A Book Review by Mike Hohmann
A Walk for Sunshine, 20th Anniversary Edition,
A 2,160 Mile Expedition for Charity on the Appalachian Trail
by Jeff Alt
Beaufort Books, 2017
A little background for the story can be gleaned from the Preface of Jeff Alt’s book:
… On March 1, 1998, I began my northbound expedition along the Appalachian Trail.
… For 147 days, I put one foot in front of the other at least five million times. Not only did I walk an unbelievable distance -2,160 miles to be exact -but I raised $16,000 and inspired an annual event that has raised more than $500,000 for a home for the intellectually and developmentally disabled, where my brother Aaron lives (Sunshine Communities).
…Sunshine grew from serving 27 children in 1952 to it’s current capacity of over 500 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities across the state of Ohio. …Little did I know that my hike would inspire the adoption of a new annual fundraiser, “Sunshine Walk, Run and Roll.” … I am excited to share my Walk for Sunshine with you.
I read Jeff Alt’s book, A Walk for Sunshine, over the weekend, and I found it hard to put down. That may sound a bit strange for a hiking book, unless you happen to be a hiker. And it may become a page-turner if you’re a backpacker. Reading the book, you’ll experience the ups and downs of trail-life, meet unique hikers along the way, and visit the places Jeff visited throughout his 147 day adventure. The book is excellent! Of course, I’m a hiker, a camper and a backpacker, so what would you expect!
But the book is about much more than just hiking. Alt talks about motivation, setting goals and planning, perseverance and dedication to task -and he demonstrates how to integrate all these concepts and achieve the overall objective. He shows us how a seemingly simple task, while being difficult to achieve by the individual, can be turned into a team effort -something that encompasses more than self, and benefits a much wider community over time. Believe it, and you can do it! And he proves it!
Carrying 50# for weeks on end, even months on end is a daunting task. Jeff planned to go on and off the main Appalachian Trail (AT), in order to get re-supplied with food, and other supplies that had been mailed ahead according to a schedule -approximately every 10 to 14 days, and that requires significant planning and coordination. It requires a dedicated support team, and extra hiking over the duration of the trip. It requires a dynamic supply-chain, one that can meet the needs of the hiker, given changing conditions on-the-ground -situations like sickness and/or injury, weather-related difficulties, emergencies, and a myriad of other unanticipated events throughout the journey. Communications became an important consideration. How will you communicate and stay in touch with your team, and what is the backup plan?
There are times when you get off-trail to pick up supplies or perhaps seek emergency shelter, when there may be a temptation to just pack it in, and quit the hike -especially after you’ve been hiking a week in cold weather with rain everyday, maybe sleet and snow as well -maybe even two weeks of miserable weather! You may become ill or injured, requiring changes to the schedule. It can be difficult, and Alt experiences many of these issues -contingencies if you will, throughout his journey! He had planned to meet friends along the trail for short hikes. In one case, he hiked 34 miles straight in order to meet an old girlfriend and her brother as previously planned. There’s more, but you’ll just have to read the book to get the complete story!
Thru-hiking the AT requires a great deal of perseverance and dedication to the task, from both the hiker and his logistics support team. Jeff departed Springer Mountain, GA on March 1st heading north. He’d often be hiking up and down in the mountains for months on this difficult trail. It was a sunny day on March 1st, and 50 degrees when his journey began.
It would be Jeff’s first solo hike. The topo-map showed the next 80 miles was all up and down -no flat land hiking. By noon on the first day, he had hot-spots developing on heels and toes -blisters were forming. He applied moleskin to ease the friction, and continued hiking. His feet got worse. Then he realized that the arch supports he’d added to his boots were installed incorrectly -each was in the wrong boot, thus the blisters! Ouch!
The mistake corrected, his feet slowly felt better when walking, but the blisters would bother him for the next week. He applied duct tape over the blisters. It was during this time period that he took his ‘trail name’ -Wrongfoot! Long-distance thru-hikers often assume a ‘trail name’ and his humble choice of name, assured he would never forget that initial mistake. His pace had slowed because of his sore feet and he ended up hiking in the dark with a headlamp for several hours, until he reached his shelter on that first night.
The trail shelters usually have three walls, an open front and a roof, and they may sleep 6-12 people. The temperature was now in the mid-30’s, and he’d hiked 16 miles. While he carried a tent, the shelters usually offered more room, and some comradery with fellow hikers. Often, the hikers shared these shelters with nearby field mice. The mice were fond of all the food hikers carried, and would steal the food anytime the opportunity presented itself. They were known to scurry over hikers arms and heads during the night, and they sometimes carry the hantavirus as well. Welcome to the Appalachian Trail!
On day two, the temperature never broke 40 degrees, and it was around 20 degrees the second night. While sleeping in the trail shelter, Jeff felt something moving on his lower legs. Turning on his headlamp he found a skunk trying to sleep on his sleeping bag, between his legs. The skunk spent the night but was gone in the morning. The next two days brought cold wind and rain! Mother Nature wasn’t making it easy.
Early on, Jeff began hiking regularly with ‘Packrat’ and ‘Magaroni.’ Packrat, at 50 years old, was the faster hiker and would usually end up ahead of the group on the trail, then they’d all meet at a designated shelter for dinner and spend the night together. ‘Magaroni’ was a part-time college student from Rhode Island, who had previously hiked the 265 mi. Long Trail in Vermont. He had worked in a hospital as a nurse’s aid, and he wore hospital scrubs as his hiking garb. They all seemed to hit it off well together. This was Packrat’s fifth attempt to thru-hike the AT.
Soon they crossed into North Carolina, and would hike through 12 more states before reaching Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT, up in Maine. They had been on the trail for six days! As they continued, the temps remained in the 20’s with no sun for several days.
Jeff’s feet were beginning to feel better now, and he was hiking 18-20 miles per day regularly. Jeff would meet many hikers over the course of his journey. Some would become close friends, even after the hike was completed, others were deemed trouble makers and people to avoid.
In this cold weather, they’d climb out of their sleeping bags in the morning, quickly eat something, and begin hiking -just to stay warm! They came to a hostel with a restaurant near the trail, paid a fee, and got a heated bunkhouse for the night -a real treat. There was also an outfitter nearby, and they had resupply packages to pick up. A fourth hiker, Jeremy, had joined them recently and after a few days, he became the first to drop out and head home. The others spent two nights in the heated bunkhouse, then hit the trail again. The forecast was still calling for more snow and sub-zero temperatures! There was a hiker cold-weather warning posted, and they picked up some extra winter gear before leaving the hostel.
They were now hiking in excess of 20 mi/day, mostly just to stay warm, and were headed for the Stecoah Mountains of North Carolina -considered by many to be the toughest area south of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The sun was shining but it was only 20 degrees as they climbed 3,000′ up the mountain headed north. Ahead lay snow-capped mountains, the furthest on the horizon being Clingman’s Dome. They stopped early to set up camp and their water bottles were frozen solid. They melted snow and spent 15 hrs in their tents. Next morning, they headed for a small town twenty miles ahead in search of a warm room for the next night.
It went on like this, with deeper snow as they approached Clingman’s Dome. Hiking was difficult and dangerous now. Jeff’s knee began bothering him in the deep snow, and his ankle was swollen from getting it twisting it in the eroded trail below the snow. They summited Clingman’s Dome and continued north. Next stop would be Gatlinburg, TN where they’d get a motel room, warm up, and assess their injuries. Jeff put his swollen ankle on ice. They decided to stay a couple of nights, and on the second day the swelling started going down and the pain subsided. They began hiking again. The trail still had snow and was wet.
A couple days north of Newfound Gap, they stopped to eat at Mountain Mama’s, located just off the trail. They got another room to warm up and ‘Packrat’ decided to bail -he was sick of the weather and was getting off the trail. He caught a shuttle to Hot Springs, and was gone! It was March 20th and they were 270 miles from Springer Mountain, GA.
Jeff continued on…
–Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (NRA) in Virginia, 516 mi from their start.
-Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, 997 mi. from their start -it was May 9th.
Crossing cow pastures, and climbing over fences in PA, Jeff was almost run over by a bull chasing him. He’d read messages from hikers in front of them -in the trail registers, and he’d leave messages for those following behind. Then occasionally he’d meet someone he’d been following, and some of those following, would suddenly appear on the trail and introduce themselves feeling like friends who knew each other. Jeff offers numerous humorous stories along the trail, while heading to Katahdin. It’s largely those trail stories that keep the book so interesting.
-Delaware Gap, New Jersey, 1,273 mi from their start -it was May 26th. -Mellville Nauheim Shelter in Vermont -June 16th.
For 100 miles the AT was combined with the Long Trail in the Green Mountains of VT, then the Long Trail heads north to Canada, then near Killington, the AT continues east into the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Jeff’s friend, Foxtrot began hiking the Long Trail and they parted ways after several weeks together.
-Hanover, NH on June 22nd, and Jeff was headed for the legendary White Mountains. He had a supply package to pick up in Hanover that included some warmer clothes as he began to climb above treeline, crossing the Franconia Ridgeline.
On June 30th he was climbing up to Mount Washington as he crossed the Presidential Range -1,830 miles from his GA start. He found a letter waiting for him at the Mount Washington Post Office, from the Sunshine Community. It notified him that the first fundraiser was a huge success. Their original goal was to raise $10,000, and they were already nearing $15,000 for Sunshine. Local newspapers had been following Jeff’s progress on the AT, and the letter asked if he would kick off the Northwest Ohio Special Olympics in August by giving a motivational speech. Of course he would! Jeff continued hiking down to Pinkham Notch for the night. Things were going well!
Jeff reached the top of Mt. Katahdin, in Maine on July 25th, 1998 after hiking 2,160 miles from Springer Mountain, GA.
And from Jeff…
…Out of love, I dedicated my hike to my brother Aaron. He cannot walk or speak, but his smile sends a million messages to anyone who has ever known him.
…Shortly after arriving back in Toledo, I paid a visit to Aaron. As soon as he saw me, a smile spread across his face from ear to ear. Aaron’s smile confirmed in my heart that he understood that I had completed my journey for him.
…I gave press interviews, contacted friends and family, and gave speeches and presentations of my journey. I spoke to community organizations that had supported my fundraiser. The Sunshine Home sponsored a dinner and slideshow presentation of my journey and had honored me with the Spirit of Sunshine Award. As I presented and shared my trail experiences, I realized the momentum that my dream had created.
If you love the outdoors and enjoy hiking, this is the story you don’t want to miss! Jeff Alt’s journey, undertaken to support his brother and others like him, is amazing -and remains an ongoing task. I heartily recommend Alt’s book, A Walk for Sunshine.
Mike Hohmann, BackCountryJournal
Note- I received a paperback edition of A Walk for Sunshine in return for writing an objective Review of the book. I received no other remuneration of any type. It’s an excellent book, plain and simple! MH
73 Mike, KEØGZT