In February, Manchester native Emily Hochheiser took her first step on the nearly 2,200-mile journey along the Appalachian Trail. That step represented the end of a 2½-year preparation for almost six months of living in the wilderness while traveling up the East Coast of the United States. During her first night, there was just one thing she hadn't prepared for.
She had never spent a single night in the woods.
"It all began when I read the book 'A Walk in the Woods,' " Hochheiser said. "I think everyone reads that for the first time and when they learn about the trail wants to make the trip. It's funny and goofy, and I started thinking about what a wild thing it would be to stop what you're doing to go live in the woods and do something not many people do."
Hochheiser decided to start preparing for the journey, taking a semester off from attending Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, researching the trail and purchasing equipment. She said though she's always enjoyed the outdoors, she had never done any backpacking or long-term hiking before.
To make sure she didn't start her journey alone, Hochheiser said her mother demanded she go along for the first leg of the trip, hiking with her for the first week as they made their way out of Georgia. Though she said she felt prepared when she journeyed down, the first night was still an intense experience.
"I began petrified of bears, to be honest," Hochheiser said. "The first night, I couldn't even sleep. I swore I kept hearing bears. My mom and I started barking in the middle of the night to scare what we thought was this bear away. Once I finally did see one, it helped me get over my fears. I realized they're no more scary than a raccoon."
On day two, Hochheiser realized she wouldn't have to make the journey alone as she came across a number of other hikers who would soon become her "trail family." By sheer coincidence, of the many hiking the trail, she came across two brothers from Finksburg, Carl and Clint Martin.
Carl Martin said he had more of an experience camping and hiking outdoors, as he and his brother attended nature camps at Hashawha and went on backpacking trips together. He said in getting ready for the trip, he underwent some mental preparation, but didn't do much to prepare his body.
"I literally didn't do any physical training outside of sitting on the couch, watching TV and eating Funions," Carl Martin said. "I talked to other hikers about what to expect. Took a weekend trip out to the trail where it passed through Maryland just to get a sense of what we needed and what to expect."
Hochheiser said her preparation came from some unexpected sources. While she contacted friends and family members with experience hiking, she said one day she overheard a man in the MVA talking about his experiences on the Appalachian Trail. She said she approached him and asked for tips on what towns to send food boxes to and for other pieces of preparation she needed.
"People helped me realize that you can't plan it all," Hochheiser said. "You have to go out there and figure it out. You're never ready. It's not really something you can physically train for. The first month trains you for the last five months."
Together, the trail family hiked most of the length of the trail together, with trail names quickly bestowed on each of the hikers. Hochheiser became "Pudge" due to her determination not to gain back any weight she lost over the hike, while Carl Martin became "Monkey" and Clint Martin became "Pace."
Hochheiser said the bonds that formed over the length of the trail are going to last for long after the hike is over.
"We always joked there's no privacy on the trail," she said. "We told each other the craziest stories that you wouldn't tell anybody in your normal life. You just figure it's because you don't know these people anyway. You can barely remember their name."
Carl Martin said he was surprised at the friendships he made during the journey.
"I didn't expect it to be so popular. There were a lot of people out there. More than I expected," he said. "My favorite part of the trip turned out to be the social experience. It's a great community out there."
Clint Martin eventually split from the group to take a solo route through the end of the trail, while brother Carl stayed with the rest of the trail family. The total journey took him about 5½ months.
"There are people who can do it in three, but I chose to really enjoy the sites and go off trail," Carl Martin said. "I didn't want to wreck my body doing 30 miles a day."
Hochheiser said the scariest moments included coming face-to-face with a giant bull moose in New Hampshire who decided to walk directly through her campsite, and dealing with drastically changing and occasionally violent weather. She said she was surprised by the things it was hardest to deal with being without.
"I really missed our local grocery stores," Hochheiser said. "Miller's Market has this delicious peanut butter crunch, and I keep getting these food cravings for vegetables and fresh fruit. As soon as I got home, I went to the grocery store and picked up all the random food items I missed."
Though there were things from home Hochheiser said she missed while on the trail, there are also things from the trail she misses now that she's home.
"I think I learned more in the past six months, than I learned in college," Hochheiser said. "I embraced the idea of doing things in the moment when you want to do them, and not wasting time. Sometimes you have to lean on the people around you, but it also taught me to not get too caught up in the mundane things in life. I hope I always keep that mentality."