Published August 17. 2013 4:00AM
On a blustery, cloudy Saturday two weeks ago, with the temperature in the mid-40s, Salem native Garrett Seibert strapped on his backpack – the same pack he had been lugging nearly every day for the past five months – and began the final leg of a 2,184-mile journey.
As he climbed toward the 5,268-ft. summit of Maine’s Mount Katahdin, he thought about the long slog from Georgia’s Springer Mountain requiring some 5 million footsteps, the bone-numbing fatigue, the sore muscles, the rain, the mud, the mosquitoes, the countless pots of rice cooked over an alcohol stove he fashioned from a soda can.
But the higher Garrett ascended the more he thought about the days picking blueberries on the Bigelows of Maine, or gazing, seemingly forever, from the peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, or enjoying the “trail magic” hospitality of freshly cooked meals and treats from generous strangers down South.
By the time Garrett climbed atop a wooden sign marking both Katahdin’s summit and the northern terminus of the fabled Appalachian Trail, a smile as big as a mountain range stretched across his face, and he spread his arms in elation.
Mission accomplished: Garrett had finished hiking one of the world’s most celebrated footpaths, the Appalachian Trail.
All around him other hikers also were completing their journeys – some broke down in sobs, some shouted with joy – but Garrett mostly felt overwhelming relief and did not linger at the summit.
He simply turned around and began descending to the Katahdin Springs campground, where a car was waiting. Halfway down he met his parents, Michael and Kimberly Seibert, and sister, Kimberly, who had hiked up to greet him. The family hiked down together and then drove back to Connecticut – a memorable reunion.
“It was great,” Garrett said.
He has set out on the trail April 1 with Matt Baer of East Lyme, a former classmate at East Lyme High School, but Matt was forced to drop out a week later after injuring his Achilles tendon.
Garrett quickly found other companions and traveled at various times the rest of the way with other through-hikers with such trail names as Misery, Shady, Mustard Tiger, Stumbles, Beacon and Mr. Frodo.
Every year several thousand hikers from around the world set out on the AT – most of them traveling northbound – but only a few hundred manage to cover the entire distance. Since the trail was completed in 1937, more than 13,000 hikers have gone the whole way.
When he finished on Aug. 3, Garrett was the 92nd hiker this year to reach Katahdin, out of 761 who had signed up in Georgia by April 1.
Garrett averaged about 18 miles of hiking a day and took only 12 days off in five months. His longest day was 35.5 miles; the hardest but most rewarding were in New Hampshire where the trail crosses the Presidential Range, and in Maine’s Mahoosuc Notch, where a boulder-riddled section is known as the nastiest mile on the AT.
“It was the hardest, but also the ‘funnest,’” he said.
It also rained for more than a week in Vermont’s Green Mountains.
“Nothing but mud and roots,” he said. “Some of the trails were more like rivers.”
Garret, who graduated from East Lyme High in 2008 and earned a degree in ecotourism and outdoor recreation from New Hampshire's Plymouth State University recreation, plans to leave Salem in a few days and return to his job as an instructor at an adventure camp in California.
Next on the agenda: the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,663-mile path from the California-Mexico to the Washington-Canada borders – “but probably not for a few years.”
Garrett said he wants to savor his experience on the AT, pay some college loans and also save some money for PCT hike.
“Hopefully, within the next five years,” he said.