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The Walk of a Lifetime

At 59, a retired art teacher fulfills his dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail

It's pouring rain, and Joe Liles is far off the grid.

All his possessions — crammed into a 35-pound pack he's carrying on his back — are soaking wet, but he's feeling just fine. The 59-year-old retired teacher has been waiting 10 years to hike the enter length of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, and now he's enjoying every minute of it.

Liles' desire to make the trek from Georgia to Maine was sparked in 2000 when he and his daughter were on a camping trip. They encountered a group of "thru-hikers," the term used for people who attempt the entire route.

"I saw a light in their eyes that I had never seen," he recalls. "I needed to find that light."

So he made a resolution then and there: He was going to hike the longest footpath in America.

Liles began preparing in earnest when he retired from his job as an art teacher in 2008. He began hiking shorter trails to get acclimated to life in the great outdoors.

"At first, I couldn't make it halfway up a small mountain without stopping and panting," he says. "But the more I hiked, the easier it got. Still, nothing can prepare you for such a long trek, so at some point, you just have to get out there and do it."

Liles set out from the trail's southernmost point, in Springer Mountain, Ga., on March 9, 2009, and spent the next six months hiking anywhere from eight to 18 miles a day.

 "Every day had the same routine," he remembers. "But each day had variety: new plants and trees, different scenery, different animals, different people."

Most of the trail's thru-hikers were people in their 20s. "Keeping up with them was a point of pride for me," he said. "We all supported one another. That kind of community spirit helped all of us get up the trail."

But he soon realized that his age was actually an asset. "I was at a point in life when I had the discipline to focus on a goal and keep going," he said.

His advance preparation helped a lot, too. Before setting out, Liles had packed 28 boxes full of supplies and food, and left them with a friend who mailed each box to different post offices in small towns along the trail.

When Liles arrived in these towns, there'd be a box waiting for him — full of power bars, candy and dehydrated meals that would provide him with the 6,000 calories a day he needed to keep his energy up. Liles saw this as a rare opportunity: the only time his doctor told him he could eat anything he wanted. "As long as I was hiking long distances, I would just be burning up those calories," Liles recalls. "Cholesterol didn't have a chance!"

On each of his stops, Liles sent out e-mails chronicling his adventures to a small group of friends and family. Then one day, much to his surprise, he found that his audience had grown. A former student started a blog for him and began posting his dispatches from the trail, along with maps charting his progress. Seeing the blog for the first time, Liles was blown away by the comments that readers left him. "I developed a feeling that I was hiking for more than just myself," he says. "It gave me encouragement to keep going."

On Sept. 15, 2009, Liles finally reached Mount Katahdin, in Maine, the end point of the northbound trail. About 2,000 hikers had set out from Georgia that year, and Liles was one of the few who completed the entire journey — and the oldest of the approximately 300 hikers who made it.

Liles has been back to hike sections of the trail four different times since his thru-hike, and he still stays in close contact with many of his hiker friends. He's spent much of his recent time writing, and he hopes to soon finish a book about the experiences and lessons he learned.

At first, being back home was a tough adjustment. "On the trail, your goals for the day are very defined," he says. "When you're off the trail, there's so much more complexity."

Liles has found that the trail has dramatically changed his outlook, and he's been able to apply what he's learned to his life back in Durham, N.C.

"I learned that if I can find happiness in the rain, then I can also find happiness whenever things don't go my way. The trail taught me that there is joy and optimism possible in everything."

Lindsay Zoladz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.