Walking the entire Appalachian National Scenic Trail isn't really about hiking, says James Sharpe of Ellicott City.
"Hiking the trail is about living on your own more than anything else," said Sharpe, who completed the 2,175 miles through 14 states between April and October. "Of course, it's exciting and it's challenging. But it's the trail culture -- knowing that everyone is very nice and trustworthy -- that lures people" to make the journey from Georgia to Maine.
It's not uncommon that people assume that hiking the trail is one lengthy camping trip, Sharpe said. In fact, "thru-hikers" -- people who walk the "A.T." in one continuous journey -- don't hike every day or sleep outdoors every night, said Sharpe, 25.
Every three to five nights, they sleep in a hostel or a hotel in a nearby town, he said. They shower, eat a meal that's not dehydrated or cooked over a campfire, and sleep in a bed. They replenish their supplies, send and receive gear at the post office, do laundry, socialize with other hikers and then hit the trail again.
"There are some sections of the trail that you can stay out on for a few weeks if you want," he said. "But everyone has tough days, and most people need regular breaks."
Statistics bear this out: Only one in four people with the intention of thru-hiking completes the trail, even with these available stops, according to the Web site of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
The conservancy estimates that 3 million to 4 million visitors hike a portion of the trail each year. Since 1936, more than 9,000 hike completions have been recorded. Last year, 488 were reported.
Hikers also don't rely solely on compasses or even trail markers to know where they're going -- they carry conservancy guidebooks that provide detailed information, such as distances between shelters, sources of water and whether groceries are available.
Sharpe said he first hiked sections of the trail when he was a 12-year-old Boy Scout and figured that he would walk the entire route someday.
Along the way to graduating from Howard High School in 2001 and then the University of Maryland, College Park last year, he kept that goal in the back of his mind.
He continued to enjoy hiking in college with the Terrapin Trail Club and also worked part time at Recreational Equipment Inc., an outdoor gear and clothing chain, further fueling his desire.
"It wasn't a surprise that James came to his mother and me with this proposal since he's always liked hiking," said his father, Steve Sharpe. "Christine and I had concerns about him going alone, but we felt Jim was reliable, and that he had researched everything. We were very excited -- I guess we were living vicariously through him."
Most hikers start off alone with the express purpose of meeting other people of like mind and purpose, said James Sharpe. Hikers are quickly christened with a "trail name," and Sharpe's was "Sudoku" for the popular number puzzles that he does to relax.
"The type of people who hike this entire trail have an appreciation for simplicity, physical endeavor and mental endurance," he said. "So if that describes you, then you are guaranteed to make friends on the A.T."
Most hikers stay out of touch with their families and friends, although a small percentage bring a cell phone.
"One thing we heard all the time was, 'Hike your own hike,'" Sharpe said. "This means you should stay true to what's important to you and respect other people's goals as well."
Some hikers take the words "entire trail" literally, he said. "If you veered off the path to go into town, but then got a ride back to the trail but were let out ahead of where you left off, did you hike the whole A.T.?" Sharpe said. "Some purists say you should go back and walk the segment you omitted, while others -- like me -- say it's not an exact science."
The average distance covered each day is between 13 miles and 18 miles, depending on terrain, Sharpe said, though he challenged himself one day to walk 42 miles, starting before daybreak. "But no one keeps that kind of speed up. ... It's too hard on your body."
Feet take the biggest pounding, of course, but knees and hips run a close second, he said, mentioning that his right hip still "pops" when he walks. "I went through three pairs of shoes, which wasn't too bad." He prearranged for replacements to be sent to post offices for pickup along the trail.
"You learn really fast that the post office is your best friend," he said. "You can ship home anything you don't need, like clothes that are no longer in season, and receive shipments of new gear or, in my case, Little Debbie snack cakes from home."
The snacks are practically health food on the trail, he said, because hikers need fat to burn. The average caloric intake required is 3,000 to 4,500 calories per day, he said.
"Most men lose weight, though I gained 10 pounds, and most women gain weight because they gain muscle, which is heavier than fat," Sharpe said.
He displayed photographs of hikers climbing over large boulders in one of the more challenging segments of the trail to underscore the intensity of the exercise that thru-hikers are getting most days.
James' father, Steve, is "hiking his own hike" by completing the A.T. one section at a time, beginning this year. "I figure I will hike two weeks a year until I retire in 2014, then I can devote a longer period to finishing off the last 100 miles in the wilderness," he said.
Everyone receives the same certificate for completing the Appalachian Trail, no matter how they accomplish it, according to the trail conservancy.
"There's just something about the experience," said James Sharpe. While some people complete the entire trail as thru-hikers multiple times, he said he doesn't think he will do it again.
"It wouldn't be the same -- not seeing a particular view for the first time or not being as surprised by the experience," he said "That would take some of the thrill out of it. But that's not to say I won't ever go back. The trail culture -- where everyone says hello and helps everyone else -- is something that I'll miss."