On May 3, Florham Park resident Eric Wagner arrived at Springer Mountain, Ga., to cross off a very important item on his bucket list:
Hike along the Appalachian Trail.
“Hiking has been a passion of Eric’s since he was young,” shared his wife, Annie Wagner. “He has always loved the outdoors and fresh air.”
It was an idea that came to Wagner during the summer between his junior and senior year in high school. Growing up in Mt. Olive, the 28 year old aspiring history teacher recalled his English teacher assigning the class a reading list to choose from.
At random, he had chosen “A Walk In the Woods,” by Bill Bryson.
“I just remember seeing the title and it jumped out at me,” Wagner explained. “It reminded me of something that one of my favorite authors Jack London or Gary Paulsen would write. I’ve always been a big fan of outdoor adventure stories.”
What started out as homework quickly grew into an idle pastime obsession filling the spaces between school semesters. After graduating college, the obsession only grew stronger.
“Since I’ve known Eric, hiking on the Appalachian Trail was always on his mind,” commented Andy Hill, a family friend. “Sometimes it was all he could talk about. He used to try and convince me to take the time off work. But who has six months to commit to something like that?”
Running more than 2,200 miles along the Eastern seaboard and crossing through 14 different states, including Wagner’s home state of New Jersey, the Appalachian Trail inspires thousands of hikers from all over the world to test their adventurous spirit each year through the ultimate hiking challenge. Known as “thru-hikers” within the hiking community, these brave individuals make the attempt to hike the entire trail from start to finish.
Of those thousands of eager hikers starting out, only a fraction actually make it from Spring Mt., Ga., to Mt. Katahdin, Maine.
“They say that over 1/3 of the hikers that start quit by the third day,” Wagner shared.
Despite failing to reach his intended destination, in N.J., more than 1,300 miles from his starting point at Springer Mt., Ga. Wagner claims that he harbors no regrets about how the experience went.
“I was able to make it out in the woods for 45 days and hiked over 500 miles, so that’s not too bad,” Wagner exclaimed. “I got to see things and experience things a lot of other people will never get the chance too. And for that I will always be grateful.”
The experience wouldn’t have been possible without a strong network of support in his hometown of Mt. Olive.
“We are so proud of what Eric has done,” shared his mother, Lisa Wagner. “It was such a challenge and I’m just glad he is home safe and sound.”
Despite the close proximity and his desire to hike on the trail, Wagner admitted to being a novice to the hiking lifestyle.
“I’ve gone camping before, but nothing quite like this,” Wagner exclaimed. “When you camp, you typically bring a car to load everything in. On this hike, everything you need has be carried on your back! You really can’t prepare for it until you’ve experienced what it’s like.”
“At first, I was only able to hike about 5 or 6 miles a day,” remembered Wagner, “but eventually my pack grew lighter and my legs got stronger. On my longest day, I was able to hike over 26 miles from one campsite to the next.”
In spite of the challenges, Wagner remained upbeat and optimistic. He was even able to spend his 28th birthday in the Smoky Mountain National Park at Clingman’s Dome, one of the trails most famous landmarks.
“It was pouring rain, but I had made some friends along the way and they surprised me by buying me a cupcake with the candle already sticking out,” laughed Wagner. “They sang me happy birthday and even though we had trouble getting the candle lit it was the best cupcake I had ever eaten.”
Although starting out alone, by the end of Wagner’s hike, he had made close friendships with several thru-hikers, including Vincent Gasso. Dubbed the trail name, “Gucci,” Gasso shared that his motivation for completing the entire hike was to honor his recently deceased grandfather.
“My whole life, I have tried to maintain my childlike sense of wonder,” shared Gucci. “Life’s too short not to try and go out and accomplish your dreams.”
“It’s mostly mental, you just need to put one foot in front of the other,” Wagner advised. “The best way to prepare is to just go out and do it.”
After more than nine and a half decades since it’s official recognition by the United States Government, the Appalachian Trail receives thousands of hikers each and every year. Yet despite its growing popularity, it is maintained on a purely volunteer based system. Thousands of hikers across hundreds of local chapters dedicate time and effort to keeping the hundreds of miles of trail clear of debris, sometimes hauling equipment straight up mountains in order to remove fallen trees after storms.
“Anyone who enjoys nature and being outdoors should be willing to put in some time and effort so that the rest of us can enjoy it,” shared Gasso. “It’s an amazing thing to see all these committed individuals helping keep something so precious intact after this many years.”
As far as future plans, Wagner claimed that he is currently working on his second novel, “Leaving It On the Trail,” while attending graduate school at Montclair University. He plans on revisiting the trail next summer and continue hiking for the rest of his years.
“It was a once and a lifetime experience, one that I wouldn’t ever want to change,” he concluded.