Warning: This story may inspire you to blaze your own trail on the AT, but before you make any plans be sure to check in with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for current trail closures and policy related to COVID-19.
Last July, Andrew Baldwin set out southbound on the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail with the goal of gaining clarity and focus after a year of living in constant motion on the road.
Many would call it the dream life, with Baldwin quitting his nine-to-five job in the insurance industry, selling the house, and traveling the country with his wife, Ashli, in their self-sufficient Toyota 4Runner and R-Pod 180 trailer. The seasons passed and they put on thousands of miles, vagabonding to beautiful places like Colorado, the desert southwest, and the Cascade Mountains in Oregon.
But the longer they traveled, the more unsettled Baldwin felt. A struggle with self-doubt and depression slowly crept in as Baldwin and his wife wandered from one place to the next.
“I didn’t feel like I was doing much of value,” Baldwin said. “I wasn’t enjoying anything, even though we were doing something really cool. I wasn’t appreciating it.”
On a solo hike to Weaver’s Needle in Arizona’s Superstition Wilderness Area, the answer to Baldwin’s situation came to him — a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
“Just being out in nature, I realized that an AT thru-hike was something I really needed,” Baldwin said. “I knew I needed to have some sort of personal growth experience.”
The Appalachian Trail
And just like that, Baldwin committed himself to the AT, hiking through 14 states with an elevation gain and loss equivalent to climbing Mount Everest from sea level and back again, 16 times over. And, although hundreds of miles shorter than the Pacific Crest Trail, the AT is often deemed more difficult because of the ruggedness and steepness of the path.
Adding to the challenge, Baldwin looked at the maps and decided on a southbound hike, which is the more isolating, less popular direction to take on the AT. Last year, in an annual survey of AT thru-hikers, only three percent of survey respondents hiked southbound on the AT, while 86 percent hiked northbound and 14 percent flipped in different sections.
Southbound on the AT begins with the most difficult climb of the whole trek — 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin. After that, hikers tackle two of the toughest states on the trail, Maine and New Hampshire, before getting their hiking legs in shape.
“I chose to go southbound because July was the soonest I could get back to the east to start the trip, and because I really wanted to challenge myself,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin knew the challenges of the AT because Ashli had thru-hiked the AT in 2014. Plus, growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the AT was not far from his back door.
“I remember in the backpacking chapter of my Boy Scout handbook there was a page that showed a picture of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail,” Andrew said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, there’s a trail that goes all the way from Georgia to Maine?’”
As a kid, Baldwin never imagined he’d walk from Georgia to Maine, but yet, here he was at age 32 about to embark on the journey of his lifetime: Maine to Georgia.
Maine to Georgia
Going southbound, Baldwin relied on Gaia GPS on his phone for most of his navigational needs on the thru-hike. He downloaded the NatGeo Appalachian Trail map as his main map source because it provided crucial thru-hiking details, including a clear picture of the exact location of the main trail, side trails, campsites, water sources, fire restrictions, highways, and shelter information for the whole distance of the hike.
Downloading the map allowed Baldwin to run his phone on airplane mode throughout his five-month trip, conserving the phone’s battery and getting several days of use before a recharge.
“It was really helpful to be able to see my exact location on the map, and not have to guess how far away the next shelter, water source, or resupply was,” Baldwin said.
In addition to Gaia GPS, Baldwin carried a paper copy of The A.T. Guide, commonly known as the “Awol guide” for its author David “Awol” Miller. Those two sources helped Baldwin stay on route the entire way.
The Journey: Lonely Miles, Trail Family, and Spam Singles
Like many AT thru-hikers, Baldwin started his trip alone. Baldwin made friends easily and quickly earned the trail name “Shanty” for singing old-time maritime tunes while he hiked.
On the northern stretch, the different paces and personalities of those he met were never quite right for forming a group. Baldwin mostly made miles alone. During those solo miles, the self-doubt that nudged Baldwin toward the trail in the first place became impossible to ignore.
“The trail amplifies everything. The big moments are amazing moments, but the bad moments are hell,” Baldwin said. “I was in a dark place when I started the trail and I really had to battle that voice.”
Throughout Maine, Baldwin missed his family and questioned why he was even on the trail to begin with. But he knew he had to keep moving, and eventually, those negative thoughts faded with the miles.
“When I climbed Mt. Washington, when I reached the summit, that was when that dark voice went away,” Baldwin said. “And I haven’t heard it since.”
Along the way, Baldwin met fellow southbounders Oracle, Earthshaker, and Dropsey. Each one appeared separately at different points along the trail. Baldwin first hiked with Dropsey for a few days in New Hampshire, then split off by himself and caught up with Earthshaker in Delaware Water Gap on the NewJersey/Pennsylvania border. He met Oracle on his first day in Maryland.
All four of them ran into each other in Shenandoah National Park and started hiking together as a group. Within two or three days, Baldwin knew that he finally met his trail family.
“I don’t think I would have gotten nearly as much out of this hike if I didn’t have my trail family,” Baldwin said. “You’re out there for your own reasons, but then to be out there with other people that you can share this incredible, but at the same time miserable, experience with, it’s amazing.”
Baldwin’s adventure lasted 148 days with 125 days hiking on trail and 23 zero-mile days spent in town either visiting family or healing an injury and resupplying his food. Baldwin fueled his adventure with a complete thru-hiker diet, which consisted mostly of candy bars, beginning with Snickers and then making the switch to Twix.
“I probably ate 500 candy bars on this trip,” Baldwin said, not exaggerating. “Sometimes I ate five candy bars a day.”
Baldwin ate things and in quantities that he wouldn’t normally eat at home: Pop-Tarts, protein bars, Spam singles, mac and cheese, and ramen.
“My wife bought a dehydrator and sent me resupply packages along the way with her homemade meals,” Baldwin said. “My favorite was this cheesy mac she made with dehydrated beef and onions and pepper. It was a real treat and I looked forward to those the most.”
Baldwin said he tried to keep his pack light but didn’t obsess about the weight. He modified Ashli’s gear list from her thru-hike to fit his needs. Fully loaded with gear, food, and water, Baldwin’s pack topped 30 pounds at the start of the trip. By New Jersey, he learned what ounces to shave and his pack weight dropped to the mid-20s. But, toward the end of the hike, the weather turned and warm clothes for winter travel made his pack heavier again.
Some 400 miles from the end of the trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia, the horse-to-barn feeling set in.
“I could feel the end was near and I really opened it up and cranked out the miles,” Baldwin said.
Life After AT
On December 5, 2019, Baldwin reached the trail’s southern-most point in Georgia and emerged with courage and confidence to chase his dreams.
Since his completion of the trail, the Baldwins have moved across the country to Salt Lake City and settled into a house again. Instead of returning to his job in the insurance industry, Baldwin tapped into his creativity and talents to launch his own business as a voice-over artist for audiobooks. He also created his own podcast, the History 10s.
Baldwin’s wife, Ashli, works as Operations Manager for Gaia GPS. When she mentioned to Gaia GPS CEO Andrew Johnson that Baldwin had returned from his thru-hike and was working as a voice-over artist, Johnson proposed that Baldwin host an outdoor podcast for Gaia GPS.
Thus, the Out and Back podcast was born, and Baldwin went to work interviewing interesting people who spend an extraordinary amount of time outside. In each episode, Baldwin draws from his experience on the trail to mine each conversation for that nugget of expert knowledge and experience that listeners can take with them and use on their own backcountry adventures.
Baldwin credits his experience on AT for emboldening him to take this new path in life.
“Looking back on it now, I realize there were times out there that I was soaking wet, freezing cold, really hungry, sore, and covered in bug bites, and I was more miserable than I had ever been in my entire life,” Baldwin recounted. “But without a doubt, the good moments outweighed the bad moments, one hundred to one, especially as my confidence and clarity began to grow.
“The trail helped me in so many ways to become the person I truly wanted to be, and if you think the AT might be a good thing for you to try, I highly recommend it. It might help you in more ways than you know.”
Oracle, Dropsey, and Earthshaker also completed their AT thru-hikes. Although they live in different parts of the country now, Baldwin considers them the closest friends that he has ever had. They keep in touch, almost daily.
- Tune into the Out and Back Podcast, hosted by Andrew Baldwin and presented by Gaia GPS.
- Follow Andrew Baldwin on Instagram.
- Listen to Andrew Baldwin’s The History 10s podcast.
Mary Cochenour contributed to this story.
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