In the spring of 2015, Arkansas-native Jackson Spenser accomplished one of my ultimate dreams. He hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) in only 99 days! This 2,100 mile trail passes through 14 states. That’s right, it goes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin in Maine. This is an accomplishment that only about 12,000 people have completed since 1937. One day while searching for a pack for our upcoming trip abroad for Matt, we stumbled into a local outfitters store and met Jackson, who manages the store and also shared loads of amazing stories about his travels, including completing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After about 30 minutes of talking, trying on packs and testing out compression sacs, I knew I wanted to interview him about his experience. We met up for beers at a local brewery, hung out and talked AT. Jackson was very candid and real with his answers and, despite some of the quirkier experiences, left Matt and I itching to give the Appalachian Trail a go at some point. Here it is; prepare to be inspired. ** If the images don’t load for you, simply refresh the page, you won’t want to miss them. **
What inspired you to do the Appalachian Trail?
Two years ago today, I set off on one hell of a journey. I learned a lot on that trail and I feel it every day. Shout-out to all the amazing people I met and all the ones who helped me along the way. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. See you next year! #appalachiantrail #thruhike #at #AT2015 #pct
The year before I walked the Camino de Santiago, and when I got home I was still feeling like something was missing. I had gone hiking and camping with some friends near the Buffalo River. Close to evening time this man comes hiking out of the woods, so we invited him to come sit by the fire and drink some beer. He had just got back from hiking the AT that summer. I had heard about it before and I had watched documentaries and thought, ‘Wow, that’s really far; I don’t want to do that.’ But after talking to him I was like, ‘Yeah… I gotta go, I gotta go do it. I’ve got to see what else is out there.’
Who dropped you off in Georgia?
My father. He drove me out there. So there’s this 8.5 mile trail called the Approach Trail that goes from Amicola State Park to Springer Mountain, which isn’t technically part of the Appalachian Trail. But I’m not much of a research guy, I just kind-of get the idea and just go and learn along the way, so I never really looked into it much. On the other side of Springer you can get dropped off on a road that’s like half a mile from the trail. You just hike up to Springer and hike out. I thought you had to do the Approach Trail… So, you start off with all these steps. I don’t even know how many steps, but it’s part of the state park, so they’re just all these wooden steps. I think it’s like 500 steps, I don’t actually know how many steps, and my dad said, “I’m going to get to Springer Mountain with you.” I was like, “Dad, that’s like 8.5 miles, and then you have to hike back.” He said, “We’ll try it.” He got to the top of the steps and was like, “No… I can’t do it.”
Ha! Wow, there’s nothing like that boost of encouragement, huh? What was going through your head as you took your first steps on the trail?
“If you count the first steps in Amicola, I thought, ‘Okay, this isn’t bad.’ I was just getting into it. Especially when my dad was there. Then when my dad left and I was walking away from him, I turned back and he just kind-of waved at me and I went around a bend and it hit me that that’s the last person I was going to see that I knew for a very long time. It just all came over me and I realized this is a really, really, really fucking long, long walk. Once I got to Springer Mountain, I was kind-of pissed off! I walked 8.5 miles and didn’t even go a foot on the actual Appalachian Trail yet.
Haha! Oh my god. Who finally told you that you didn’t have to do that?
I found out when I was heading to Springer Mountain. I was going back down and met these two girls, Storybook and Kimchi were there hiker names, they had done the PCT the year before. I asked them if they were finishing up, and they were like “No, we just got dropped off.’ I just thought, well, shit. If we had known that, my dad could’ve gone to Springer Mountain with me and walked back down to the car… Oh, well.
See but now you have this hilarious story to tell. How many times, if any, did you consider going back home?
Haha! Really? Once a day?
To be honest, I got close twice. Really close. One I thought I was done for. Before I got to Virginia, I was about 300-something or 400-something miles past the Smokies, but I just got this point… I just sat down on this log and I had no emotions. I wish I would’ve cried or done something, but I just was, like, over it. Just done. I was prepared to quit, but you can’t just quit. You have to get somewhere to get off the trail. Anyway, I got to an area where I had service and I was texting my family and said, ‘Hey guys, I’m done. I’m coming home.’ I was hoping to make plans to get someone to come pick me up, ya know? But they wouldn’t let me. They jumped on it and they were really just… yeah. It was at that point too, that I learned the most important lesson that I learned on the trail. I’m such an independent person and I try to do everything on my own and it was at that moment that I realized how crucial it is to have people who believe in you and help you. It’s all emotional support, but it just hit me like a wave. Oh my goodness, it’s just an amazing feeling to have people care about you and want to see you succeed. I learned at that time that anytime I was feeling just a little bit off or down, let them know and ask for help. Put it out there, because every time they got me back on track.
That’s awesome. What a cool lesson to learn, and something that really will stick with you through the rest of your life. Did you make lifelong friends along the trail?
I think so. You know, I was moving quick, so I only hiked with a few people at a time, but I did meet some really, really cool people who I still occasionally keep in touch with, and maybe we don’t call each other or anything like that. But I do follow them on social media and stuff like that. A lot of them are coming up on the anniversary of when they left and you get to see it all coming up on their feed, but I have a couple of them, yeah. Especially the guy I finished the trail with. I hiked with him the most. We did the last four days together. I communicate with him more than the others. Most people hike with the same people for long periods of time and get to really know each other, so I was kind-of lacking that aspect of it, but I did get to meet some really, really interesting people and I think about them quite often. When I got home my dad had bought a map of the Appalachian Trail that’s like five-feet by something. I dunno, it’s big. I have it hanging on my wall and I’ll look at it and think about where I met those people.
That’s a really cool way to remember them. So, switching gears, bears are my biggest fear, so tell me about your bear run-ins.
Early mornings have their rewards. This was after hiking until 10:30pm the previous evening…in the rain…much needed reward for sure. I have made it to Monson which is the beginning of the 100 Mile Wilderness; the last 100 miles before I summit Katahdin and bring this journey to an end! It looks like I will be able to finish this thing in 100 days! The next picture I post will be me at the top, kissing the sign. Thank you everyone for all the support and love. I can’t wait to get back home and see you all! #AppalachianTrail #ThruHiker #AT2015 #ManOnAMission #100Days #AlmostHome
I only encountered 5 or 6 bears, well that I saw. Ha! Most of them just ran away scared. They’re really pretty timid creatures. I did run across a mama bear and her cubs. It was late in the afternoon, about 6 or so. I was in Pennsylvania up around the ridgeline and up head about 30 yards or so, maybe less, there were two little baby bears. They were really small, like the size of a small dog, and I saw them and thought, aw, cute little baby bear cubs. They sort-of squeaked at me and ran up a tree and then it hit, shit, where’s mom? I started really looking and about as far up the trail as they were, but off the trail, there she was. She was actually the biggest one I saw, compared to the others. There was a tree that fallen down and she was bending under it just looking at me. My first instinct was that I stepped back and brought my trekking poles up. I knew I didn’t want to run away, you don’t want to ensue a chase, I don’t want to yell because I don’t want her to feel like her cubs are threatened, so I just waited for a second and then decided to go off the trail for a little bit. I faced her the whole time to keep an eye on her, but you don’t want to lose the trail either. Once I passed her, she realized I wasn’t a threat and just went back to whatever she was doing. That was probably the most scared I was on the trail. My adrenaline was pumping. What really sucked was that that was at six o’clock, so I was planning on camping soon! Haha! I hiked until like 10:30 or so and thought screw that, I’m getting as far away from here as I can.
No kidding. I would’ve done the same thing! How often did you splurge on nights in town or restaurant food?
Ooh, restaurant food. That was my weakness. Yeah, that’s where most of my money went. Hotels I didn’t do too many. My dad bought me one for two nights. After the stint where I thought I was going to quit, he bought me two nights in a hotel and his girlfriend got me a gift certificate to a restaurant there that delivered. So I just hiked in that day and took an entire rest day – zero day they call it – and had another night in a hotel just refresh and recoup. I probably stayed in maybe 5 hotels the whole time.
So five nights in 99 days? That’s pretty impressive! What was your no. 1 go-to that you craved the most?
Everything. Everything. Steak. Burgers. Protein. I mean, the Appalachian Trail is the best diet plan. You can eat whatever you want and you’re still going to lose weight. The southern states on the southern part of the trail was less populated so you had less towns that you could hitchhike into. When you get to conneticuit, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, everyday you can eat somewhere. You’re either going through small towns or you come to a road with a dive bar .2 miles off the trail. I ate so much food. Appetizers, entrees, sometimes double entrees, dessert…
I’m sure they saw that all the time. They knew what you were doing right?
Oh yeah. They can tell, and they can smell. Ha!
Haha! I know you already talked about the biggest one, but what are some of the other lessons the Appalachian Trail taught you?
Other than the one, not being afraid to reach out for help, I would say perseverance. Just learning that you can do it. Just take one more step because that’s all it takes, just one more step. When I got home things just didn’t seem as difficult… It’s small things like go ahead and fold the laundry or do the dishes just because they need to be done. Plus, doing big things like moving up here to open the store and working 80+ hours a week. It did’t seem as hard when I was used to hiking 80+ hours a week. I don’t want to sound cliche, but I also learned more about our natural environment. I saw a lot of trash and I met these two guys that run “pack it out” and they’re going on trail to carry out trash. I thought, that’s just really cool. I’m just more aware of reducing my trash. I was always against littering, but it just hit home. So, the Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park, over 11 million people every year go to the park. I was talking to a ranger there, and he said of those 11 million people, less than 2% get more than 100 feet from their car. So it’s just a drive through park. What’s unique though, is that they get their name from the way they’re formed and weather patterns that holds a lot of fog and clouds that give it the smoky haze, but it also holds in solution from the exhaust from the cars. A lot of the plant-life is now dying there because so many people visit each year. It’s kind-of paradoxical. Our national parks are there so we can go and enjoy them, but at the same time we’re going and ruining them. You see that with trash too. It makes you want to do something about it.
Wow, yeah. Absolutely. What were some of the highlights? Ya know, the sights that just totally stand out in your mind.
Okay, there’s a couple. So, the first one was probably my first state. Going from Georgia into North Carolina. It was like, awesome, first state down, you’ve got twelve more. So that was kinda cool.
Then north of the Smokies, there’s this place called Max Patch. It’s the first place that you really get a 360 degree view. It’s just a grassy bald. Coming out of the green tunnel, which is just in the woods most of the time, you just get to see that oh my gosh amazing moment. For the next few days there were other grassy balds that I got to cross.
That, Grayson Highlands in Southern Virginia was really cool as well. There are wild ponies there and some really neat rock formations. It’s just beautiful.
Talk about a room with a view! Miscalculated the time it would take for me to climb Mt. Moosilauke so I reached the summit around 9:30pm and ended up camping above tree line (a big No No). Not a smart decision but I was greeted with a wonderful sunrise this morning. Definitely the highlight of my trip so far! Chasing sunsets make way for beautiful sunrises! #AppalachianTrail #ThruHiker #AT2015 #ManOnAMission #100Days #livefreeordie
Then, I would say Mt. Moosilauke in New Hampshire. It was the first mountain above tree line. Up to that point, I wasn’t used to doing that kind of elevation gain. It’s pretty steep when you get up to the Whites in New Hampshire and stuff and I kind-of misguided it and I was hiking well into night. I got to the top of it at 9 at night. It was dark and the wind was going crazy. You’re not supposed to camp above tree line because it’s just dangerous. Storms roll in quickly; if lightening strikes it’s usually going to hit you. It prefers humans over rocks. I made a judgement call, there was a huge rock wall that some left of up there facing the wind. There was a perfectly flat spot for a tent and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to sleep up here. I’m tired, it’s dark and I don’t want to use up my headlight batteries to get down the mountain.” I still had two miles to go to the shelter and I had a little bit of water so I just camped. When I woke up the next morning, my tent was facing east and the sun was coming up. It was just the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen in my life. I got to see it through my tent. I got to sit there and tears were just running down… I cried more on the AT than my entire life. Haha. I was just so emotional. It really tugs at your emotional strings and I just sat there and watched it come up. It was just beautiful.
Then the first time I saw Katahdin which is the last mountain in Maine. The guy I finished the trail with, we did our biggest day ever; it was 44.5 miles because we told ourselves that if we could get to this point, we could hitchhike into town… Just relax and then take our time the next day. So that’s what we did, we got up at four a.m. and hiked all day. Usually you can see Katahdin about 40-50 miles out, which is where we were, but it was raining and nasty all day so we couldn’t see it. It cleared up as we were coming out of the woods and got to Abol Bridge and I could see it. Tears rolled down my eyes then too because I had been chasing this thing for months, ya know, miles, 2000+ miles and I finally got to see it. And submitting it was… ya know…
Tears again then?
I have a video of it, but yeah… It was a victory yell and then just… yeah.
Do you mind telling me about your trail name?
So, I got the name ‘Mission’. It took a while, I was in the middle of Virginia. I didn’t hike with a lot of people and that’s usually what happens… You’re with a group of people and something happens and they give you your trail name based on your personality or something funny that happened to you. But, I was hiking somewhere in Virginia, I can’t remember where. I was coming to a road crossing and I had my head down, working my trekking poles, just moving along and there was a sign that said free food and it was pointing. I kind-of walked by it while I was crossing the road and I stopped, walked by it and said, ‘oh, free food!‘ and looked up and about a tenth of a mile down the road were these guys in lawn chairs waving me down. I thought, ‘Hell yeah; let’s go.’ I walked over there and they had such a great display of vegetables and they were cooking hamburgers and hotdogs, they had chocolate and chocolate milk and just all types of food… It was awesome. But they were like, ‘Man, you were booking through there! You looked like a man on a mission.’ I told them, ‘Yeah, until I saw that sign, free food.’ They asked my my name and when I said Jackson, they were like, ‘You don’t have a trail name?’ I said, ‘No, sir.’ So one guy said, ‘Well your name should be Man on a Mission.’ Another guy chimed in and said, ‘How about mission, let’s shorten it.’ It sounded good to me. It’s really cool because they were actually from Arkansas!
Oh that’s awesome!
Yeah, they go up every year with a church group and are Trail Angels who provide food for hikers for about ten days.
That’s awesome! About how many miles per day did you hike?
If you average it out, it was about 22 miles per day. I was slower at the first part and got a little bit quicker. There were days that I would average about 30 miles.
I know you just mentioned the awesome food Trail Angels from Arkansas, but tell me about your experiences with other Trail Angels.
There was a lot, and it comes in different ways. People leave stuff in coolers along the trail, free food, free rides. I’ll tell you about two of the craziest ones. Well, three… Haha! We’ll start from the south up. My first hitchhiking experience ever was out of a town that a hostel van had dropped us off in. We were in a small town in North Carolina in a pickup truck with a rebel flag, baseball cap and super stereotypical ‘redneck’. I come from Arkansas, I’m used to it, so it’s not that big of a deal right? He pulls up, rolls down the window and is like, ‘Youin’s goin’s the wrong way.’ I just said, ‘…What?‘ Haha! I mean, young’s is that, you ones? Y’all makes sense because it’s you all, but I don’t know about youin’s… You youngin’s… I don’t know… But he told us to hop in and he would takes us the right way. It was better than just sitting there so we did. He was a super nice guy and he dropped us off next to the road where we needed to go and said, ‘This is as far as I can take ya, but my momma’s down here keeping score at a baseball game, she lives out where y’all need to be. I called her and let her know, if you’re still here to take ya.’ They guy I was with had a book of known Trail Angels in the area and we were able to call a guy, but it was my first hitchhiking experience. It was really nice. Everyone was just super nice.
Second one was in Pennsylvania. I had a long, wet day. It had rained all day and I was soaked to the bone. I got to a shelter and it was full. I just didn’t want to put up my tent, I didn’t want to get my tent wet. I’m okay being wet, but I wanted to be dry sleeping. I get to the next shelter, packed full. Get on to the next shelter, packed full again. I went another two miles, that was one of my longest days, I went 30-something miles and I decided I was just going to get to the road, hitchhike into town and get a room. Bad news is, it’s Saturday night, no one is stopping to pick up hitchhikers at 9 at night . I sat there forever, it was getting cold, I was just shivering, when finally this truck pulled up really slow and pulls over. I put my stuff in the back to get in and he says, ‘What are you doin’ out here?’ I said, ‘I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail.’ ‘Why you down’ that?’ We started talking and he asked where I was heading. I told him I was trying to get a hotel and he said he would take me into town. After a while he asks me, ‘So, what are you doin’ out there?’ …. ‘Uh.. Hiking the Appalachian Trail…‘ The guy was drunk. I could tell at that point, and I was just like okay…. oh shit. But then I thought, this is better than being on the side of the road. Haha!
Oh my gosh… That’s when you know that it’s bad, when being on the road with a drunk driver is better than being on the side of the road.
So he takes me where my book says there should be a hotel and it’s closed. He takes me to the next one it was full and each time we’re getting farther and farther away from the trail. We got farther and farther out of town and into other towns. That place was full, he takes me farther and we found a place. He dropped me off and I was really thankful for him, but I started thinking, this is really going to suck tomorrow. How the hell am I going to get back? Turns out the guy that was working the night shift wants to hike the Appalachian Trail and told me when he got off at seven the next morning he would drop me off. It was awesome, like the trail always works out for you.
Then in Vermont, I was at the trailhead where people park, and a lady pulls up to let someone off that she picked up in town and said, ‘Hey I can give you a ride back in.’ Cool, so I throw my stuff in there. She was an older lady, probably in her 70’s and she said, ‘Now, I love giving everyone a ride, but you have to listen to my song and dance before I give you a ride into town.’ I said, ‘Okay..?’ I’m pretty open minded; let’s see where this goes. So, she goes, ‘Now, my grandson gave me this CD and this guy makes parodies of songs and his name is Weird Al Yankovik.’ I thought, oh great.’ I wish for the life of me I could remember the song, but she prefaced it with, ‘Now, I don’t have big breasts, but when I listen to this song I pretend like I have big breasts and I can play with them while I dance.’ I was thinking Oh no! I can’t remember how the song goes, I could probably look it up, but basically she proceeds to dance with her boobs, fake boobs at that, jiggle them up and down and is just looking at me the whole time. I just sat there like, ‘Yeah!…’ For the entire three minute long song, bouncing them back and forth. I was just sitting there like, I’m trying to get into town because I had some boots waiting for me at the post office, and I didn’t know what time they close… So she starts driving and says, ‘There’s another one about Bill Clinton.‘ All I could think is please don’t show me your dance to that. We start driving and there was another hiker walking into town, so I said, ‘Hey we should pick her up.’ I just wanted another person in the car with me.
Did she have to do the dance again?
No! Thankfully not!
That was just for you…
So we picked her up, and she’s just wild. Crazy wild. All her stories and everything. When we get to the post office she’s like, ‘I like to make my rounds so if I see you I can pick you up. If I’m free to pick you up I’ll give you a thumbs up. If you want a ride from me, you just give me a thumbs up right back and I’ll stop and pick you up. If you don’t need a ride, just give me thumbs down. And if you never want to see me again just give me the bird.‘ I just thought you are wild! I figure she’s probably really normal, and she goes and acts crazy with hikers because she knows all over the country hikers are telling this story.
* As a side note, Matt and I were erupting with laughter all through that one and I wish I had videoed the interview so you could see Jackson’s interpretation of the dance and his face during the demonstration… priceless. *
So, all that being said, would you say that the majority of your Trail Angel experiences were positive?
Oh yeah, there are just some great people, some awesome people that are more than willing to help you out. A lot of them will let you stay out in their yard or in their house. I met a lady in Connecticut who invited me to lunch. She made tuna fish sandwiches, which I had been eating a ton of, but it was nice to sit down and have a normal conversation with someone. I also met a guy in Virginia that was staying at a campsite and he drove to a campsite and shared food. There are just so many people out there. One of my biggest regrets is not taking down their information when I got home to send them a thank you card.
When we move back to Asheville, I want to be a Trail Angel, it just sounds so cool. So, how has your life changed since finishing the Appalachian Trail?
So, I fell a lot more productive, I guess. I’m just able to get through stuff more. Like I said before, small stuff just doesn’t seem that hard. I’ve always had a good work ethic, but I’ve just learned how to grind through stuff… I’m more aggressive in a lot of things too. I just go do stuff and make it happen.
So, would you do it again?
Not the Appalachian Trail. I would do the Pacific Crest Trail, which I probably will. I have to. I’ve never really wanted to do the same thing twice. I don’t want to spend the same time, effort, money, energy on the same experience. I want to have different experiences.
What advice would you give someone who wants to do the AT?
Number one advice that I give people all the time who come into the shop that are wanting to or are actually going to do it is listen to what everyone has to say, but find your own way. I mean, there are so many ways to skin that cat. And just because it works good for you or it’s the best way to do it for you, doesn’t mean it’s the best way for someone else. That’s the only advice I really tell people, is don’t listen to everyone’s advice. Haha, but really it’s some of the best advice. Be open, be ready to evolve. You’re going to do things completely differently when you start the trail than when you end it. If not, you’re probably going to have a really horrible trip because you’re going to learn so much from people and from trial and error… That and it’s not a physical game; it’s a mental game. I mean, yeah it’s physically hard, but after a while, your body gets used to it. You go, oh, this is what we’re doing everyday now? Okay, cool. But it’s the mental part of it. There were a lot of people on the trail that I saw who were a lot more fit than I was, that had been hiking a lot longer than I have, and they quit within the first day. Then there are people who have never put a backpack on before in their life and they’ve gotten to Katahdin. And that’s all because it’s up here… You’re going to go at your physical abilities anyway. It’s hard for everyone. You have some people who will go 10 miles their first day and another person can only go 8. It’s equally hard for each of you. It’s just going to be hard. There’s just nothing you can do to prepare for it physically, except going out to hike all day with weight on your back for 3 weeks before you go. Mentally is where it’s at. Those are the people who can finish. The people who can go through the mental and emotional rollercoaster. It’s just all about putting one foot in front of the other. Just don’t worry about the physicality of it and don’t give up on yourself.
Call off the dogs and piss on the fire; this hunt is over!!! I can’t believe I’m finally done with my 2,189.2 mile walk across 14 states. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to complete my goal of 100 days…so I decided to do it in 99!!! This has been the hardest thing I have ever done and I have the best family, friends, and complete strangers to thank for it. I’m at loss of words at the moment…all I can say is I’m #ComingHome!!! See you Saturday. #ThruHiker #AppalachianTrail #Katahdin #ManOnAMission #99Days #AT2015 #AppalachianTrials
Thank you so much to Jackson for sitting down with us to share more about your experience and for inspiring the hell out of us. I love meeting people who had a goal or a dream and made it happen. Jackson is still an advocate for getting outside and has chronicled some of his outdoor adventures on his blog Tales of the Trails. Check it out to learn more about his experiences on hikes like the AT, the Ozark Highlands Trail and the Camino de Santiago.
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