Teenage hiker remembers people who helped him finish Appalachian Trail

Published 10:00 am Sunday, July 26, 2015

Contributed Photo Luke Collins looks out from Mcafee Knob in West Virginia.

Contributed Photo
Luke Collins looks out from Mcafee Knob in West Virginia.

It was difficult at times, but Luke Collins has done it. He has thru-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail by himself.

And he is only 17 years old.

On July 16, Luke, accompanied by his father, Mark Collins, who hiked the final five miles with him, and Luke’s friend Cruise Control, who he met on the trail, finally touched the northern terminal of the AT in Maine after beginning his journey March 3 in Georgia.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“It was hard to comprehend,” Luke said. “It was almost like I wasn’t finished. I was still concerned what hiking conditions were going to be like tomorrow. It was all just surreal.”

Even though Luke was sad that his trip was over, he felt accomplished to have finished something that many people don’t have the willpower to do. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only one out of four hikers completes the AT, which can take up to six months to do. Like most hikers who conquer the trail, which is 2,180 miles long and runs through 14 states, Luke had moments when he did not think he could finish the AT.

With just 600 miles left to go, Collins found himself getting homesick. Thoughts of his family and the conveniences of home coupled with the facts he had ran out of food and his water purification equipment had stopped working started to weigh down on him.

“I fell into the trap of thinking about home,” he said. “I don’t know how I got through.”

People who frequent the Appalachian Trail or have completed it talk a lot about the feeling of community and willingness of everyone to help one another on the trail. It is partly due to this sense of community that Luke kept on trekking, he said.

“The first guy I met after my water started to run out offered me some of his,” Luke said. “I just got with a group of people, and that helped me carry on. There is a very helpful community on the Appalachian Trail.”

Contributed Photo 17-year-old Luke Collins celebrates on Katadin Mountain in Maine after finishing the Appalachian Trail.

Contributed Photo
17-year-old Luke Collins celebrates on Katadin Mountain in Maine after finishing the Appalachian Trail.

The help comes in many forms, from trail magic, which is an unexpected act of kindness, or from trail angels, people who are well-known on the trail for helping hikers.

Early in his trip, Luke met one of these trail angels. A gentleman who goes by the trail name of Fresh Ground runs the Leap Frog Cafe. Fresh Ground, who is a pretty good cook in Luke’s opinion, will stay with a group of hikers for a small amount of time, during which he cooks breakfast, lunch and dinner for them on the trail.

“It was great,” Collins said. “He made omelets, hotdogs and home fries. It definitely helped a lot.”

Sometimes, help comes in scary forms, which was the case for Luke and a group of hikers he was with in New Hampshire. While staying at a hostel, Collins and the group chose a person from a list of individuals who give hikers rides to the local town. They chose the first person on the list, which was a nice little old lady who, after running a stop sign, probably should not have been on the road, Luke said.

“The first sign that she probably shouldn’t be driving is she just blows right through this stop sign,” Luke said with a laugh. “She didn’t slow down at all. … We get to go eat without incident. On the way back from eating, the guy in front is talking to her. The guy that is sitting next to me just grabs my leg. I look and see that he is staring up the road, and I see the red light, which is red and we are not slowing down. She blows right through that, but fortunately no one was coming. We go by the same stop sign without slowing, and thankfully she drops us back off at the hostel.

“She backs out and completely knocks over the fence on the other side of the road,” Luke added.

As Luke looks back over his incident with the bad driver, he thinks it is ironic that the only time he was in actual danger while hiking the trail was in a car going to get something to eat.

One thing Luke remembers when he reached Katahdin, which is the finishing point of the AT for northbound hikers, is seeing a couple of hikers beginning a southbound hike of the trail. While thinking about those fresh hikers, Collins looks back to when he first started the trail, and how his perceptions have changed. There are some things he wishes he knew when he started his journey.

“I wish I wouldn’t have been so worried about finishing on time,” he said. “Worrying about finishing on time just takes away some of the enjoyment. I still enjoyed myself.”

When Luke started his journey, he hiked an average of 10 miles a day, but by the end he was hiking 20-25 miles a day. His longest day was 30 miles. One reason Luke was motivated to get finished on time was the fact that he wanted to get acclimated back to society before starting school at Elizabethton High School in August, he said.

With the AT completed, Luke, who now has longer hair and the beginnings of a long beard, definitely sees a difference in himself.

“I appreciate everything a lot more,” Luke said. “I never realized how great a chair that has a back is. Being on the trail makes you appreciate the small things, like working toilets and beds.”

Wednesday, Collins and his dad and brother made the curvy trip up Highway 91 to where 91 and Cross Mountain Road intersect and where the AT crosses the highway. It was at this spot around Easter that Collins was dropped back off at the trail after visiting with his family for the holiday. Wednesday, however, Collins didn’t start hiking the trail again. After some reminiscing, he got back in his family’s white mini van and went home, something he was happy to do.

“I’m glad I get to sleep in my bed tonight,” he said with a smile.