In March last year, 32-year-old North Bergen resident Michael Hesleitner took the first strides in a journey that would test the limits of his body and mind: hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.
It was in Fannin County, Georgia, where Hesleitner passed his first trail marker, with his mind set on making it on foot all the way to Mount Katahdin, the highest point in Maine. After his initial attempt in 2016 was cut short due to a stress fracture, he began his second go at completing all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
“I grew up in the Boy Scouts, and I loved hiking, camping, high-adventure stuff,” Hesleitner said. “After years of doing that, I moved to working. I felt like something was calling me back to nature.”
Hesleitner is a member of the stagehands union, and works freelance jobs at theaters throughout New Jersey.
Hesleitner began hiking on March 20, 2018, crossing 14 state borders before reaching Katahdin’s summit on Oct. 5, 200 days later, to become one of 20,115 “thru-hikers” registered by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy since 1936.
“I felt like something was calling me back to nature.” – Michael Hesleitner.
Sights to behold
“McAfee Knob was one of the most photogenic places on the trail,” Hesleitner said. “I camped close to it, woke up before sunrise, and hiked about a mile and a half to the summit to the knob to watch sunrise as it happened.”
Hesleitner recalled a portion of the trail called “100-mile Wilderness.” “We hit it at such a great time,” he said. “It was October so I couldn’t go swimming, but we saw some amazing colors. You have to make sure you’re prepared for the full 100 miles before you go in.”
Hesleitner was hiking alone, so when he refers to “we,” he’s talking about fellow hikers he met along the way.
Hesleitner tackled the White Mountains and southern Maine at the tail end of the trail. “Franconia Ridge was such an amazing place to be,” he said. “Once you reach the White Mountains, you’re in a section on top of a ridge where you’ve completed 80 percent of the trail, but you’ve only done about 20 percent of the real work.”
Exposed to the elements
Hesleitner kept all his supplies in a pack, which he kept to 35 pounds. Stretches of up to 100 miles of barren wilderness separated areas of civilization where he could replenish food and supplies. The terrain ate through five pairs of his trail shoes by the time he reached the final summit in Maine.
“Sometimes it’s going to be brutal, and you’re going to have to be prepared to deal with that” – Michael Heisletner
“The biggest risks were weather, terrain, and animals, but as long as you keep an eye out, you should be good,” Hesleitner said. “Sometimes it’s going to be brutal, and you’re going to have to be prepared to deal with that.”
Aside from the occasional patch of blueberries, raspberries, and mushrooms, the trial provided scant sustenance. “There’s a little bit of scavenging you can do, but not much,” Hesleitner said.
“Nothing can prepare you for an actual thru-hike,” Hesleitner said. “Nothing can prepare you for the challenges, day after day of hiking, the toll. I left here all alone, not knowing anybody or what was going to happen. Once you get on the trail, you’re not really alone, you become what they call ‘trail family.’ I met some amazing people.”
Hesleitner reported at least ten bear encounters. “I saw a mom and two cubs out the corner of my eye,” he said. “After standing there and watching for two minutes, the mother bear said, ‘okay, it’s time for you to go.’ She growled and made a warning charge at me, and I thought, ‘okay, no problem,’ and just kept going.”
In the final stretches of the trail, Hesleitner faced even bigger beasts. “In Maine, there are moose, those are scary animals,” he said. “They’re blind, dumb, and they don’t care. They’ll just go for you.”
At one point, he encountered three moose at once. All he could do was hide behind a tree and hope to remain unnoticed. “What made it worse was mating season,” Hesleitner said. “They were even more on edge.”
Back to civilization
When Hesleitner reached the final peak after an adventure that spanned more than half a year, he was a different person than when he began his journey.
“I woke up that morning all gung-ho after six and a half months,” he said. “I finally touched that sign, and it was all over. It’s like, ‘what do I do now’? That whole life on the trail gets taken away from you, and you go back to society, where everything stayed the same. It’s incredible to look back on what you’ve experienced out there.”
“Once you get home, it’s onto the next one,” Hesleitner said. “Time to plan for the next adventure.”
Mike Montemarano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org