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Evan Metz’s 2,189.2-Mile Journey

Hiking the Appalachian Trail prepared him for his next journey as a Navy SEAL

After 4 1/2 months, Evan Metz finally reached the top of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Evan Metz’s awakening came on the Appalachian Trail.
    To be exact, 125 awakenings. One each morning as he hiked the trail in the 41⁄2 months after his 2014 graduation from Calvert High School. Each morning and every mile brought the 19-year-old closer to embodying the values he sought to reach his goal of becoming a Navy SEAL.
    With his Navy ship-out postponed, Metz had chaffed. To pass the months, family friend Steven Vilsack challenged Metz to an Appalachian Trail hike.
    “I’ve always wanted to do a 70-mile section, something like that. So I said, Yeah, maybe we can take a week. But he meant the whole thing,” Metz said.
    His first big hike covered 2,189.2 miles.
    Walking those miles, Metz endured exhaustion, below-zero temperatures, foot-shredding rocks, larger-than-life insects and a melting heat wave. Those challenges were temporary. The persistence and endurance he developed along the way will go with him wherever his hunger for adventure leads.
It Ain’t No Picnic
    After training at Calvert Cliffs State Park, Metz and Vilsack set out February 12 from the trail’s beginning at Springer Mountain, Georgia. In below-zero temperatures, Metz feared frostbite. He slept with his feet wrapped in space blankets, wearing all of his clothes, snuggled with Vilsack inside both sleeping bags.
    “I went to bed a lot of nights thinking, I don’t even need to be here. I’ll decide in the morning if I want to leave,” Metz said. “But in the morning it’s a new day, and you’re just excited to get going.
    “This sucks, but it’s going to suck so much worse later in training if I can’t do this. I thought if I could make it to Katahdin — the final mountain — then I’ll have a mindset where I can do anything I try.”
    Pushing ahead without Vilsack for speed, Metz walked from Georgia to North Carolina to Tennessee. In Virginia, many hikers get the VA blues in a 538-mile tunnel of trees, a quarter of the whole trail. Metz loved the winter views.
    From the halfway mark in West Virginia, he walked into home turf: Maryland.
    “I was kind of excited because that was my home state,” Metz said. “But I came to find out there’s nothing exciting about Maryland. It’s all rocky.”
    Pennsylvania was rockier still.
    “Pennsylvania is hands down the worst state to hike through,” Metz said. “There are all these tiny little rocks that shred your feet. I went through five pairs of boots on the entire trail, but Pennsylvania took a pair on its own.”
    Pennsylvania is the second-longest state on the Appalachian Trail, spanning almost 300 miles. The southern half teases hikers with its flatness. Thirty miles a day is an easily manageable pace here. But after the 501 shelter, “It just turns into hell,” Metz recalls.
    By May he reached New York and a new challenge: a heat wave. Ninety- to 100-degree weather made waters that should have been cooling into bathwater. “There’s nothing worse than warm water when you’re really hot,” Metz said. “Plus it tasted like algae and dirt.”
    Too exhausted to make a fire or hunt for wildlife, Metz relied on calorie-heavy dehydrated food that he cooked on a small titanium stove with a can of gas. Dehydrated food packs lightly, and after a day’s hike of 18 to 20 miles it tasted great.
    Waking at 5am, Metz ate five packs of oatmeal, then snacked on protein bars and peanut butter. Dinner was ramen, instant mashed potatoes or boxed macaroni and cheese. He’d go to sleep with the sun.
    His rations, bought ahead with $800 in graduation money, arrived in seven-day boxes shipped by his father to a waypoint along his journey.

Mice, Mosquitoes, Moose Flies and Friends
    Metz faced his worst foes in New England. Enormous mosquitos sucked him dry. A moment of stillness brought clouds of black moose flies that blocked out the sun. After a long sticky, sweaty day, bugs in his sleeping bag nearly drove him insane.
    Other visitors crawled in, too. As Metz settled into sleep in a wooden lean-to, he awoke to squeaking sounds and felt his hair ruffling. It was a family of mice attempting to nest on his head. He was too exhausted to flee. The next day, he made his way into a town for a haircut.
    Companions come and go on the trail. For 1,600 miles, Metz traveled with Gator, a 23-year-old with a long beard and who touted his state pride with a Live Free or Die tattoo. Gator’s pace, experience and energy took him farther faster than the rookie Metz, who would fall behind during the day, but manage to catch up at night.
    “Gator is the most energetic guy you’ll ever meet,” Metz recalled.
    Gator rose at 3am, waking the camp up with screams of coffee time! On the trail, he sang and video-blogged his trip.

Metz with and the always-serious 0311 hiked together for 400 miles.

    New friend Oh Three Eleven introduced a wave of calm. Metz and 0311 hiked silently together behind Gator for 400 miles.
    Metz earned his own nickname after a nasty set of blisters infected his feet. Gator dubbed him Shitfoot.
    In his TrailJournals blog Metz wrote, “All three of us grew to know each other and live together and somehow not kill each other. Both of them were a pain in the ass a lot of the time but they were the ones who pushed me to continue on. I hope I did the same for them.”

Pushing On
    Along the trail, other hikers warned Metz and company that by New Hampshire they would have done 80 percent of the trail … but only put in 20 percent of the effort. They would no longer be able to manage 20 miles a day; in New England’s mountains, they’d fight for every mile.
    Climbing New Hampshire’s 4,800-foot Mt. Moosilauke, 0311 and Metz found themselves with no trees for cover and 60- to 70-mile-per-hour winds hitting them straight on. With high winds and rough terrain they were lucky to push out five miles a day. Metz earned the rare reward of a clear view of Mount Washington.
    Maine’s first climb is the Mahoosuc Notch, running parallel along the base of two mountains. Climbing through caves and around 50-plus-foot-tall boulders took Metz and his team 85 minutes.
    “The Mahoosucs, yeah, they kicked my ass,” Metz recalled of his hardest mile of the Appalachian Trail. “I finally got through them, and Maine started to get easier and flat, so I knew I was in the final stretch.”
    The final stretch was no walk in the park. The last 31⁄2 days took Metz and 0311 through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. The last stretch of that hike was 5,270 vertical feet up Mt. Katahdin. They summited silently at 3am on June 17 after 41⁄2 footsore months.
    “When you get on top of that mountain peak that you’ve just worked three hours of climbing and you’ve been cursing out the whole time and you get to the top, nothing beats the view,” Metz said.
    Of course the way back couldn’t be easy, as 0311 convinced Metz to go back down through Knife’s Edge, 1.2 miles of scrambling the Katahdin mountain range with a 2,000-foot drop on either side.
    Back on level ground, Metz and 0311 hitchhiked to Milonakis, where Metz caught a bus to Bangor and a plane to Dulles International Airport.
    On July 29, Metz shipped out to begin his Navy SEAL training. He felt “100 percent prepared,” he said. “But I miss the trail.”


Footnote: Steven Vilsack, who is legally blind, has reached New Hampshire’s White Mountains, hiking with new partners.