Rick Land at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Maine - Mount Katahdin. Land created a YouTube channel for his journey and posted a video everyday. Visit YouTube and search for “Greeter 2017 thru-hike” to follow his adventure.
Rick Land doesn’t let a challenge hold him back. The 59-year-old recently completed all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail on a solo trip. Before that, he spent decades as a school band director in Pickens and other Georgia counties and served on Jasper City Council. Land also learned to fly planes in his late 20s and worked for six years as a commercial airline pilot.
Both he and his wife Mary Land, a local band director as well, earned doctorates in their field. He still plays trombone locally in Big Band groups. They have two sons, one who is an Adjunct Instructor of Tuba and Euphonium at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., the other is in his final year of residency to become a surgeon.
How did you get into hiking?
It’s funny, the Appalachian Trail at one time started on Monument Road. When I was on city council we moved the monument from the old start of the trail because it was being destroyed, and we brought it down and put it by the Woodbridge Inn. I was interested in hiking then. I used to go out and do small hikes with a friend. We’d do section hikes in Georgia in the early 80s. We’d go out and buy all this gear, but I never had the right gear. [Laughing] I was too cheap. But it’s amazing what we have now compared to what we had then.
When did you decide to do the AT?
Before I retired from Dawson County Middle School three years ago. It was on my bucket list. I was going to do it last year, 2016, then my younger son decided he was going to get married and my older son decided he was going to have his first child. So, I put it on my bucket list for this year. Then the [Presidential] election happened and I said, I’ve got to get away from all this.
How did you prepare?
I did a lot of research on YouTube about gear. I made friends with people that hiked the trail. I did a lot of walking, of course. I did a lot of hiking in Georgia. I hiked the AT section in Georgia a couple of times earlier this year. My wife teaches at Young Harris College, and Dick’s Creek Gap is the farthest section north, so I’d hike from there to Amicalola Falls. I’d test out my equipment and modify. I’d say the biggest difference my hiking this year and people who did it even 10 years ago is the gear. My pack weight with no food was 15 pounds. When I added food and water it was 26-27 pounds. My friends who hiked it before, their pack was 40 pounds. Electronics are huge now, too. There’s a GPS map that has all your waypoints on the trail and it’s on your phone and uses the satellite.
Your route was different than most thru-hikers, right?
Yes, I did a “flip flop.” The Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends people do a flip flop now, because if 90 percent of the people start at the bottom within two or three weeks of each other, that’s 2,000 people going up this trail like cholesterol going up an artery. I started at Rock Fish Gap, the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley on March 25th. When I got to the terminus in Maine, I came back to Rock Fish and headed south.
What was your favorite area?
I liked everything in its own way. The White Mountains up north were rugged and raw and you’re above the tree line walking on scree, rock, and you’re doing rock climbing. It was very difficult there. I’d do 16-18 miles on average down south. Up there, that turned to 10 and 12. You felt like a mountain goat and got through it. The south has its own beauty, too. You’ve got dirt under your feet.
Where did you get food?
I’d carry three to four days of food. There are hostels along the trail, and they can pick you up at the trail and shuttle you back. I even had to hitchhike. These were in trail towns, and they know a guy with a big backpack is a hiker. You can resupply, spend $30 and get a room and a shower - but I had a horrible diet. I’d have a cinnamon roll covered in icing and a Pop Tart in the morning. When I walked I had nuts, bars, I ate Nature’s Valley Sweet N’ Salty bars by the hundreds. I would try to eat every hour. The only meal I cooked was dinner with my Jetboil stove. I’d get Knorr’s pasta pouch and put Ramen noodles in with the pasta and some string cheese. Then maybe a Little Debbie. I’d always clean up after dinner. You’re by yourself, so I’d be in my birthday suit washing off with water. Most people don’t do that. I couldn’t stand the thought of getting in my sleeping bag smelling so bad.
So, you made extra effort to stay clean?
Yeah. I did a lot more than most people. These young people would just throw down their sleeping bag, get in it, and be asleep. It would cost me time to do it, but I couldn’t stand that. I carried deodorant, too. No one else carried it - that and Gold Bond medicated powder.
Did you ever get scared, lonely, or think, why did I do this I’ve still got so far to go?
You have to think in terms of the day. If you think in terms of, I’ve got 2,000 miles to go it won’t work. Small goals. As far as scared, I saw bear and moose and they were interesting and exciting, but I never got scared for my safety. The most scared I was, was in weather. Like if you get caught in a lightning storm on a tall ridge, for example, which I did. The hurricane came through during my hike, too. I made it back down to North Carolina and I called my wife and she picked me up that night and she dropped me back off the day after. The last 100 miles I was the first person on the trail going south and the devastation was amazing. In one section I couldn’t find the trail. I had to go around all the blowdown.
What about recreation? Do you bring books or is it hike, eat, sleep?
It’s hike, sleep, eat, but it’s so pleasant. No email. No phone. No calendar. Your life simplifies and becomes so basic.
Did you build fires?
Most thru hikers don’t build fires. That’s the day hikers or weekenders. Thru hikers get into the idea of “leave no trace.” I built a fire twice, but only because of mosquitoes.
Did you get cold?
I had a 20-degree bag and my jacket. I never really got cold, but you worry about getting wet. You never let your sleeping bag get wet.
How’d you hold up physically?
I never got a single blister on the trail.
What shoes did you wear?
These [looks at feet]. Merrell Moabs. No one wears boots anymore. Boots are heavy. I went through five pair of shoes. I bought them before I left and had someone send them to me, to a hostel I would be staying at. I also took super light Crocs I’d wear at camp and let my feet air dry.
Was your wife worried about you?
[Laughing] I think she was. I’d communicate with her every day. But she was very supportive of me to let me go. She did meet me twice on the trail.
What was it like to finish?
It was amazing. This is crazy, but I felt like an animal in terms of strength. I started in Georgia doing those training routes and it was so hard, just a few miles. The day before Mary met me coming south I did 27.5 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation change the first few miles, and it was nothing. You’re a hiking machine by the time you’re finished. I felt like a beast. Mary set up a thing for me at Amicalola Falls and rented a pavilion and we had a party and I went home and got in the hot tub. You’ve been going for this goal for six months and you get there and get a little teary eyed.
How did you transition from the woods to regular life?
It’s very hard. For the first two or three weeks I’d wake up and not know where I was. A lot of people have trouble adjusting. You’re so focused on your hiking. Then you have to focus on bills, cleaning the house, and people go through a depression. I went through it. I think about the trail every day. My friend hiked 20 years ago and he told me he thinks about it every day. It becomes part of you.
How has it changed you and your outlook?
It changes what’s important. Mary said I’m quieter and more tolerant. I’ve seen the trail save people’s lives. My friend, when he went on the trail he was an alcoholic and a nervous nelly, and he came back and is so quiet and reflective and drinks moderately. It changes you.
What advice do you have for first timers?
I’d tell them to research gear. Get in shape a little, but you’re going to get in shape as you hike. I lost 50 pounds. I’d say put on a pack and go out and go hiking. Do eight-mile hikes. They don’t have to be hard. You’ll find out what you need and what you don’t need.