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When brothers Jake and Matt Schmitt set out looking for an adventure, studying aboard like other college students wasn’t enough. They wanted “crazier stories to tell.” In late February, they put their college classes on hold to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
Thru-hiking — hiking a long-distance trail beginning to end — is popular among thousands of trekkers each year. But only one in four hikers are able to complete the 2,180-mile trail, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Hikers sign in at the conservancy each year to mark their attempt. The Schmitt brothers were the 28th and 29th hikers of this season to make it to the 1,000-mile point.
“Every single day it flashes through your mind, ‘I should quit,’ but you learn how to deal with it,” said Matt, a 20-year-old sophomore at Virginia Tech. “The mental part gets easier.”
Carrying up to 40 pounds each, they battled freezing temperatures in the snow, heavy rainstorms and exhaustion from hiking an average of 20 miles each day. For two days, Jake, a 22-year-old senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, suffered from a stomach virus referred to as “the plague” when many hikers came down with the similar sickness. They often battled shin splints, blisters and sore joints.
“It’s definitely stressful. You’re legitimately worried about freezing to death some nights,” Matt said. “You’re worried about dehydration. As hard as hiking the Appalachian Trail is after awhile it becomes normal. You start to enjoy hardships about it. You enjoy overcoming certain things.”
It took a lot of convincing to gain their parents’ approval to take off school and spend months in the wilderness, but their parents realized the trip was something that would bring them closer.
“I thought they needed something together and a struggle” their mother, Lisa, said. “A struggle to survive, to eat, to take care of each other if they got sick.”
Trouble stuck several times for the hikers. The first major hurdle surfaced 200 miles into their hike near Fontana Dam in North Carolina. Using guidebooks, they planned to stop at a store to restock on food and supplies.
But when they arrived the store was closed for the season. For four days, they rationed food before making it to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where they stocked up on food and supplies.
“I had probably four Clif Bars and three dinners and a bag of trail mix,” Matt said. “It ended up getting down to one scoop of peanut butter and three pepperonis…that was the hungriest we’ve ever been.”
Matt detailed their experience on a blog he wrote using his cell phone. It became an easy way for their parents to keep tabs on them and answer questions from friends about their trip.
Their father, John, experienced first-hand how close the brothers had become on the trip when he met up with them in Virginia to hike 8 miles.
"It was probably the high points of my whole life," John said. "It was great to see how great shape they were in and to see them together."
They spent an average of $10 each day. On most nights they stayed in hostels or in sleeping bags at campsites. A few times they caught free shuttles or hitchhiked into towns to stay in $30-a-night motels.
As the weather warmed, they mailed home items like gloves and heavy clothing to reduce the weight they carried.
“As I got off the trail, I only had one change of clothes and two pairs of socks, rain jacket, rain pants and long johns,” Matt said.
In May, the trail once again turned difficult, this time for Matt who was suffering from a leg injury. Park rangers picked Matt up when he became unable to put pressure on his right leg. At that point in their hike, they had made a friend in Mike Gersie — referred to as “Buckets” on the trail — whose father offered to drive 2 ½ hours to pick Matt up so he could rest.
“Our initial plan was I could pick him up, a couple days rest, and then I could drive him up later in the trail,” Gersie’s father, Mike, said. “That was our initial plan but he had gotten so bad he couldn’t continue.”
Matt’s journey ended earlier this month at 1,076 miles into their hike — just miles shy of the halfway point in Pennsylvania.
But Matt told his brother to continue on with “Buckets” and finish what they started.
“Those three guys have spent 1,000 miles together,” Mike said. “It was a sad day for them. It was sad to observe it.”
Doctors told Matt it would be months before he could hike due to bad tendinitis, strained ligaments and needed physical therapy. The injury was mostly due to a lack of nutrition. From the time Matt started the hike and ended, he lost 30 pounds.
“I really wish I could be there right now,” Matt said. “I put so much into it and I want to finish it.”
The Schmitt family plans to meet Jake at the end of the trail, which he plans to complete on July 4. As Jake continues the hike, Matt will return to school this summer to catch up on classes and plans to finish the trail next summer.
“I would encourage people to seek real adventure,” Matt said. “Adventure really starts when stuff just starts going wrong, people start getting sick. The weather gets bad. You sort of lose control and you have to figure out how to get out of it.”
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