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Former Islander faces cliffs, snakes, bears in Appalachian Trail hike

Sat, Dec 9th 2017 07:00 am
Jeff Bullock celebrates near the completion of hike on the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. (Photo courtesy Jeff Bullock)
Jeff Bullock celebrates near the completion of hike on the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. (Photo courtesy Jeff Bullock)
By Alice E. Gerard
Contributor
Near the northernmost point of the Appalachian Trail, in Maine, hikers walk through a wilderness that stretches unbroken for 100 miles. It is called the One Hundred Mile Wilderness. Jeff Bullock, 32, a Grand Island High School graduate, who hiked the entire 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail in six months, described the wilderness as "peaceful."
Bullock, who now lives in North Carolina, said that he was accompanied by six other hikers in the wilderness.
"There were a lot of good looking lakes. On the last night, we slept on a beach. We swam in a couple of lakes during that time. We took a boat ride to get to this one hostel called White House Landing. That was the first place that we saw the final mountain of Katahdin," he said. "The first viewing of the end was breathtaking and surreal. We actually didn't want it to end. We went slower so we could make it last longer. It was sad, but we were happy to be able to complete (the hike)."
Hiking the Appalachian Trail was Bullock's first experience with backpacking. He was motivated to hike the trail after he saw the 2015 movie, "A Walk in the Woods," based on the memoir of the same title by travel writer Bill Bryson. The movie featured Robert Redford as Bill Bryson and Nick Nolte as a long-lost friend, who decided to hike the Appalachian Trail together after Bryson had returned to the United States, after living abroad for two decades.
"I had never heard of it (the Appalachian Trail). It looked like fun, and I wanted to do it, so I looked it up and started planning," Bullock said.
In March, Bullock traveled by himself to Dawson, Georgia. The starting point was Springer Mountain. "I did not get any sleep the night before. I was so excited to get going and nervous because it was my first time. It was going to be a fun adventure."
The Appalachian Trail crosses 14 states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
"I started on my own, but, by the third day, I was with people," Bullock said. "Maybe 10 other people and I stuck together and split costs on dinner, lodging, and hitching a ride in town. We got to be good friends. They were from all over the country. I am still in contact with them." Bullock talked about some of the experiences that he and his companions shared in various places along the trail. He described the sunset in Max Patch, North Carolina, as the "brightest, clearest, most perfect ... like a clear night after the sunset. We didn't even set up hammocks or tents. We lay our sleeping bags on the ground. That's how clear and calm the night was. It is actually called cowboy camping."
 On the first day that Bullock and his companions hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains, which border Tennessee and North Carolina, "it poured, a downpour of rain where the trail actually turned into a river. We were climbing up and down waterfalls. We were drenched." Soaked, they arrived in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where they planned to stay for one day. After the rain, however, a blizzard struck. "We were stuck there for two more days because the roads were closed. Gatlinburg is like Disney World for adults. We went to a Mexican restaurant. A family or a group of people were interested in the adventure, the trail, so they kept buying us drinks and nachos. There was this moonshine brewery. For $5, you could do a tasting, like wine tasting, but a moonshine tasting. There were different kinds. There were raspberries or peaches or strawberries, and they were in bottles so they were soaked with the moonshine. I bought a bottle. The peaches were soaked with the moonshine. It was delicious."
Hiking the Appalachian Trail involved more than walking day after day. "There are fun challenges that you do along the way," Bullock said. The first challenge that he and six other people in his group participated in was to hike the 40 miles between Hampton, Tennessee, to Damascas, Virginia, in 24 hours. "We did it in 21 and a half hours. I watched the sun set in Tennessee, and I watched the sun rise in Virginia, which is pretty cool. We took a lot of Ibuprofen for our feet. At night, we were going through these cow pastures and farm fields. It was a full moon, so it was really bright outside, so we were able to turn off our headlamps and still see the trail. It was so bright outside and cool and relaxed. We felt exhausted."
Not all of the challenges were athletic. "When you get to the halfway point between Georgia and Maine, there is another challenge called the half-gallon ice cream challenge to see if you can complete a half gallon of ice cream. Apparently, I can. It only took me 44 minutes, no brain freezes or nothing. A half hour later, I was eating pizza like nothing happened. You receive a gift for completing it." The gift was a little stick, like the one that comes with a small container of ice cream. "I ate this whole thing and I get a little stick. I was hoping for a T-shirt. Actually, I was with a buddy that I met there. He ate a half-gallon of ice cream with that little stick. It was hilarious. He had already eaten a half-gallon to get the stick and then he ate another half gallon with the stick. I don't think that he got sick after eating a gallon of ice cream. He didn't stay with me that night. I think that he hiked on. I couldn't hike a mile with a full stomach of ice cream."
Jeff Bullock stands at the Springer Mountain Georgia, the starting point of the Appalachian Trail. (Photo courtesy Jeff Bullock)
Another experience that involved too much food occurred in Virginia.
"In Waynesboro, Virginia, there's an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet called the Ming Garden," Bullock said. "Myself and maybe 20 other people went. We even got the special room like a banquet room. We get that room because we smell so bad. The doors were able to close, and all of the hikers would be in that room. Myself and maybe three others got kicked out. We were in there for too long. It was a $6.99 buffet. We were in there for three and a half hours. I gained eight pounds."
Bullock said that he took a few breaks from the trail. He said that, when he was at the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, he took a side trip. "Some of us, myself included, took a 45-minute train ride to Washington, D.C. I went to go meet my cousin in D.C. "
The visit, he said, "was nice. I hadn't been to D.C. in a while, so it was good to go."
Along the way, Bullock and his companions faced many challenges. These included rattlesnakes and rocky terrain. "In Virginia, there's this place called MacAffee Knob, and the closest city is Salem, Virginia. It's like the rock formation in "The Lion King." You can sit on the edge. I was there for a couple of hours to watch the sun rise." He said that he then walked five miles down the trail to a placed called Tinkers Cliff. "I was eating lunch, sitting on the cliff, and to my left, about 20 feet away, was a huge diamondback rattlesnake. I froze. My only option was to go to the right slowly or jump off the cliff that I was sitting on. I went to the right. I got away from the rattlesnake. I would often see five a day through Virginia and Pennsylvania."
Bullock described Pennsylvania the "rockiest state" and said that it was slow going. "It's miserable. It cuts you down in half. If you go three miles an hour, you would do a mile and a half in an hour. It's tedious, slow moving," he said. "It's rock climbing basically. It sucks when it rains because the rocks are wet. They are very slippery, and, in some parts, there are big boulders. You have to climb over them, and there is a sheer cliff on the other side. Pointy rocks on one side and a cliff on the other."
After leaving Pennsylvania, Bullock said that he went off-trail to visit family in New Jersey. After the break, the adventure continued. "I saw a couple of bears in Pennsylvania and couple of bears in New York. One was 30 feet, the other was 10 to 20 yards. At this one shelter (a lean to), that I stayed at, you could see the whole New York City skyline off in the distance on a clear day, and it was a clear day. It was quite a sight. It was nice. Then I got back on the trail in New Jersey. The trail actually goes through the Bear Mountain Zoo. Not a huge zoo, a medium size. It was nice to slow down and look at the animals."
Bullock described Connecticut as being "really muddy." "There was a boardwalk that you walk on. You go through marshes and swampy areas." After walking through Massachusetts, he arrived in Vermont on July 29. He described Vermont as "nice, the Green Mountain state."
He said, "We came across a lot of ponds, and we pretty much swam in every single one of them. There were a lot of suspension bridges in Vermont. ... In Shrewsbury, Vermont, there was a post mark sign that said you have 500 miles to the end. It was crazy and insane that we had just 500 miles left."
The state was muddy. "The people in Vermont call it Vermud. It was really, really muddy. Some people got caught in a mud pool. It came halfway up their bodies. They were stuck halfway in the mud. It didn't happen to me, luckily."
In New Hampshire, Bullock and his friends climbed Mount Washington.
"A week later, there was snow on top. It wasn't as hard as everybody said it would be, he said. "There was this one mountain that was in North Woodstock. It was Mount Moosilauke. It is 4,800 feet. It was really steep. It rained a couple of days before, so that made it even tougher. It was rock climbing all of the way up. Some of the rocks were slippery. We were in the clouds. It was windy. On the way down, you followed a waterfall all of the way down, which was very nice. We were in the presidentials, where Mount Washington and the Franconia Ridge are, and it's basically called ridge walking."
He described the path as eight feet wide with sheer cliffs on the sides. "They say that it gets really windy up there because Mount Washington has the worst weather in the country. They tell you to get off the mountain to below tree line because you could be blown off. Luckily, we had the nicest weather."
Arriving in Maine was bittersweet, Bullock said. "I was kind of sad that it was almost over. We only had about 281 miles to go. There were some parts that you had to rock climb, but they put metal rebar up. You have to climb up a ladder made of metal rebar. It's in the rocks. It was fun. There's this one section of Mouhasic Notch, and it's the longest mile on the trail. You have to go over cliffs, through caves and crevasses, where you even had to take off your pack to go through the hole. It took us just under three hours to do one mile. It was like an obstacle course. It was the worst area to do in the rain or if the rocks are wet."
Bullock said that one of his companions fell 20 feet and had to be helicoptered out. "He was OK. He had some broken ribs. I think that he ended his trip."
In Rangeley, Maine, "we saw a sign that said that we were at the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole. That was the 2,000-mile mark. I couldn't imagine in my whole life that I would ever walk 2,000 miles. We came across some rivers that we actually had to ford across. It only came up to our knees. It wasn't too bad. Then later on we had to pass a Caratunk River. You had to take a ferry across. There was a guy in a canoe who takes you across. You have to only go there during certain times because the river is high and it can take you away. People have drowned when they tried to ford it themselves."
The northernmost point of the Appalachian Trail is a mountain called Katahdin. Bullock described the last day of his hike: "On Sept. 30, it was summit day. We were all standing at Baxter State Park. Nobody wanted to start getting going. There were probably a total of 12 of us summiting. We had a perfect day. ... We were staying at the last little steep part and looking up at the top. We can see the end from where we were. I didn't really get emotional until I got back down on the ground. I couldn't think of anything on top but to celebrate and get excited about it. The two people I was with started together, and he proposed at the top. So I'll be looking forward to a wedding soon."
If people are interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail, Bullock said that he can answer their questions. "I can explain everything that you need in your pack, exactly how much money you need, and towns to look forward to."
Bullock said that he is currently looking for a job to save up enough money for another hike. He said that he is hoping to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019. The Pacific Crest Trail is a 2,650-mile trail on the west coast that goes through California, Oregon, and Washington.

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