Many hikers know the feeling of sweat flowing down their forehead, wind whipping hair into their face and mosquitoes chewing on their arms.
And yet they don’t seem to care.
Their muscles may ache, but discoveries await. With all the superficial pleasures of the first world stripped away, the hiker feels free, with only the sky above and the ground below.
Mary Ryan, class of 2015, is one such hiker.
Ryan grew up in Paoli, Pa. with frequent hiking adventures during short trips with her family, especially her father.
“Basically we’d go out and we’d visit national parks, and we’d find anywhere to hike,” Ryan said. “We’d just go on these really long 15 mile hikes and just spend the whole day outside.”
However, a Scholastic book fair planted a seed for little fifth grade Mary Ryan reading the children’s story “Halfway to the Sky,” by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, about a girl hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Since graduating from the University of Dallas with a degree in English and a teaching certificate, her love for the trail hasn’t changed.
Now, Ryan, a former Verso L’Alto member, has decided to hike the entire 2,160 mile Appalachian Trail that extends from Maine to Georgia. Known as the “A.T.” to hikers, the path goes through 14 different states, and, as the trail’s conservation website boasts, “is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.”
Ryan’s confidence in her ability to complete such a daunting task stems partly from her experience in UD’s Rome program.
Abroad, she realized that traveling alone was no longer a scary idea and she found that she could take care of herself more than she had ever believed, enabling the possibility of hiking such a long trail.
Ryan is both thrilled and wary of the expedition, especially since the trail presents new challenges for her, like hiking and camping within the same trip.
This challenge is only the beginning for Ryan, as the Appalachian Trail requires a significant amount of preparation. Ryan has been preparing since last summer. She separates her preparation into categories of physical and mental. Her typical physical training includes staying in shape and breaking in hiking boots.
However, the Appalachian Trail also requires preparation that even the most intense day-hikers need to consider.
“A lot of people say to complete a thru-hike, it’s really not your physical ability so much as your mental strength,” Ryan said. “It takes a mental and emotional toll to hike mile after mile every single day.”
Finding food along the way is also an issue, particularly since hikers want to pack as lightly as possible. Ryan has experimented with dehydrating food, and she plans to carry only a week’s worth of food at a time. Additionally, she will use mail drops of food at different cities along the trail, a system through which hikers can send food ahead to certain stops. Ryan may even forage for berries and seeds along the way.
“I am not a hunter!” Ryan said with a laugh. “I probably wouldn’t do it for sustenance unless I’m desperate.”
On weekends, Ryan plans to restock her food and take a rest. She’ll take advantage of the opportunities to sleep in a bed, take a shower, do laundry and attend Mass. Music, a book or two and a journal are also essentials for Ryan to avoid boredom on the trail.
When Mary Ryan starts her arduous journey, she will take the train down from her Pennsylvania home to Georgia, where she will begin her hike on March 23.
Ryan hopes to finish her hike in August, at which time she hopes to begin teaching.
At the moment, she is unsure whether she will stay in Maine, where the trail ends, or go back home to a job, but she wants to keep the end of her journey open-ended.
As in life, hikers know to simply expect the unexpected.
“No matter how much preparation I do, there is going to be a lot that I am not going to be prepared for, and that’s one thing I’m kind of looking forward to,” Ryan said. “Despite all of those difficulties I’m going to face, the challenges that the A.T. has to offer me are things that I really know that I need.”