Conquering the Appalachian Trail

Local pair completes monumental hike
Dec. 12, 2012 @ 10:29 PM

This past June, two friends and film school graduates from Sevierville — Drew Simms and Jeff Brown — with travel mates Jani Taljaard and Daniel Delph, set off for a walk in the woods.

And 2,184 miles later, the pair — without Taljaard and Delph, who ventured out on their own at different points on the trail — completed the greatest journey of their lifetimes.
“It was a lot different than I expected,” Brown admitted. “I thought it would be much more of a solo experience, even though we were hiking as a group. I thought we’d be kind of isolated, especially since we were going southbound (from Maine to Georgia). But it turned out to be much more of a social experience.
“There were a lot more people than I thought, and everyone kind of bands together, sort of like a trail family. Everyone’s kind of in it together — people from all different backgrounds and all different walks of life — doing the same things and sharing common goals.”
Brown said the variety of people making the huge trek was mind-boggling.
“People that you may never hang out with in everyday life, you’re hanging out with (on the trail),” he said. “We hiked with a doctor and his wife, and they’re in their early 40s, for about 800 miles. 
“You see people that you don’t generally see together,” he continued. “Half of people you’d see on the trail are peace-loving, hippie, earthy-types, but then the other half are like ex-military that just got back from the war, with the survivalist-type thinking. And and all these people have kind of a mutual respect for each other, no matter what their age, what they do, or what their ideologies are, they come together. It was a really cool thing.”
Simms said that closeness, at times, was challenging, however.
“A 2,100-mile trip with anybody will test friendships and relationships,” he said. “Me and Jeff, we finished together, and we were together the whole time, never a day apart.”
Getting frustrated, in that situation, is easy.
“It’s hard to have a roommate, let alone be with someone 24/7,” Simms said. “Even if you’re married, you both go to work (apart). You have hours apart in the day, where you come home and you weren’t with them every waking minute. 
“(On the trail) you walk together, you wake up together, you eat, do everything together. Some people you can do that (with) out there, other people you can’t. We were hiking with a group of 12 for a while, and you’ve got 12 different opinions on what ‘I’ want to do today. And you’re also trying to have a good time and enjoy the experience.
“I’m tired, I’m hurting, I’m not feeling good,” Simms explained. “One person’s wanting to rest, and the other person’s wanting to move. you’ve got to get really good at compromising.
“Compromising is what you gets you through with a partner. And, at the end of the day, I couldn’t do it by myself, because I don’t know if I couldn’t handle not seeing another soul for five days.”
Simms said they saw in that exact situation.
“We ran into people that hadn’t (been in a group),” he said. “They’d constantly talking, talking, talking. They’ve been by themselves for so long, they really just want to talk to somebody.”
That gave him a renewed appreciation for having a friend like Brown at his side.
“I can definitely say I wouldn’t have been able to finish if I didn’t have a good friend like Jeff,” Simms said. “When I was having a bad day, he’d pick me up, and if he had a bad day, I’d do the same. You’re in it together, which makes it easier.”
While both Simms and Brown admitted they weren’t prepared to tackle the trail from a physical standpoint, the mental challenges were the greatest.
“I didn’t expect how kind of routine and mundane it kind of became, toward the end especially,” Brown said. “I was expecting it to be this great adventure, out in woods, kind of completely free, an escape from normal life … but it becomes (your normal life). You get up, pack your (stuff), hike all day long, get to camp, set up your tent, eat, go to sleep, wake up and do it again.”
Simms said the sheer amount of time on your hands could be overwhelming as well.
“The first 500 miles everything’s new and fresh, and you’ve got all day to think,” he said. “I figured out everything I wanted to think about in 1,000 miles, and now I’ve got another 1,000 miles to do.”
Physical challenges
Thought the mental aspects of hiking the trail were the biggest hurdles, the physical task of walking over 2,000 miles was by no means easy.
“There were a couple of times on the trip where I was like, ‘Really? What did I sign myself up for?’ Simms said.
“The beginning was the hardest for me,” he continued. “Southbounders have it the hardest, because you start off with the biggest, the most vertical climbs. Southern Maine, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire, that’s up and down. Most of the trails there are switch-backs and more gradual. Plus, you’re carrying all that weight on your back, and you’re new, I was fresh, very green. I had no idea what I was getting into.”
Brown agreed.
“Physically it was something that I wasn’t prepared for,” the tall, lanky filmmaker said. “It’s something that you really can’t prepare for, and I thought I was in really good shape.
“It was very challenging, but you condition yourself as you go. We started off doing 8-12 miles per day, by the end we were doing marathon days — 25-30 mile days.”
Brown explained that after a while AT through-hikers legs become conditioned to the grueling 12-hour hikes.
“It’s what they call trail-legs,” Brown said. “They say it’s after 200 miles, but I think I got mine after 300 miles. It’s not like hiking ever gets easier, you just start hiking a lot faster than you were before. It’s real subtle, you don’t even realize it. When you feel like you’re going slow, you’re actually walking like three miles per hour, and miles kind of just start falling off.”
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Roughly 3,576 hours after starting at Mount Katahdin in Maine, Simms and Brown reached Springer Mountain, Geogia, and their odyssey had come to its end.
“And this my friends is what you call DONE!” Simms told Facebook friends after he and Brown finished October 28. “Tired, hungry and I’m going home! Thanks for all the support.”