Tecumseh man hikes the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine
In 1986, Mark St. Amour was a United States Marine stationed in Georgia. After hiking with a friend to the start of the Appalachian Trail, St. Amour was captivated by the trail as it disappeared in the distance. He thought someday he would try to hike the more than 2,000 miles of trail from Georgia to Maine.
“The seed was planted in my mind,” St. Amour said.
In the fall of 2011, St. Amour had the chance to retire from the Ann Arbor Police Department. Only 51, St. Amour struggled with the effect early retirement would have on him, his wife, Pam, and their daughters, Cierra, 14, and Sydney, 11. He recalled sitting at an Applebee’s restaurant with Pam on the day the two were to sign the retirement paperwork and worrying. Out of the blue, Pam said to him, “You could hike the Appalachian Trail like you’ve always wanted if you retire.”
At that moment, St. Amour said all apprehension about retirement disappeared. They signed the paperwork, and he finished his career as a detective/lieutenant with the AAPD on Dec. 31, 2011.
After his retirement, St. Amour researched the Internet, including the best gear. Despite his interest in the Appalachian Trail, St. Amour had not ever hiked or camped before.
On a cool February day, 26 years after he and his friend stood looking out on the Appalachian Trail, St. Amour stood at the same spot, wearing a 40-pound backpack, and set off on the 2,180 mile trail. St. Amour was about the 20th person to start hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2012.
“I was really giddy when I started,” said St. Amour. “I was finally able to release my inner Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer.”
In many ways, St. Amour didn’t fit with the usual trail thru-hikers who tend to be people in their 20s or older retirees in their 60s.
St. Amour hiked alone during the first three states and didn’t see many people. Often he would go for two or three days and only see one or two other people. “I kinda enjoyed the quiet and solitude,” St. Amour said.
He was amazed not only by the beautiful scenery, but at the quiet that surrounded him on the Trail. Except for the occasional jet fly-over and birdsong, the only thing St. Amour heard was the snapping of sticks and noise from his hiking boots.
Once he reached the Smokey Mountains, more people were out on the Trail, mainly section and day hikers on spring break from college. At Newfoundland Gap, St. Amour received all kinds of attention from people. One young man recorded a video interview with St. Amour.
An elderly woman visiting a turnout with her husband came up close to St. Amour and told him he was lucky to be able to thru-hike the Trail, and said with great seriousness to appreciate every moment of his journey. Then she turned and got in the car with her husband and they drove away. It was obvious to St. Amour that the woman wanted him to know he wouldn’t be young forever.
“I only saw her for a few seconds,” said St. Amour “but she really resonated with me.”
The people thru-hiking the Trail amazed St. Amour with their differences, and he was surprised with himself at how quickly he made friends. “I engaged people that I never would have before,” he said.
Despite the friendships, St. Amour said the prevailing philosophy of the Trail is “Hike your own hike.” This attitude means that every thru-hiker goes at his/her own pace and time spent with others happens when destinations are reached rather than hiking side-by-side.
Three big dangers threatening the safety of thru-hikers are lightning, Lyme Disease, and swimming. The key to safety in thunderstorms, according to St. Amour, is to stay below the tree line when hiking in the mountains.
He had a friend who was forced to stop his hike of the Trail because he contracted Lyme Disease. St. Amour used a tick repellent spray and dressed appropriately, but still had times where he would brush many ticks off his socks at the end of the day.
Swimming sounds like an odd worry, but St. Amour said the lure of a lake or pond along the Trail on a hot day can be dangerous because the cold temperature of spring-fed water combined with hot air temperatures can cause deadly cramps and unknown depths fool people. One hiker drowned during St. Amour’s time on the Trail.
Often the Trail has steep drop offs that border the path, which can also be deadly. St. Amour said hiking is mostly spent with the eyes down scanning the ground for roots, rocks and drop-offs. “There is no safety net,” he said.
Because of his 26 years in law enforcement and his time as a Marine, St. Amour was used to helping others and not at accepting assistance with anything. This philosophy changed for St. Amour as he was hiking through Virginia. Low on water and tired, he decided to respond to a Trail card from a nearby Lutheran Church offering free food, shelter and laundry to thru-hikers.
St. Amour was amazed by the generosity of the pastor and his wife in opening their home to a complete stranger, and also at his own ability to accept help. From that point on, St. Amour found it easier to accept food, water and transportation from Trail Angels, as these volunteers are called. He now finds ways to give back that kindness to others.
People told his wife, Pam, that St. Amour would come back changed, and he agrees he is different. “I think I changed for the better from all the random acts of kindness,” said St. Amour. A more understanding father and husband, the mistakes and difficulties he faced on the Trail have helped his patience with others.
Taking a one-month break in May from the hike, St. Amour returned to the Trail to finish what he had started in February. Knowing the end of the journey was near, St. Amour found himself anxious for the hike to be over and at the same time, marveling at the sights and sounds that made his experience so amazing. One of his last nights in Maine was very powerful.
“I really enjoyed finding a lake, camping knowing there was no one around, and listening to the loons,” St. Amour said.
After experiencing the East Coast flavor of the Trail through the White Mountains, St. Amour reached the end of his journey on Mt. Katahdin in Bangor, Maine. The immensity of his journey hit him when he realized he had traveled 2155.7 miles over mountains and fields. So much of his trip was spent just focusing on the steps in the moment, he had lost his sense of distance. Heading home, St. Amour realized he had taken five million steps during his thru-hike adventure.
A month after his journey came to an end, St. Amour is planning a hike for next year with a friend he met on the Trail. The 220-mile trek of the John Muir Trail in California will be a new adventure and only take two weeks, which will make Pam and his daughters happy. They are proud of his accomplishment and St. Amour is deeply appreciative of the support and encouragement from Pam, Cierra and Sydney that helped him fulfill a once-in-a-lifetime dream.
To follow St. Amour’s journey, read the online journal he kept for his family at trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=389764. He welcomes questions and hiking advice at firstname.lastname@example.org.