Long Walk Home
By Ian Nadeau
Atlantic News, Thursday, February 21, 2002
[Atlantic News Photo by Ian Nadeau]
HAMPTON -- — At just 38 years old, David Grassi of Salisbury, Massachusetts stands on the verge of fulfilling a lifelong dream.
In March, Grassi will take an Amtrak train to Georgia and proceed to walk back home — and then some. Grassi will be travelling by way of the Appalachian Trail, a grueling 2,168.8 mile hike that stretches from Springer Mountain to Maine’s Katahdin Mountain. If all goes according to plan, he will soon become one of the few, brave individuals who have traversed the entire stretch of mountainous terrain in one continuous trip.
“I’ve wanted to do this all my life,” he says.
The idea of making such a journey has captivated Grassi since he was a young child. He recalls first catching a glimpse of the sign for the Appalachian Trail off of the Massachusetts Turnpike heading toward New York. When his parents told him what the sign was for, the young Grassi was immediately enthralled.
About a year ago, he decided that it was finally time to go for it.
“I just got to a point in my life. where I’m not getting any younger and just decided to do it,” he says.
An avid hiking enthusiast, Grassi had recently been neglecting his hobby. He estimates that he had not hit the mountains for five or six years, before he decided it was time to get back to nature. He thought the best way to do that would be to go for the gold and hike the Appalachian Trail.
Some of his friends and family think he’s a little crazy for making such a dramatic leap. People constantly ask him why he doesn’t just take a weekend trip, but Grassi just tells them that this is the way he wants to return to the sport he loves.
But deciding to hike the trail and actually finishing it are two very different things. According to the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) - a private, non- profit group dedicated to building, protecting and managing the trail for the public - several thousand hikers set out on the trail each year and only about fifteen percent make it to the end.
“I’m going to make it,” he assures. “I’m absolutely 100 percent positive, which is the most important thing if you’re going to make it; that and proper planning."
He says those who drop out usually either don’t know what they’re getting into or they haven’t adequately prepared.
Grassi started getting ready for his hike one year ago and his preparations continue to this day. He has been busy finding, purchasing and testing out special equipment, packing boxes of supplies which will be mailed to him throughout his trek and getting back into shape. He has even read close to a dozen books specifically about hiking the trail.
“I’ve read that it can’t hurt to train physically, but nothing will help you train for the Appalachian Trail like the Appalachian Trail,” he says.
Experts say that after the first month of hiking six to seven days a week from sunup to sundown, thru-hikers (the term used for anyone who has hiked the Appalachian Trail in one trip) are in the best shape of their life.
"It's a 24-7 workout except for when you sleep at night," says.
Grassi knows marathoners who have had lots of trouble on the trail. The only thing he could think of that would really prepare someone for an experience like this would be boot camp.
"The hardest thing about the whole thing is just - mentally — the miles,” he says. Hiking 16 miles in a day is tough, but hiking 16 miles knowing there is another 2,000 ahead can be nearly impossible.
Along the trail, hikers come across various towns and cities where they can pick up supply packages, get a shower and a meal and purchase anything else they need. This poses another dilemma, because hikers must come down from the mountains to replenish supplies, meaning that backpacks are always at their heaviest on the way up the next mountain.
“I guess after a while that really starts to get to you,” says Grassi.
Since it is such a strenuous endeavor, ultra-lightweight supplies are a must. Grassi will be packing a nine-ounce whisper light stove, a three-pound back-pack made of fibers that are pound-for-pound stronger than steel, and a 1-1/2 pound sleeping bag. The gear will weigh a total of 24 pounds, with food adding another 15 at the most.
Technological advances like these have made it somewhat easier to finish the trail in recent years. The ATC records show that more people completed the trail in 2000 than in the first 40 years since Myron Avery did it back in 1936 combined.
“It’s gotten much easier from when the first couple of people did it, but it’s still an unbelievably ably difficult task to achieve,” explains Grassi.
As he moves along the trail, the amount of energy he expends is going to far exceed his regular food intake. As a result, thru-hikers have to consciously increase their consumption rate. Grassi says it is not uncommon for a thru-hiker to go into town and finish a full pizza or a half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting in order to increase their calorie count.
The occasional eating binges aside, thru-hikers should expect to drop 30 pounds. Grassi jokes that he has a few to spare anyway, so he’ll probably lose 40.
Grassi says he is not worried about encountering wild animals up in the mountains and valleys, but the threat of physical injury is considerable. “You’re going to fall down in over 2,000 miles of hiking,” he says.
Thru-hikers have been forced off the trail from injuries ranging from stress fractures and shin splints to fractured skulls. Grassi will try to avoid such pitfalls by not getting overconfident and walking within his means.
He has recently taken a few practice hikes to get back into the swing of things. On a hike up Wildcat Mountain, Grassi met a couple who had hiked the Appalachian Trail before. “The thru-hikers said [Wildcat] was one of the hardest hikes they’ve ever done so that made me feel better,” he says.
Thru-hikers typically complete the trail in anywhere from four to eight months. Grassi plans on finishing in six. He figures that this is a once in a life- time opportunity so he is going to take his time.
“If you can afford the six months, then why rush?” he asks. “That’s my philosophy.”
The tentative start date for his mission is March 18. He hopes to reach Katahdin Mountain on September 31. The one time constraint he must contend with is the closing of Baxter State Park on October 15. If he doesn’t finish by then, he’s in trouble.
Anyone wishing to track Grassi’s progress can check out the map of the Appalachian Trail at his employer, Wicked Awesome Wallpaper and Paint on Route 1 in Hampton. Postcards sent by Grassi will be tacked on to the map at their points of origin.
“It’s something he has decided to do on his own and we all encourage him,” says Jack Bowland, owner of Wicked Awesome. “We give him a hard time every day, but we’re all pulling for him.”
“The map is marking my progress so that I know there is this community that might know that I’m walking so that helps me stay motivated,” says Grassi.
Now that Grassi is nearing the end of his preparations, he is beginning to feel the thrill of the adventure ahead of him.
“It’s hard to describe,” he says. “It’s a lifelong dream, how else do you describe answering a lifelong dream? It’s pure excitement at this point -- I can barely sit and work.”