Jack Walker dreamed about hiking the Appalachian Trail before he even reached high school. He saved and planned, and last March, he decided to quit his job in Buffalo to finally fulfill that dream.
He was about two weeks into his journey when the pandemic closed the Smoky Mountains, and he was forced to return home to Moorestown.
“I gave up everything to do this, and I was in a real state of disbelief,” Walker said.
But when things started to reopen, Walker decided he wasn’t going to quit his dream. In July, he started his journey once more, this time unaccompanied by the friends who had journeyed with him the first time. The 26-year-old completed his solo hike on Dec. 24.
The seed to hike the trail was first planted during his time at YMCA of the Pines in Medford. The group took a two-week trip to a part of the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey and canoed on the Delaware River. That same summer, Walker’s eighth grade reading was “A Walk in the Woods,” which takes place on the Appalachian Trail. Ever since that summer, Walker knew he wanted to hike the trail.
Upon graduating from Moorestown High School in 2013, he attended SUNY Buffalo State College to study environmental science and economics. Learning about environmental science only increased Walker’s love for hiking, so when he graduated in 2017, he began saving up to hike the famed trail.
Just before COVID-19 hit, Walker quit his job and a friend and his girlfriend planned to join him on the Appalachian Trail journey. They started the route in Georgia and planned to head north. Walker earned the trail name Whiskey, a reference to his last name. But when the COVID closures happened, Walker was forced to rethink his plans.
He learned in June that Baxter State Park in Maine was going to reopen. That meant he could restart his trip, but this time, he’d have to make the journey southbound and by himself, sans friends. He admits he had trepidations.
“I got up there, and it was a little nerve-racking,” he said. “Starting out down south in Georgia with a group was comforting. Going up solo was a little worrisome.”
But ultimately, Walker no longer felt too alone on the trail; a community of people always on the trail provided comfort.
While some hikers view the journey as a mere physical challenge to see how many miles they can walk a day, Walker didn’t hike the trail with that mentality. He took his time, often stopping for an hour or so to enjoy a particularly scenic view.
For the first third of his journey, Walker hiked about eight to 12 miles a day, but as the weather started getting colder, he picked up the pace. By the end, he was hiking closer to 18 to 20 miles a day.
The most challenging part of the journey came at night, when Waker was camping by himself. It wasn’t the animals he feared, but his mind wandered to thoughts of strangers in the woods. He said completing the journey during COVID had both its pros and cons. While the trail was less crowded, many of the famous hostels and restaurants along the way were closed.
In the end, Walker said the experience was transformative –for the better. He walked away more in touch with his identity, having found his own style and pace of living. The experience taught him more about his own need to balance productivity and relaxation.
Now, Walker is reacclimating to life in Moorestown after the culture shock of returning from a long journey. He said life on the trail is simple and puts you in a straightforward state of mind: You walk, eat and sleep. But when you get back home, you’re faced with choices and more complex decisions.
Walker wants to keep his trail mindset going. He’s completed one dream, and now wants to tackle the rest. Next up is graduate school to study landscape architecture.
“Coming back, I’m trying to keep that mindset going — chasing my dreams,” he said.