By CATHERINE HOGUE
Graduation is such a bittersweet time. It’s exciting to be ending one chapter and beginning another, but at the same time, it means that it’s time to take that big scary leap into the real world. Matt Ruhl, a 2013 graduate of Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, postponed that leap into real life after graduation by hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. It took Ruhl and a friend 139 days to hike the total 2,185.9 miles the trail consists of.
After graduating in May, Ruhl and his friend, Logan Sangrey decided to put off the real world and hike the trail. Sangrey had always wanted to do it and asked Ruhl if he wanted to. “I said, ‘Hey, why not!’ I wanted to have an adventure before I jumped into real life,” said Ruhl. “I have my whole life to work, and it was the best time to do something like this, so we did. I made so many new lifelong friends and made memories that I will cherish forever.” While hiking the trail, everyone goes by a trail name, either one the hiker comes up with or one that others come up with. Ruhl went by Stretch and Sangrey went by Braveheart.
Ruhl and Sangrey set out on the trail, starting at Mt. Katadin in Maine. There are three types of thru hikers: 1) northbounders (nobos), southbounders (sobos), and flip-floppers (those who start in the middle, hike to one end, then go back to the middle and hike to the other end). Ruhl and Sangrey were categorized as sobos since they started at the northern-most point. Travelling southbound is the hardest way to hike the trail because the New England section is the toughest. “It’s said that nobos have done around 80 percent of the trail, but only 20 percent of the work when they hit the New England section,” Ruhl said. “Due to this, most people hike north to get their “trail” legs before they hit the real hard stuff.” When Ruhl checked in at the halfway point in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, he was logged as the 26th sobo this year whereas over 1,000 nobos have checked in already this year.
Ruhl and Sangrey had to carry all their essential supplies with them. Their packs held: sleeping bag, ground mat, clothes (one set to hike in and a second for camp clothes), rain jacket, fleece, a stove for cooking, rope for hanging food when necessary, a dry bag for food, a knife, gas for stove, a rain cover for pack, a head lamp, first aid kit, water bladder, Nalgene, tent, water filter, crocs for camp shoes, boots, trowel, food, and as Ruhl said, “Most importantly, toilet paper!” Ruhl carried a few luxury items along as well, including his iPod, a mini speaker, and a battery pack for charging his electronics.
Ruhl said that while hiking, their days looked pretty much the same as far as their routine went. “We would wake up, typically around six or seven, change back into our damp hiking clothes (worst part of the morning), pack up our camp stuff, have breakfast, then hit the trail,” he said. They would then hike with intermittent snack and lunch breaks. Ruhl said they had to eat a lot because they would typically burn 6,000-8,000 calories a day. “Our metabolisms were on overdrive and we had to continuously be eating to sustain ourselves. The Appalachian Trail is the best weight loss program because you can eat whatever you want, however much you want, and still lose weight.” For breakfast, they would eat a Poptart and a Snickers bar. Lunch consisted of two protein bars, and dinner was either mac-and-cheese, a pasta side, and mashed potatoes, “or every college student’s favorite…ramen,” said Ruhl. They also snacked on candy and trail mix for quick calories and protein. After hiking, “we would then get to camp, set up camp, change into our camp clothes, and then have dinner. We would then journal for the day and then go to sleep to do it all over again.”
The men would camp at either three-sided shelters or at “stealth camps,” which is when they would find a spot right off the trail to set up their tents for the night. Ruhl and Sangrey would venture into towns from time to time to restock their food supply or to eat in the town. Because towns were located several miles off the trail, they would have to hitch rides into town. Ruhl said he wasn’t sure about hitching at first but it turned out to be easier than he thought. “The Appalachian Trail is great because of the trail community and the people involved,” said Ruhl. “Just about everyone knows about the trail, so if they see you around with your pack on, they know what you’re doing and are more likely to help you out.” Ruhl said they met a lot of different people, which made it more fun. “That was probably the best part of the trail, the people,” he said. “The views are always going to be there, but the people and the relationships are what make the trail.”
One of the biggest difficulties Ruhl and Sangrey faced on their adventure was the weather at the beginning of their trip. It took them 25 days to hike through Maine and only nine of those days lacked rain. Ruhl said everything they had was just constantly wet. However, the second half of their trip boasted better weather as they were only rained on around five times the entire second half. It was also difficult at first to develop their “trail legs.” “Maine is the most difficult part of the trail as far as terrain and elevation,” Ruhl said. “The trail had no switchbacks so it would just go straight up over the mountains. It is said that all of the elevation changes in just the New England section are equivalent to climbing Mount Everest seven times. That’s tough stuff!”
Ruhl’s favorite state on the trail was Virginia, even though about a quarter of the trail lies within its state lines. “I really enjoyed the Grayson Highlands in southern Virginia,” he said. “They were gorgeous and had wild ponies, which was awesome. The White Mountains in New Hampshire were absolutely beautiful too.”
With his adventure completed, Ruhl has returned home to Lancaster, Pa. and is assimilating back into the real world, including getting re-accustomed to driving a car. He will also begin his job search, trying to capitalize on his bachelor’s degree in technology education from Millersville. He did, however, have some advice for any upcoming MU graduate: “Take some time for yourself after you graduate. You have your whole life to work. Have a little fun while you have the time and check something off your bucket list!”