If marriage is meant to be a lifetime journey, then what is a 5½-month trek through the wilderness, wading through waist-deep waters and pausing breathless at scenic overlooks?
For newlyweds Wes and Kendra Jackson, the trip of a lifetime.
The Jacksons married May 23, right after graduating from the University of Georgia, where they met, and set off on the Appalachian Trail in June.
"I had always thought it would be cool to hike the Appalachian Trail. I never really planned on doing it," Wes Jackson said from his parents’ home in North Hall.
"She always wanted to do it, and then it looked like we were going to get married soon. So I thought, well, if we both want to do it, we might as well after we graduate, especially considering the job market and the economy.
"Out in the woods might be just as good a place as any to go."
Plus, the couple figured June would be a good time to start their hike at the 2,178-mile trail’s northern terminus, Mount Katahdin, Maine.
They took Amtrak to get there, making a few stops along the way, including Washington, D.C., and Boston.
The first day of the hike, storm clouds gathered on Katahdin.
"Then, it started thundering and lightning, and we’re on the top of this mountain that is renown for its horrible weather," said Wes Jackson, who is 23. "And then it starts to hail."
And climbing up Katahdin itself also marked a rough start to the trip.
"There were boulders everywhere. It’s not what I expected a trail to be like — there wasn’t even a trail. We were just climbing rocks," Wes Jackson said. "... It was kind of an eye-opener."
The couple brought with them a two-person tent, sleeping bags and pads, a stove and pot. They carried, on average, a five-day food supply, making stops at towns along the trail to replenish.
The journey began, however, with 11 days of food, as the Jacksons had to venture through the 100-mile Wilderness in Maine, the longest stretch on the trail without an opportunity to get supplies.
"You’re really thrown off the deep end if you’re a southbounder," Wes Jackson said. "It was hard, but we took it easy. All the other southbounders were taking it easy. We were with other southbounders we had gotten to know."
At one point early on, the Jacksons were in a shelter with 11 other people. By trail’s end at Springer Mountain in Dawson County, the Jacksons and a Valdosta man were the only remaining hikers.
The Jacksons recalled getting real concerned about one of their fellow hikers.
"I didn’t know if he was going to make it out," Wes said. "He didn’t have a clue about what was going on, he wasn’t prepared, and I could tell he wasn’t having a good time."
They also recalled one hiker who carried no food into the 100-mile Wilderness.
"Zero food. He had these big vitamins, and he thought he could hike all day and be OK," said Kendra Jackson, whose parents live in Duluth.
"He was a nut," Wes Jackson said.
The Jacksons carried their cell phones, occasionally calling family to give updates.
Along the trip, the couple stayed at hostels, slept in shelters and resupplied in small towns off the trail — a lot of places accepting cash only.
The whole trip cost the couple about $4,500.
"It’s a lot of restaurants, gas stations and stuff," 22-year-old Kendra Jackson said of where the money went.
"When you go into town, you’re really tempted to splurge, go to the all-you-can eat buffets and get snacks," Wes said.
Reflecting on the trip, Kendra Jackson said the hike was "more work than I expected."
The trip was monotonous at times — same trees, same leaves, same branches swatting your face.
"There was always the same four or five topics I’d think about it in my head for so long," Wes Jackson said.
"Yeah, some really weird things," she added. "... We could talk for an hour about what we wanted for breakfast."
Getting back to nature had its ups and downs.
The coupled recalled battling feet fungus — so bad it kept them off the trail for a couple of days — and a swarm of mosquitoes that was so "ridiculous, we were almost in tears," Wes Jackson said.
But then there were the panoramic views. The Jacksons snapped plenty of pictures, storing them on a laptop computer and filling up a photo album after they got home.
White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire is a highlight for many hikers, they said.
"It’s tough hiking but magnificent scenery," Wes Jackson said.
All in all, the trip was well worth the effort, the couple said.
"We will always have something to talk about with other people," Wes said. "It’s one of those things that’s very unique. It’s not a trip or vacation.
"You choose to live a certain way for five or six months and that changes your perspective on a lot of things."
As a bonus, the couple got to develop an even stronger, deeper bond.
"We started out our marriage waking up every day and walking 15-20 miles a day and being at each other’s side for months," Wes said. "I think that was a neat way to start marriage."
His wife agreed. "It was a good thing to do between college and getting a job. We probably wouldn’t have another chance to do something like this until we retire.
"Who can take six months off from life, especially when you have kids and all that?"