While Caleb Reske and Jack Griffin hadn’t stayed in touch after leaving Fay, they realized in a serendipitous Zoom reunion last spring that they had both been contemplating the same big idea: taking a gap year and hiking the Appalachian Trail. With college acceptances in their pockets, Caleb to Yale and Jack to Harvard, neither was particularly enthusiastic about spending their freshman year in remote learning. So, they deferred college for a year and hatched a plan to make a NOBO (north-bound) trip up the Appalachian Trail starting in March at Springer Mountain in Georgia and arriving at Maine’s Mount Katahdin in mid-July. Jack and Caleb were less experienced than many AT hikers, but they found that the quick camaraderie that forms among fellow hikers flattened the learning curve. “Once we got on the trail, everyone taught us so much,” says Caleb.
We caught up with Jack, trail name “Babushka,” and Caleb, trail name “Sun-Dried,” in Unionville, New York (mile 1,450) in mid-May, where they shared some of the highlights, unexpected perils, and lasting lessons learned on the trail thus far.
First, how did you come by your trail names?
Caleb: I got mine on the second day. I was thinking about food, and you can’t eat vegetables out here, but I saw some sundried tomatoes, and I was trying to get everyone to try them. So they said we should call you “Sun-Dried.” Also, I did have a sunburn.
Jack: I lost my hat and was wearing a gaiter around my head. I was going to dump out my soup bowl in camp, and someone said I looked like an old Russian woman, which turned into Babushka. You are supposed to have someone else come up with your name, but sometimes people come up with their own, and it always sounds like they’re trying a little too hard. The Enigma? Yeah, that’s not going to stick!
Of all the things you could have done this year, why the Appalachian Trail?
Jack: At first, it was simply because I didn’t want to do online classes; that seemed like a waste of a year. What drew me to the AT was that it’s such a simple lifestyle. There is so much going on in our regular lives and so many things to handle, but this is simple and enjoyable. Every day I get to go for a hike and enjoy nature. Plus, I’m doing something productive with my year.
What is the best thing you have seen or experienced on the trip so far?
Caleb: There are a lot of views along the AT, but I really like the smaller-scale beauty of walking into a beautiful glade or an idyllic farm field.
Jack: I totally agree with Sun-Dried. We walk for hours in the woods, and there’s nothing that you would take a picture of, but it’s such a happy environment. A scientific study showed that just looking at a picture of a tree has a calming effect. We’re practically meditating out here!
What item in your pack has proved to be the most important?
Caleb: I can tell you the least important. I started with a tent, but I lost my tent poles, and then they sent me the wrong size, and the next ones got lost in the mail. So fate does not want me to have a tent!
Jack: Well, I still have a tent, and I think it’s pretty important, but I am most grateful for the shoes I am wearing. They’re waterproof, and my socks aren’t wet. It’s the little things out here like having my shoes keep my feet dry.
Caleb: I have a friend who got trench foot because his feet stayed wet for days. Foot care is important!
What new skills have you acquired on your travels so far? Anything that you will bring back to life after the AT?
Jack: I now know how to hang a bag so that a bear can’t get into our food, but the biggest thing that I think I’ll bring back to real life is that I can sit with myself and my thoughts. I didn’t use to be able to do that, so this was a good way to learn how to slow things down.
Caleb: And I did learn how to cook in a rusted old tomato paste can, but since going into quarantine last spring, I haven’t made any new friends. This experience has restored my previous ability to make friends.