6,000,000 footsteps

Six months on the Appalachian Trail translated into 6 million steps for hiker JIM DODGE ’71 MEA ’76. The reasons behind the airline pilot’s journey are almost as compelling as the 14-state hike.

 

By JIM T. DODGE '71 MEA '76

 

I have a new perspective on aging after reading the informative feature in the winter 2011 issue of Bradley Hilltopics — not because I am old at age 62, but because last September I completed the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail (AT) that begins at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and ends at Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. It was an extraordinary experience that took a total of six months and more than 6 million footsteps.

I grew up in Peoria and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in engineering administration. My mother, Jeanette Dodge, was an English instructor and student adviser (89 years young, alive and well, living in Salem, South Carolina). I met my wife, Connie Prunch Dodge, when she was the assistant to Dr. John Hitt, BU vice president of academic affairs. As a junior in 1969, I joined the Bradley Flying Club and found a lifelong passion. I made my career in aviation, managing flight departments and flying corporate jets throughout the world. In 1979, I moved from Peoria to Atlanta and have called Georgia home for more than 30 years.

As a corporate jet pilot, I have opportunities to hike trails around the world. Pilots are required by the FAA to periodically pass a flight physical. Hiking with a backpack in the mountains is a great way to stay in shape. I had hiked short sections of the AT but had never considered hiking the whole trail until unemployment hit. Suddenly at age 60, I was competing with younger pilots for fewer jobs. Sure, I had 15,000-plus flight hours of experience, but there were tens of thousands of pilots out of work, and the competition was (and is) tough. It occurred to me that hiking the Appalachian Trail would prove I was in excellent physical health.

Three weeks later, on March 3, 2009, I was on the AT, headed north. I had no idea how difficult it would be. The trail stretches from Georgia through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and finally Maine. The trail was laid out in 1937, crossing over the mountains and along the ridge tops of the Appalachians. The total ups and downs in the trail exceed 1 million vertical feet. My backpack weight started out at 52 pounds but was quickly reduced to about 35 (19 pounds, plus food and water). I carried no more food than necessary, stopping periodically at road crossings to hitchhike into nearby towns to resupply. Due to a broken wrist and family medical emergencies, I hiked only to southern Virginia in 2009. The following May, I hit the trail again and 1,800 miles later I finished.

My average speed was 2.45 miles per hour, and the longest hiking day was 13 hours and 27 miles. The amount of food an AT hiker consumes is amazing. My appetite increased as I hiked north, with my average consumption at times exceeding 8,000 calories per day. The first few months I was craving fruits and vegetables, and over the last three months it was proteins, especially bacon double cheeseburgers and meat lover’s pizza with extra cheese. I devoured Snickers bars. Amazingly, I still lost more than 30 pounds and dropped to my high school weight.

Read Jim Dodge's Trail journal here.

Visit menendezfamily.com for more hiking photos from Appalachian Trail hiker Eric Menendez, plotted to a map of his journey.

Have you hiked all or part of the Appalachian Trail? Send your memories to kmetzinger@bradley.edu or:
Bradley Hilltopics
1501 W. Bradley Ave.
Peoria, IL 61625

Hiking the AT is an incredible way to explore the eastern United States. When you carry your house on your back, you become dependent on the kindness of strangers. The people who live along the trail are unbelievably helpful, and hikers call them “trail angels.” I am astounded by how many folks would pick up incredibly stinky, dirty hikers and help them get to a resupply grocer.

I read in the book Younger Next Year, A Guide to Living Like 50 Until You’re 80 (by Crowley and Lodge), that lots of exercise can fool your body into thinking and working like it did when you were younger. It worked! My blood tests are all back to normal, most of my body’s plumbing is working normally again, my energy levels are like a 30-something, and my sagging skin and wrinkles are diminished. The down sides? The front halves of my feet are numb (this is typical for AT hikers, I am told, and will eventually return to normal).

These days it seems that most individuals only see major accomplishments on TV. This endeavor required extraordinary time and effort. The median age of AT hikers is 24. My hiking partner was 70, and the oldest hiker I met was in his young 80s. Most individuals hiking the trail live in bordering states. Most are by themselves and many are female. I completed the trail summiting Mount Katahdin on September 19, 2010. The total number of hikers who have finished the trail is still less than 12,000. Anyone with an interest in the Appalachian Trail may email me at jimtdodge@bellsouth.net. My philosophy? You’re only as old as you think you are!

Editor’s note: Jim Dodge recently started his own company, managing and flying a corporate jet.

Trail magic

CHRIS OLEX ’94 was ready for a new job and a move away from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She felt like she was stuck in a rut, so she decided to climb her way out. 

In March 1999, Olex quit her job at a consulting firm and headed to Springer Mountain in Georgia to begin her trek to Mount Katahdin along the Appalachian Trail. “So many things were ready for me to have a change that it just worked out and made sense for me to do it,” said Olex, who holds a degree in psychology.

The thought of hiking the trail first crossed her mind during an Outward Bound camping trip, when the leader said the trek was “the best thing I’ve ever done and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Always eager for a challenge, Olex looked into becoming a “thru-hiker” on the Appalachian Trail. A thru-hiker is someone who does the hike from beginning to end in one session, as opposed to a section-hiker, who completes it over time. 

Though Olex began her hike alone, she was never completely on her own. “You’re moving with this traveling community that’s going the same place you’re going,said Olex. “It probably isn’t like this for everyone, but for me it was such a social experiment experience.” 

Two of Olex’s fellow hikers became her close friends, although she didn’t know their real names until long after she’d met them. Many hikers choose to use trail names — nicknames that become their identity while they hike. Olex was Red Stripe because she wore a Red Stripe beer hat. 

Another memory that stands out from Olex’s trek is Trail Days, an annual festival in Damascus, Virginia, in May. During Trail Days, thousands of current and past hikers descend on the town — which has a population of about 1,000 — for four days to camp, rest, wash up, and have fun. 

Six months later, at the end of her journey, Olex had lost 30 pounds, a few toenails, and all feeling in her toes, not to mention going through four pairs of shoes. She considers herself one of the lucky ones. “Anyone who finishes has a big chunk of luck,” she said. “So many people get hurt, or someone in the family gets really sick. There are just so many things that come up that can take you away.”

Today, Olex lives in Newton, Massachusetts, and is self-employed as a corporate leadership trainer. “There are plenty of days when I think about doing the trail again because that way of living was just so simple and rewarding,” said Olex. “But realistically, probably not. I am more likely to find a new kind of challenge when I am ready for another change.”

—Abby Wilson Pfeiffer ’10