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Kit Walker is one local resident who took on the Appalachian Trail this summer and won
Kit Walker stands on Mount Katahdin in October. Due to the threat of early wintry weather, Walker chose to "flop" his route on the trail, taking a bus to Maine before Baxter State Park closed for the season and hiking back to the spot in Connecticut where he took the bus. - photo by Chris Walker

Before Kit Walker, 20, had even finished his last leg of the Appalachian Trail, his next challenge popped into his head.

"Today, I was thinking of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail," he said, less than an hour after wrapping up the last 11 miles of his hike on the Appalachian Trail.

The Pacific Crest trail winds through California, Oregon and Washington. But for now the student at Young Harris College has one more semester there before he transfers to the University of Georgia. And because it's in the mountains, he said, "I'll definitely be hiking on the weekends."

Walker, who grew up in Gainesville and graduated from North Hall High School, is one of a few young residents who took to the Appalachian Trail this past summer, opting to spend months away from reliable heat or air conditioning and instead carrying everything they need on their backs.

The rewards are introspective, but the journey from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain up to Mount Katahdin, the rocky peak that marks the end of the trail, offers hikers lots of natural vistas and months without traffic.

Kit's father, Chris Walker, an attorney in Gainesville, said Kit and his brother Reese, 16, grew up in a family that hikes regularly. He and his wife Kay like to hike Blood Mountain, he said, and both parents hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail with Kit during his journey.

"I went up and met him when he was in Pennsylvania, just for a couple days," Chris said. "I hiked 15 miles one day and 10 the next."

And the parents had some peace of mind knowing Kit would check in every day with a GPS device called a SPOT satellite messenger, a tracker that allowed Kit to plot his whereabouts on a map each day. The SPOT message went out as an e-mail to friends and family, who could click on a link to see the terrain and nearby towns or roads using a Google satellite image.

The device also allowed Kit to message if he needed help or immediate assistance.

"It's been an interesting experience to watch. We've been proud of his determination to finish," Chris said. "He's had some interesting events along the way; about three or four weeks ago he called, said he got up that morning, packed up his pack and went to put on his boots and they were frozen rock-hard solid."

Kit told his father he had to use a gas stove to warm them.

"Kay and I have been blessed with two sons who both have the determination and willpower to accomplish most anything they set their minds to," Chris said.

The hardest part of the hike, Kit said, was simply realizing what his body was capable of.

"I just kept on going a little bit every day," he said. "I tended to go in cycles, as in how energetic I felt. I would be able to do steady, pretty high mileages every day for a few weeks, but maybe for one week every five or six weeks I'd have a slow week and I'd have to realize that, when you walk every day, you have to be prepared for a slow week.

"But it took a few of those cycles to realize that it's a cycle that happens and you shouldn't get too down on yourself."

Now back in Gainesville, Kit needs to learn how to readjust to civilization, he said.

After being on the trail since May 10, it's a jarring experience to come back and hear engines and phones ringing and see miles of concrete.

"I hear the hardest part is reintegration into just normal living with all kinds of amenities and noise all over the place. That's going to be tough, but it's possible," Kit said.

That's what happened to Laurie Potteiger, information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, based in West Virginia. After she hiked the trail in 1987, she said she returned to Washington D.C., and was overwhelmed by the concrete, cars and noise.

She studied up before leaving for the wilderness, but "there's very little to help you prepare for the re-entry."

"Ending in Maine - which is remote, and I was there late in the season - after being in the woods alone and in increasingly rough terrain and going back to Washington D.C., people's values were different," she said. "The pace of life was different - just the whole community aspect of life in the city, the lack of things that were natural as opposed to being surrounded by unaltered nature, lakes and streams and animals and very few signs of man.

"To be totally surrounded by concrete and metal and lots of people and things made by metal, it's like going to the moon from Earth."

On the trail, people are friendly and are always willing to say hi or offer a hand. In the city, people would walk by on the street without saying hello, she said. And that experience was enough to make her move a few months after leaving the trail.

She's been working for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy ever since.

Potteiger recommended anyone coming back into society after hiking for months volunteer on a trail to help make the transition.

"That gives you that satisfaction that you have another purpose; something that is in a way more noble to help other hikers experience that experience you had," she said.

And that's another hiking goal Kit said he has for himself.

"I plan on driving out to (a) road crossing next spring on the AT and do some trail magic, which means cooking burgers for hikers that are coming through and give them a ride to Hiawassee, which is the nearest town so they can get their groceries and just doing some nice things," he said. "Because a lot of people did some nice things for me."