At more than 2,100 miles long, the Appalachian Trail is a dream crusher for many a hiker who has envisioned a walk from Georgia to Maine in one season.
Unrelenting summer weather, elevation changes and rugged terrain combine to trash all but the strongest mentally and physically prepared hikers. Only 25 percent finish what they started.
Even the 41-mile piece that cuts through Maryland — the second-shortest segment of all the states and fairly flat by AT standards — can feel overwhelming.
Unless, of course, you fall in behind Dick Hillman, who once led Annapolis government as mayor and now leads folks on walks both educational and elevating. But never exhausting.
By chopping the 41 miles into five segments spread out over five months, tackling a slice of the country's most famous trail is both doable and memorable.
Hillman's hikes begin June 12 at the Pennsylvania line and end Oct. 17 overlooking the Potomac River. Topographically, north to south is less taxing on the muscles and feet.
"Once you're on it, it looks like any other trail," says Hillman, 67. "But there's a cachet about hiking the AT."
If you don't believe it, go to Gardners, Pa., next Saturday for the opening of the Appalachian Trail Museum, located at about the halfway point on the trail. There, artifacts from the first end-to-end hikes — called thru hikes by the trail establishment — will be on display (atmuseum.org, for details).
Earl Shaffer was the first thru-hiker in 1948. But it wasn't until 1951 that Gene Espy became thru-hiker No. 2. Shaffer also hiked the trail in the opposite direction, Maine to Georgia, in 1965, and then south to north in 1998, at the age of 79. The Appalachian Trail Conference says about 9,000 people claim to have completed the journey.
Hillman's adventures are more civilized, often ending with some kind of food pit stop.
"This is something you should enjoy, not endure," says the leader of more than 170 hikes.
Hillman insists, "There's no reason you can't hike every month in Maryland," proving his point in February after the region's third blizzard. One of his urban hikes attracted 23 people, even though streets and sidewalks remained snow clogged.
When he wasn't a cog helping government run, Hillman took to the roads as a member and two-time president of the Annapolis Striders running club. Now, in addition to hikes, he shepherds tourists on walks of Historic Annapolis as the period-costumed "Squire Richard."
He has led more than 300 Annapolis tours over the last five years, taking up the activity at the urging of his wife, Lisa Hillman, a Baltimore native and former journalist who is senior vice president, chief development officer for Anne Arundel Health System in Annapolis.
Retired for a year, he recalls his wife's life-changing words: "You know, honey, you might enjoy being a historic tour guide."
Adds Hillman of his four costumes, "I had no idea I'd be talking to other men about clothing ... 'Look at my new hose.'"
The same type of urging from Lisa Hillman a decade ago led to her husband's involvement as a volunteer at the Appalachian Mountain Club huts in New Hampshire's Presidential Range.
As a kind of front desk clerk at the Pinkham Notch and Mizpah huts, he helps hikers settle in and dispenses information and subtle advice.
"If you see someone in flip-flops four hours from the top of Mount Washington at 5 p.m., you're not supposed to say, 'Are you crazy?' We're suppose to say, 'We've never seen anyone dressed like you, so when you come back, stop and tell us about it," Hillman says, eyes twinkling.
But don't ask for flora and fauna tips.
"I'm not that," says the lawyer, quickly. "I can talk about constitutional law or eminent domain, but no one seems interested."
Hiking is in his wheelhouse, making him the perfect guy to follow. Of his Maryland AT hikes, Hillman advises, "The first hike is the hardest, up to High Rock. But it's a short piece and once you get up there, it's beautiful."
The schedule looks like this:
On June 12, the Maryland-Pennsylvania to Route 77, 8.5 miles. Step off at 10:30 a.m.
On July 17, Route 77 to US 40, 10 miles. Step off at 10:30 a.m.
On Aug. 22, US 40 to Fox Gap, 6 miles. Step off at 10:30 a.m.
On Sept. 11, Fox Gap to Gathland State Park, 6.5 miles. Step off at 10 a.m.
On Oct. 17, Gathland State Park to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., 10 miles. Step off at 10 a.m.
Hillman has prepared a more detailed itinerary at http://www.amc-dc.org ( click "Activity List" on toolbar)