Central Pa. man finds himself, hikes for another on the Appalachian Trail

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

He figured that hiking nearly 2,200 miles during a pandemic would help him figure out how to attack life.

It was about challenging himself like never before.

Ben Smith accomplished that by carrying the memory of someone he never met ... by walking for 22-straight hours ... and by overcoming the urge to quit less than halfway through.

The Spring Grove grad wasn't sure what he wanted to do after graduating from college last spring.

The ongoing coronavirus only made things more uncertain.

Spring Grove grad Ben Smith finished a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in early September. He said he took on the journey to challenge himself and think through post-college plans.

How could he decide about graduate school or the work force or where he even wanted to live if he didn't know enough about himself?

He thought hiking the entire Appalachian Trail would help show him.

And, he believes, that it ultimately worked. He described himself as re-focused and centered after completing his journey from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

"I went out there to decide what path to take ... what I wanted my future to look like, if I wanted to continue on my accounting degree or travel the world or do something else," he said.

"To find yourself and what you need and don’t need."

More:A guide to hiking the Appalachian Trail in central Pennsylvania

More:8,000 miles later, Central York, PSU graduate finds his future after rare hiking feat

Short hikes along the Appalachian Trail during high school piqued his interest. Hiking the entire trail in one trip would give him time to dissect things like whether he wanted to pursue an MBA degree enter the work force after graduating from Bloomsburg University.

He ramped up plans to hike all 2,190 miles of the AT in three months, doing it alone — only to have COVID-19 delay his start because of park closures and safety warnings. 

Ben Smith looks out over New Hampshire's White Mountains from the Franconia Ridge area of the Appalachian Trail. The Spring Grove grad hiked all 2,200 miles of the trail in 106 days in the summer of 2020.

When he did get going in mid-May, it took him only 160 miles to find his first turning point. There, in North Carolina, Smith met a woman passing out garden stones to hikers. She asked them to carry it to honor her late husband, who's own thru-hike was halted by cancer.

Smith kept it with him each day.

Carrying the stone "allowed me to hike with another person," he said. "It was a side-quest as well. I promised that person I would get that stone there. You're kind of hiking for two people at that point.

"It definitely gave me more motivation during the tougher days ... Like, 'I got to get there for me and this person, as well.'"

The motivation was well-placed. Smith wasn't halfway through his journey when five-straight days of rain made it nearly impossible to keep anything dry — especially his feet.

They swelled and tingled and ached, the skin eventually sloughing off. He had trench foot. Nearly impossible to walk, he finally decided to stop near Pearisburg, Virginia.

He was tired, weak and nearly beaten.

"If I would have had cell service I probably would have called someone to get me," Smith said, describing arguably his lowest point on the trail. "Cried all day and let the bad get out of my system."

He took the advice of another thru-hiker: "Never quit on a bad day."

Smith dried out, re-supplied and pushed on.

At one point he said he hiked for 22 straight hours with only two breaks, crushing the legendary "four-state challenge" (hiking through parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania in one day).

He made it 62 miles before contently collapsing.

Navigating black bears and COVID-19

Ben Smith, a Bloomsburg University grad, finished a quick, 106-day hike of the entire Appalachian Trail on Sept. 2, 2020 ... a day before his 23rd birthday.

His most frightening experience came in New Jersey when he accidentally walked between a mother and her two cubs.

"She bluffed-charged me. It felt like I was going to die," he said, only half-joking. "I just used my instincts of getting large and not looking the bear in the eye, and she backed away."

He said COVID-19 was mostly just an inconvenience for a solo hiker. He mostly camped and slept in a hammock because many hiker shelters and hostels were closed. He masked when he supplied in towns. He was even more isolated than expected, sometimes going two and three days before seeing another person.

He stayed true to his hike despite the Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommending that thru-hikers leave the trail or postpone their plans.

Rather, he said he felt safe from the virus alone on the trail. He talked of appreciating simple gifts most along the way — mountain views, chance conversations with other hikers, time to think and focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

He finished in 106 days, ending with the adrenaline-charged, five-mile hike up Mount Katahdin.

He turned 23 the following day.

He sent the woman in North Carolina a triumphant photo of reaching the end with his memory stone.

He decided to pursue his graduate degree before serious job searching.

His father drove him home to York County.

"I've learned from it," he said of the hike. "I don't let emotions get the better of me anymore. I don't let things anger me or upset me like before ..."

He discovered how to better challenge himself, and hopes to carry that with him.

Like the time he got up at 2 a.m. to hike to the top of McAfee Knobb (3,197 feet above sea level) in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains.

He wanted to see the sun rise.

"It was peaceful and tranquil, something to look at and not talk about. That made me realize what I was doing out there."

Frank Bodani is a sports reporter for the York Daily Record. He can be reached at fbodani@ydr.com or on Twitter at @YDRPennState.