Local school bus driver is first day hiker to complete Appalachian Trail

Aug 30, 2018 by

Published in the August 30, 2018 edition

Paul Truesdale is the first known person to day hike the 2,183-mile Appalachian Trail. He has driven a school bus in North Reading and Lynnfield for the last 15 years.

PEABODY — I am the first known person to truly day hike the entire Appalachian Trail. That means walking every foot of the trail without ever camping or sleeping overnight on the trail. Every hiking day ended at home or in a motel with a clean bathroom and hot shower and without bugs, vermin, rattlesnakes or bears.

Hiking from both ends toward the middle, my journey ended on July 28, 2018 in Groseclose, Virginia, a couple of months before my 75th birthday. This long and amazing odyssey took 226 days of hiking spread out over 40 years with the majority of hikes in the last 10 years. While 75 percent of the hikes were solo, without the dozens of wonderful, joyful people who accompanied me on a piece of the trail, it’s doubtful I would have successfully completed it.  

While it seems simpler to day hike than “through” hike, the reverse is actually the case.

At first I started hiking the Appalachian Trail by climbing one side of a mountain and retracing my steps back down to where I started. On a subsequent hike, I’d hike the other side of the mountain up and back down. Obviously this doubling back meant I was doing the trail twice. Also troubling for day hikers, many access points to the Appalachian Trail are through side trails that can add 10 or more miles to a hike. Also many access points and side trials are very difficult to locate. Furthermore, limited access points create some very long hikes. As a result I had many hikes longer than my comfort zone and a couple of hikes that put me to the limit.

PAUL TRUESDALE stands at the edge of McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail. (Courtesy Photo)

To reduce these problems I first tried using a bicycle. I’d drive to the end of a hike, leave my bike, drive to the start of the hike, leave my car, hike the trail and lastly ride my bike back to the car. This worked well for many hikes but failed for very long hikes with very tiring return bike rides. I was pleased with a second solution. I would arrange transportation to meet me at my car at the end of a proposed hike and bring me to the start where I would then hike back to my car. While this seemed simple I had a number of painful failures where clearly prearranged times and locations were screwed up, leaving me stranded in remote areas without cell phone coverage.

Hiking the 2,183 miles of the Appalachian Trail is both a thrilling and a frightening experience and, for many, life changing. Spectacular views, gorgeous rivers and lakes, and outstanding mountain scenery are met with an extraordinary and diverse wildlife. Who can adequately describe a mountain lake bursting in full fall foliage color? Wildlife encounters up close and personal are thrilling.

Moose are the largest and most majestic animal in North America and each of the 30 or so that chose to share the trail with me was exciting. During rutting (mating) season on Mount Moosilauke three of us came a little too close to a bull moose and his harem of female (cows) moose. Another time in rutting season I came between a bull moose and a cow moose. Still another contact had me almost run down a moose at twilight on my bicycle on an access road. Deer are everywhere on the trail and some are surprisingly tame. It’s very soothing to see one next to the trail munching away at the vegetation.

There were few eagles but hawks seemed to be everywhere. Bears are common in the southern part of the Appalachian Trail and a terrible menace to campers as the bears forage for food at night in campsites. Ironically, it seems that my bear encounters happened to be shared most often with other day hikers. Several times we saw a mother bear and her three cubs. Once we met a breathless hiker still recovering from being charged by a bear earlier in the day. Later, I tried to make sense of his story and concluded that the bear was probably not attacking him but trying to escape from a woman hiker coming in the opposite direction. Mice are even a bigger threat to steal food from campers. A common scenario is finding a hole in the cereal bag in the morning and then finding mouse droppings in the cereal.

Sightings of owls are rare because they are nocturnal, but one early morning I startled a great horned owl into flight. Owls are incredibly quiet flapping their wings. It’s a gentle whooshing that is uncanny. Boars are also nocturnal and again very early one morning I was very fortunate to see three little pigs in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Although rattlesnakes are infrequent on the trail their existence and the possibility of encounter creates huge anxiety and a significant amount of discussion. Of the 14 states on the Appalachian Trail only Maine has no poisonous snakes but among hikers any lengthy conversation includes frightening stories about these vipers. I only saw three rattlesnakes on the entire Appalachian Trail. Once, Frank, my sometime hiking buddy, was on lead and just missed stepping on two intertwined rattlers, leaving me to negotiate around the two agitated vipers. Another time we walked unaware across a rattler hiding in a crack in some rocks. Other hikers then called our attention to the situation. I’ve heard anecdotes of snakes crawling into sleeping bags at night and of a rattler sitting on the picnic table outside a shelter.

“Big Foot” told of stepping on one on the trail and he harmlessly bolted away. The Great Smoky Mountains claim to have the biggest timber rattlesnakes in the world. An outfitter there told me about an enormous rattler he had witnessed crossing a trail I was about to hike. When I did hike that trail for the most part it was quite barren except for a couple of places where the vegetation was chest high and I couldn’t see my feet. Yes, I was very nervous. On the Pennsylvania / Maryland border conservationists have actually posted signs requesting people not disturb the “snot nosed” rattlesnake because it is threatened. Can you believe it? Who is threatened? I promise I’ll try not to step on one. Don’t tell the snake lovers that if I had a magic wand no more poisonous snakes would exist.

Other incidents also frightened me. While hiking you get a sense about the things around you. Once I could feel that I wasn’t alone. As I descended a small ledge I had to get down on all fours. I was startled out of my wits when suddenly a heavy breathing animal was inches from my face. Whoa! As it was, an unleashed dog with the owner far behind had sprinted ahead to “catch” me. Another time the sound of an explosion nearly sent me into cardiac arrest. Unbeknownst to me I had walked to the edge of a beaver pond and had surprised a sentry beaver who warned the other beavers with a slap of his tail immediately next to me. I was aware beavers did this but couldn’t believe the incredible noise. At the time I promised myself that I’d request the Appalachian Mountain Club to reroute the trail or put a defibrillator on the tree.

In the history of the Appalachian Trail no fatalities have occurred from snakes, bears or moose, but, on occasion, bees have killed people. Once, while in the Great Smoky Mountains I got stung a couple of times when the hiker ahead of me apparently disturbed a nest and the others of us got stung.

Every hike is an adventure and some are extraordinary. Once in the Hundred Mile Wilderness I crossed paths with a hiker without arms.  He, his daughter and wife were climbing Barren Mountain as I was descending. Hours later as I was doubling back on the road to my car, he met me in his pickup truck and offered me a ride to my car. And he had no arms. 

Hikers in bare feet confound me. How is this possible in rocky shale that can shred boots?

Encounters with men wearing dresses are a head turner. I questioned one of these guys who was hiking with his girlfriend and his dog near Springer Mountain one February. Even though it was cool that day, he claimed it’s much cooler and more comfortable to be hiking without pants. OK, I guess.

While my overall experience is A plus, not all days on the trail are. I’ve had a couple of slips and falls resulting in cuts, bruises and once a broken fibula. Wet days for me are almost always miserable. Near my home in the north, last minute decisions allowed me to mostly avoid bad weather. But in the south because of long range planning I was compelled to hike even on rainy or super hot days. I had traveled too far and had scheduled motels and transportation. In general the Appalachian Trail is easier below the Mason-Dixon Line where the terrain isn’t as rugged, the footing is better and the bugs less aggressive.

My extraordinary adventure is over and I’m happy to reflect on it.

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