Bored with the boundaries of a more traditional lifestyle, Richard Phillips decided this summer to fulfill his dream of walking the entire 2,193 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
A 2005 graduate of Hillsboro High School, Phillips said he developed his love hiking during backpacking adventures in high school and later when he lived in California for about 18 months.
“I just always enjoyed hiking, being outside and spending time walking through the woods. The people I met were fun to hang out with and a lot of us still stay in touch,” said Phillips, adding that he and some of those friends followed up with a New Year’s camp when the weather was in the low 20s. “A couple years ago it got into my head a little more, I talked to some other people who had hiked the trail, so I figured I’d give it go. Looking back I can say I was glad I took the chance when I could.”
He started saving money last winter. Then at a point when he was between jobs and looking for answers to some of life’s riddles, he decided it was time to make the trip this summer. But there was a complication. Because of COVID-19, some of the Appalachian Trail’s paths were closed. So instead of walking directly from Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia, he set out closer to the middle of trail and went north, rode back to where he started, then went south to avoid bitterly cold weather.
Phillips started on June 18 in Weaverton Cliff, Maryland and arrived on Mount Katahdin, the trail’s north end, on Sept. 16. Then his parents, Hillsboro residents Jeff and Penny Phillips, picked him up and drove him back to Weaverton Cliff. He started out again on Sept. 19 and reached the trail’s southern end at Springer Mountain on Dec. 5.
“I had a pretty smooth journey. I had no injuries or feet issues like some people get,” he said.
He also said he was lucky with his footwear, only using three pairs of hiking shoes while some people go through five or six pairs. He said one pair lasted 1,100 miles, and that he still wears the third pair.
Most of the time, Phillips said he hiked alone. He said he met plenty of people along the trail and talked to lots of them. But after a distance, he said, it’s easy to run out of things to say to a complete stranger, so hikers usually split off or change pace.
Phillips said he spent most nights camping with other people on the trail, using his tent about 70 percent of the time, but camping in shelters if the weather was bad. He saw five black bears along the way, but nothing else too wild.
“The first time I saw bears I was in a zone hiking, they were eating, and we came a little closer than I would have liked. We were both startled,” he said. “But I just backtracked a little and let them do their thing.”
His favorite part of the trail was in the White and Presidential mountains in Vermont and New Hampshire. He said they are more rugged and rocky than the Smokies. He said it got a little cold on the north end of the trail and again in Georgia. But he said in Georgia it just made him walk faster because he knew he was nearing the end and didn’t want to have to spend more money on clothes.
Most of the time, he said, it was a completely enjoyable experience.
“But there would be times I would be walking along and think, ‘what in the world am I doing,’” he laughed.
If you check out any of Phillips’ pictures online, you’ll notice a tiny, blue Smurf character named Kelly in many of them. He said he carried it along in honor of his grandfather, Phil Karnes.
“Grandpa always collected Smurfs, and he enjoyed taking photos,” Phillips said. “So I figured I’d carry him along and snap some pictures.”
Phillips said he started out walking 15 to 20 miles a day and that physically, the trek was not as hard as he expected. Like most people, he said he started his journey with trek poles, but soon realized he was spending more time twirling then in his fingers than using them. So he gave them away.
His next goal, Phillips said, is to hike the Pacific Coast Trail from Mexico to Canada.
“Get out there and try it. You never know until you try it. Follow your dreams more anything, I guess,” Phillips said would be his advice to anyone considering a similar adventure.
When he finally reached the end of the trail, he said it didn’t really hit him at first because he still had to hike down off the mountain and get back home. But he said he knew he wanted to seek more adventures.
“If you wanna do it, you can. Just set your mind to it. I was in a bad place and the trail definitely helped. There’s a lot of time alone for you to think, go through your thoughts, and process them,” Phillips said. “Whatever makes your soul happy, do that.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522.