Jane Pauley, AARP’s Brand Ambassador
Joe Liles, Appalachian Trail thru-hiker
Laurie Potteiger, Information Services Manager of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Jane Pauley: Hello everyone! Thanks for joining us. I hope you enjoyed our Today Show segment this morning featuring Joe Liles, a retired art teacher who fulfilled his dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Joe’s was a reinvention from within – he’s continued to do many of the things he did before his hike, only now he values his experiences and relationships in a whole new way. We don’t always talk about these kinds of reinventions, but I think they’re just as profound as any.
Joe joins us in the chat this afternoon, along with Laurie Potteiger, an expert from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. We’re going to talk about the Appalachian Trail and the rewards of exploring the great outdoors, but also how these experiences can lead to a self-discovery and reinvention of the spirit.
Hi, Joe and Laurie! Great to have you with us.
Joe Liles: Thanks, Jane. It's great to be here.
Comment from Cameron: Jane, have you ever embarked on an adventure comparable to what Joe did? If not, do you have one in mind?
Pauley: Cameron, I might not possess ‘the adventure gene,’ though I may have married into it. My only camping adventures have been in my husband’s home territory in the Adirondacks (what a revelation the Adirondacks were to a girl from Indianapolis). And by camping adventures I mean overnight trips.
But I’ve been on short day hikes in the Berkshires in Massachusetts many times. This is the best time of year – so some of us can get a shot of adventure without making a half year commitment. P.S. I don’t have the knees for serious hiking.
Comment from Tom: It sounds as if almost all hikers are in their 20s or over the age of 50 -- I'm not a math genius but it sounds like a perfect opportunity for young adults to hang out with their parents! Am I wrong?
Laurie Potteiger: So glad to be here with Jane and "Braid”!
Tom, it's true that many thru-hikers are in their 20s, and the next largest group is retirees. But the A.T. is very popular with families, too. Every year there are a number of father-son teams that hike the entire A.T. together. There were several this year.
I got my love of the A.T. hiking with my father when I was young. Here in the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters visitors’ center, we see families of all types every weekend.
Pauley: Tom, Following up on Laurie’s answer from above. That’s a really interesting idea. On my first date with my future husband he talked about an Alaska adventure he’d had taken with his father; I think that’s why I decided to marry him (such a lovely son!). Obviously, you don’t have to hike the whole trail --- which takes six months.
But it occurs to me how many twenty-somethings are fretting over the job market. What a productive investment of time a thru-hike with a parent would be! Both parent and child might return –as Joe did, with confidence surging -- but the young person would also have something very interesting to talk about in a job interview!
Comment from Ben: Joe, are there any other hiking trails you want to conquer?
Liles: Ben, right now I am satisfied with going back to favorite sections of the Appalachian Trail and hiking them over again.
Comment from Carol: Joe, what was the biggest physical challenge in hiking the trail?
Liles: Hey Carol. It was keeping on going through days of rain. At one point I got shin splints and had to walk in pain, soaking my leg in cold mountain streams whenever I got a chance. I got over it.
Comment from George: This question is for Laurie. What section of the trail would you recommend me and my two friends to hike in March and April of next year? We're thinking further south because of the temperature that time of year.
Potteiger: George, in March or April, the best places to hike are Georgia and northern Virginia or Maryland. Georgia is the southernmost part of the A.T., but the high mountains in between Georgia and northern Virginia range up to 4,000-6600 feet, and can experience heavy snowfall (comparable to parts of New England) into March and April.
Comment from Craig: Joe, where did you find the best information about what to carry with you? How heavy was your pack normally?
Liles: Hi Craig. To get the best information, I talked to all the former thru-hikers that I could find near my hometown. My pack weighed on average, loaded with food and water, 35 pounds.
Comment from Lance: Are there any trails similar to the A.T. out west, or perhaps even in Canada?
Potteiger: Lance, the Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail are two trails in the west that extend from Mexico to Canada. You might be surprised to learn the A.T. is considered more difficult. The western trails are more gradual because graded trails are built to accommodate horses. The A.T. is more rugged.
Comment from Donna: Joe, what sections of the AT stand out most in your mind?
Liles: Hello Donna. Virginia was a very long state at over 500 miles, but there were many great sections there. The Mt. Rogers/Grayson Highlands area was one of my favorites.
Comment from Olivia: Joe, what have you been up to since your hike?
Liles: Olivia, I have been working on several pledges that I made to myself and to the Creation while hiking the AT. One of them was paying attention more to my family members. I have done this by visiting my brother and my sister in their homes. Another has been working on my artwork.
Pauley: Olivia, Joe embraced a physical challenge that is way beyond my ability level. But I think he also took time off from his life intuitively understanding that a dramatic shift might give him a fresh perspective on himself and his life.
What he came back with was not a whole new life but a recognition that he possessed a quality of dedication and perseverance that he could apply to all the aspects of his life.
So he came back changed but his life was not that different. Perhaps a physical challenge is what you need, or maybe a six month investment in a community, church or non-profit would be the dramatic shift that would give you a fresh perspective---on you.
Comment from Eddie: Folks, can you discuss preparing for a thru-hike, i.e. how to get physically fit and how to stay safe on the trail?
Potteiger: Eddie, as Joe said in the online video, the best way to physically prepare for a thru-hike is to hike. Finding hills is critically important, as walking on flat terrain is totally misrepresentative of the A.T.’s terrain. Only about 50-100 miles could be described as truly “flat.” But any aerobic exercise can help, especially combined with strength training for your legs.
The best way to stay safe from bears on the A.T. is to hang your food appropriately at night, following good Leave No Trace practice. One of the smallest animals, the deer tick, is actually a bigger threat (from Lyme disease). Homo sapiens on the A.T. are usually quite friendly, but listening to your instincts is the best way to stay safe. We have safety guidelines and other great info on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Website at http://www.appalachiantrail.org.
Pauley: I have a question for Laurie and Joe. Are there sections of the Appalachian Trail that would be more hospitable for a person who isn't physically equipped to do the boulders and mountains we saw in Joe's story this morning?
Liles: Jane, I would recommend the A.T. as it goes through Shenandoah National Park and any of the sections in Maryland.
Potteiger: Jane, A great place to start is right across the Potomac River from Harpers Ferry, along the C&O Towpath (the southernmost 3 miles of the A.T. in Maryland). It’s a rare short section of the A.T. that is perfectly flat.
Comment from Chip: Life is a gift; we must choose to live it. I have recently been diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. I am facing my mortality but I plan on hiking the A.T. and other trails to live life to the fullest.
Comment from Carolyn: Joe, you're an inspiration for all of us aging baby boomers. You've inspired me to dust off my hiking boots and start hiking!
Pauley: Carolyn, we’re on the same wavelength. A question for Joe: what happens when a person does get hurt or sick out in the wilderness?
Liles: Jane, to answer your question, I would recommend carrying a cell phone. In high altitude areas there is no problem getting a signal. You can use cell phones to get help. However, you will find yourself in a community of hikers who are willing to provide assistance to those in need. Use of a cell phone on the trail needs to be highly regulated as a courtesy to other hikers. One needs to realize that technology on the trail needs to be used responsibly.
Comment from Ken: I hiked the A.T. 30 years ago and it indeed was a life changing journey. Now at age 53 I've been diagnosed with MS. But the trail built character and now I rely on that to get though.
Comment from Tim: Jogging is another good way to get in shape for hiking.
Comment from Roaryo: Joe, did you keep a journal or blog? Would love to hear stories of your encounters on the A.T.
Liles: Roaryro, my blog website is http://joeliles.chunkyboy.com.
Comment from Chip: Laurie, how many people thru hiked the AT this year?
Potteiger: Chip, 1460 northbound thru-hikers started in Georgia this year. So far, 223 of them (as of today) have reported to ATC that they’ve completed the Trail. We’ll probably hear from a total of 375-400 in the next few months.
Starting in Maine, 256 "southbounders" started out this year. None of them have reported finishing in Georgia yet, but more than 100 have passed through and been photographed in Harpers Ferry.
Comment from Sally Sue: What is a realistic budget for such a trip?
Potteiger: Sally Sue, the average expenditure for a thru-hike ranges $3,000- $5000. Gear is another $1-2,000.
Pauley: Sally Sue, you might also think about some kind of a support system like Joe had. He left behind 28 pre-packaged, pre-addressed boxes containing dehydrated food, power bars and the like, with instructions for a friend who on a certain schedule mailed them ahead for Joe to pick up.
Comment from Jesse: Joe, I'm sorry I missed the Today Show broadcast but I'm interested in learning more about how the hike "reinvented" your perspective on life. Can you talk about transformation and what other goals do you have?
Pauley: Jesse, you can find Joe Liles’ story right now on the Your Life Calling website at http://www.aarp.org/jane.
Liles: Jesse, I found that the trail changed me into a more optimistic person. I found that if I could find happiness in unrelenting rain, I could find happiness anywhere. Today, as a result of the trail, I appreciate everything and I do not complain about anything or any time. My goals for the future include pursuing my career as an artist and writer.
Comment from Randy: To comment on Eddie’s question: Before my wife and I began our thru-hike in 2006, we spent five years preparing by doing weeklong hikes in all different seasons and terrain, and tested out equipment to find which worked best for us. Despite all that training, I would have to say that our motto that “quitting is not an option” got us to Maine. So much of this adventure is mental.
Comment from James: Laurie, what exactly does the Appalachian Trail Conservancy do?
Potteiger: James, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy manages the A.T. in partnership with the National Park Service, which has delegated most functions to our private, non-profit organization. We set policy, oversee the work of 6800 volunteers, provide information and education about the A.T., and protect the A.T. and its 25,000 acres of corridor lands from a variety of threats.
Pauley: Joe, a friend of mine asks, “What’s the deal with the hiking poles?”
Liles: Jane, at first I swore I would never use hiking poles because they look so "sissy." After talking with many former thru-hikers, they told me that I needed to get over that attitude. They said, "Those poles will save your life!" I found this to be true and by the end of the hike I could not walk without them.
Comment from Steve and Amy: Braid, it was nice to have a chance encounter with you in Maine. And so glad you seem to be enjoying life more now.
Comment from Justin: Joe, I plan on hiking the A.T. March of 2012 with a couple friends. I'm 22 and have been dreaming of hiking the AT for many years. I have done a lot of research. As for as food provisions go I know a lot resort to oatmeal or instant mashed potatoes. What were some of the foods you enjoyed during your expedition?
Liles: Justin, I went with commercially prepared dehydrated food pouches. These are available at any outfitter’s store. This is more expensive but worth it in terms of ease and not washing any dishes. You simply add boiling water to the pouch and wait for thirteen minutes. There are many great offerings of meals, both vegetarian and carnivore.
Comment from Justin: Joe and Laurie, were there any literature or maps you found more helpful than others? Is there a so called "Bible of the A.T." in existence?
Potteiger: What’s most useful depends on the length of hike your doing. Most short-distance hikers are best off carrying the official maps and guidebooks, which offer a lot of detail. Thru-hikers count ounces, and generally aren’t interested in the detailed guidebooks. Their “Bible” would the A.T. Thru-Hikers’ Companion, which focuses on services in towns along the A.T. The most detailed information in “The Companion” is about where you can find the thing that thru-hikers think about most: food (restaurants, delis, grocery stores, etc.).
Comment from Jennifer: It's so nice to see you again, Jane! I'm loving your pieces on the Today Show. Very inspiring! Thank you!
Pauley: Jennifer, thank you. I’m having a great time doing these stories. They’re all so different. There are as many paths to reinvention as there are definitions of it. One particular pleasure I take though is the evident interest that Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira take in our stories. Today for instance, Meredith seemed ready to trade her stylish knee-high boots for hiking shoes on the spot.
Comment from Carolyn: I'm so excited to be in a chat room with one of my favorite newscasters, Jane Pauley! Also, I'm very impressed with Joe making it the whole way on the A.T., especially since he's found a more positive outlook in life. Very uplifting during a very difficult time our country is going through.
Comment from Betsy: I can't believe I'm asking this, but do you ever wish you had a hiking partner? I'm a 57 year old retired therapist whose motto is “too many trails, too little time!”
Liles: Hi Betsy. Hiking partners are always welcome, but a compatible hiking partner is tricky to find because of individual hiking paces. I would suggest that you explore the website http://www.whiteblaze.com and advertise your availability and sections you are interested in hiking.
Comment from Randy: How many married couples thru-hike the A.T.?
Potteiger: Randy, A significant number of couples do hike the A.T. Every year, there are perhaps a dozen, including some who thru-hike the A.T. as a honeymoon. There's a great book for couples who are contemplating a thru-hike called Solemates--Lessons on Life, Love & Marriage from the Appalachian Trail.
Comment from Steve: Joe, What was your most memorable experience while on the A.T.? Any random acts of kindness that really stood out for you?
Liles: Definitely, Steve. There were so many it is hard to pick one. Mt first encounter with "trail magic" was from Fishin' Fred when I crossed over from Georgia in North Carolina. Fishin' Fred had set up a camp to fix breakfast for thru-hikers. He did this because he was injured and rescued at that same spot several years before. He decided to devote the rest of his life to returning that act of kindness. He fixed me a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, eggs, and coffee that I will never forget.
Comment from Craig: How often do the thru hikers stay in motels during their trip?
Potteiger: It depends on their budget. Those who can afford it stay in hotels as frequently as they can. That would be about once a week in the more remote sections of the A.T. (the South and far North), and twice or more often a week in the middle of the Trail. Those on a budget might have to stick to bunks in hostels.
Pauley: Joe, explain to people a little bit about trail names. For instance, were there fellow hikers who knew you as ‘Braid’ on the trail who might have learned your name, ‘Joe’ for the first time this morning on the Today Show?
Liles: Jane, you can give yourself a trail name, or you can wait for other hikers to give you one because of something you do, say, or resemble. I got the name "Braid" because of the long braid I wear. It is very likely that hikers learned my real name on the Today Show for the first time.
Comment from Sue (“Check 6”): My husband and I met Joe on the AT last year. The video interview is fabulous! Joe is a wonderful guy and the interview highlights his attributes well.
Comment from Steve: Laurie, I love hiking the Appalachian Trail and I always wanted to give back to it somehow. What can I do to help?
Comment from Coit: I'm Joe's twin brother and I am envious of his great adventure. Like Joe, obviously, I am now facing the issue of what to do with myself after 30 years of being consumed (happily) by my career. So I take heart from his experience that there will be something -- maybe not walking 2000 miles -- to look forward to. Congratulations, Joe.
Liles: Coit, it's great to hear from you. My response is don't let the trauma of feeling bewildered in facing the uncertainties of retirement get you down. I learned on the trail not to be discouraged by the uncertainties of the next day. We had an expression, "The trail will provide." What this means is if you remain optimistic, you will be shown the way.
Comment from Bob: Are there any trail groups or hiking clubs specifically designated for people over 50?
Pauley: Bob here’s an idea. Start a hiking club at http://www.aarp.org/online_community. It’s as easy as going to the site and initiating it. It will grow from there, wait and see.
Liles: Bob, I would suggest that you also use http://www.whiteblaze.com to seek advice and possibly form a group of your own. Use the power of the web to search out hiking clubs in your area.
Potteiger: Many A.T. clubs have groups that hike on a weekly or monthly basis that are targeted to older hikers. The “mid-week” hiking groups usually attract older hikers. Also, hikes billed for “slower hikers” often have a large percentage of older hikers. (But not all older hikers are slow!) These clubs can be found at http://www.appalachiantrail.org.
Comment from Justin: Joe, I've been surfing your website during this chat and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to hike the A.T. Thank you Joe and Laurie and thank you Jane for having this chat. I loved the segment!
Pauley: Well, it looks like it's already time to wrap things up. What a great chat today!
Liles: First of all, I would like to thank Jane and Laurie for joining me today for this live chat. Secondly, I want to thank all the folks at AARP and the Today Show for making it possible for me to share information about our wonderful Appalachian Trail. And thanks to all of you out there who have taken an interest in my story. It is a story that we all share in common. It is a story about how we can find happiness and fulfillment in life. You don’t have to hike the entire Appalachian Trail to find out how to do this. The answer is really in our own backyards, our neighborhoods, and most importantly, in our attitudes. Our attitude is the only thing each of us have control over. We can’t make it stop raining. We can’t make the traffic lights not turn red. We can’t make certain aggravating things about people and jobs just go away. But we can control our attitudes about these things. I hope you will join me in taking a positive attitude in our search for happiness and fulfillment on the trail that lies ahead. Check out my website at http://joeliles.chunkyboy.com.
Potteiger: Thanks, Jane and all you good folks at AARP for providing this opportunity for folks to learn more about the A.T. and “Braid’s” inspiring journey. It’s been a pleasure! The Appalachian Trail Conservancy works to ensure the A.T. remains a connected, protected footpath where people can continue to find renewal and inspiration.
Pauley: I'll bet Joe had no idea when he was setting up a tent in the driving rain that he'd ever have the opportunity to be an inspiration to so many of us. Thanks, Joe! And thank you, Laurie for taking good care of our national treasure, the Appalachian Trail.
We'll see you again on December 7 on the Today Show where I’ll be bringing you another great story about someone who is hearing their life calling in a new and different way.
Stay tuned to aarp.org/Jane for more resources and inspiring stories on reinvention.