening, on the way up a 2,000-foot climb over 1.5 miles or on those awful weather days, we all had to learn to trust the most important resource to any hiker: other people.

A few months now removed from the experience and even before I had finished, I started to testify to others that the experience of my thru hike was restoring my faith in the goodness and decency of other people. My exposure to that started before I took one step on the AT. Even though I am a teacher and work with people every day, I would describe myself as an extroverted introvert. Time alone is something I enjoy, and I have a hard time opening up to and trusting other people I know well, much less strangers with whom I was hiking and whose real names I did not know. 

Building a ‘Tramily’

In January 2021, I set up a social media account on Instagram called @jc_on_the_at, and within a few days, I received messages from other hikers looking to connect on the trail. I ended up spending my first night on the trail and the ensuing three weeks with a fellow North Carolinian who messaged me pre-trail; he is now in law school at UNC and is someone I now call a close friend. Along the way, I hiked with COVID gap-year hikers who were still teenagers, recent retirees, a few mid-lifers like myself and a decent number of hikers in their mid- to late-20s who were between jobs and seeking solace and relief from one stressful job before starting another. I became close friends with a young ICU nurse from the Atlanta area who had spent the previous 16 months working nonstop through the worst of the COVID pandemic. I connected on many levels with a computer programmer from Denver who was on a paid furlough from his job as his company was waiting to start a new project that had been delayed by the pandemic. I was introduced to a couple in their late 20s to early 30s by a mutual friend, with whom they worked in Asheville, and they became close friends, fantastic hiking partners and wonderful conversation partners while we hiked. 

I spent significant time with some recently retired U.S. Army veterans and one U.S. Air Force veteran. The AT is a common retreat for military retirees thanks to the experience and story of Earl Shaffer, a World War II veteran who was the first hiker to complete the trail in one continuous walk in 1948. Shaffer said he was motivated to "walk the Army out of my system," and he chose the Appalachian Trail. He grew up and lived in Idaville, Pennsylvania, not far from Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the approximate halfway point of the trail. Prior to the start of WWII, Shaffer and his friend Walter Winemiller had talked of hiking the trail from end to end. Unfortunately Winemiller was killed in action at Iwo Jima, and thus Shaffer was left to attempt the trek on his own. Stories of his legend are frequent amongst hikers, and many of the veterans who I met and hiked with talked about him. Groups such as Warrior Expeditions and the Wounded Warrior Project continue the mission today to help soldiers adjust to returning from combat through long-distance outdoor expeditions. 


The stories those veterans were willing to share with me were amazing. Especially on the days when the wind was blowing 40-plus miles per hour and it was sleeting sideways, those hikers gave me the courage to get up and walk along with the perspective to understand that our journey was a gift. Walking the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire in 50-degree, gale-force winds and driving rain on July 3, only to be brought to tears while standing beside two veteran friends while listening to the national anthem being played at a small town Fourth of July celebration in Gorham, New Hampshire, the following day, helped to teach me how precious and amazing life is. 

Strangers walked up to me from Georgia to Maine and asked me if I was hiking the AT. When I said yes, all wanted to ask questions or share stories. Some even reached into their pockets and gave me cash, encouraging me to "pay it forward" to some other hiker someday. People came from all walks of life, all political persuasions and from several other countries. Sometimes we talked politics, while other times we just laughed at dumb inside jokes. The people I met gave me the gift of listening; whether I agreed or disagreed with the viewpoints of others, especially other hikers, we learned to see the world differently from before. I was so floored and humbled by what others freely gave to me and felt so rewarded that I was able to give back to them — lending an ear while we soaked our feet in a cold stream, watched the sunrise on top of a mountain in Vermont or huddled between rocks in the driving storm halfway up Katahdin, laughing at the insanity that we were exposed on the tallest mountain in Maine in the midst of a massive thunderstorm.

On the trail, I was known not as Julian, but as “Goldie.” Trail names are a unique tradition of long-distance hiking in the U.S. By addressing one another by trail names, and not real names, hikers further reinforce the thinking that the life someone leads on the AT is heavily divested from their life back in the “real” world. Hikers adopt names that can point to something silly they did on the trail or an annoying habit they had, or they come up with names on their own. I hiked with a guy named “Snorzilla” for example, and you can only guess how he earned that name! Grumpy Cat was named by his daughters, who say he looks like the feline internet celebrity when he has a beard. Skippy’s name originated from her habit of polishing off jars of Skippy peanut butter on the first half of the trail. I earned the trail name “Goldie” from a friend who noticed I like to eat flavor-blasted Goldfish as a snack, and because in the winter, I had a pair of down booties that were brightly colored like goldfish. Everyone in my group thought it was funny, and the name stuck.

Unlike some hikers, I did not attempt a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail to find myself. At 51, I think I have a good idea of my wants, needs and system of ethics. I love my job at DA and find it quite rewarding to work with young people and to collaborate with and support my colleagues. I love coaching and am dedicated to my players. Instead, I was excited for the adventure. As the journey evolved, I loved the simplicity of the daily tasks in the life of a thru hiker: Wake up, eat, walk, eat, sleep, repeat. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and decency I found in so many I interacted with on trail and in towns. I went into my walk with an open mind about what I could learn about myself and the world around me. I discovered the real meaning of the word SPACE: Simplicity, Purpose, Adventure, Community and Endorphins. The rewards were immeasurable. I was surprised at how much discomfort I was able to endure thanks to the joy of others and the many moments of sublime beauty along the way. 

So as my “tramily,” or trail family, each whooped, hollered and climbed atop the famous Katahdin sign in Maine in the bright sunlight and blue skies on the morning of July 26 to celebrate the end of our long journey, I cried tears of sadness and happiness at the same time. The experience was an adventure of a lifetime, and I am forever grateful to everyone who supported me and to Durham Academy for the opportunity to accomplish my dream.

Photos Courtesy of Julian Cochran