Q&A with Carl Wilcox: New Gloucester thru-hiker fulfills decades-old dream

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Carl Wilcox of New Gloucester finished his 6½-month journey on the Appalachian Trail at the top of Mount Katahdin in September. 

NEW GLOUCESTER — Carl Wilcox has wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail for decades, and this year, the 54-year-old from New Gloucester checked it off his list.

His 6½-month journey began in Georgia on March 7, and finished Sept. 21 at the top of Mount Katahdin. Wilcox took time away from his job as a wastewater engineer at Woodard & Curran to complete the trek, which wasn’t without its challenges.

Wilcox spoke with the Lakes Region Weekly about his hike of more than 2,000 miles.

Q: You did a thru-hike on the entire Appalachian Trail?

A: Yep, from Amicalola Falls up to Katahdin. The trail goes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin. There’s the approach trail that some people take and some people don’t. The traditional start was at Amicalola Falls, and then you hike 8.8 miles to the summit of Springer. Probably half of the people do that.

Q: Was there any particular reason that compelled you to take the journey?

A: I would say I got interested in doing it when I was about 20 years old in college. There were a couple of volumes of short stories, people who had hiked it … And that spurred an interest in me to do it way back then. And the opportunity arose, and I did it. I made time to do it.

Q: Did you do it solo?

A: Yes, I did it solo. There’s always people around you … (but) while you’re physically hiking, you’re alone, because somebody can be five minutes ahead of you and you would never ever see them all day long … A portion of the people that you saw the previous night show up where you’re at. Some of us hike slower, and you don’t see them again. Other people hike faster and you don’t see them again. Some people you see on and off for hundreds and hundreds of miles. But I wasn’t in any defined group. A lot of people tend to hike as a group, and then get together again at the same place that night … The older people tend not to do that, we tend to be soloists.

Q: What was that day like when you finished the trail?

A: It was gorgeous… A lot of summits when I summited had horrible weather. And I had no complaints when I summited Katahdin. The weather was great.

Q: Did folks in town know that you were doing this?

A: A good portion of the people did. Word kind of spread. I wasn’t much of a user of Facebook before the trail, but I kept posting things … A lot of people joined on as friends, so my reputation grew as I went along on the trail. I wrote quite a bit of stuff on Facebook. … I spent a lot of time posting stuff and telling stories about the trail – historical aspects and what went on. You have a lot of history in areas of the trail. The Civil War was fought hot and heavy in northern Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania where the trail goes through.

Q: Is the hike something you would recommend to other people?

A: Well, it was far more physically demanding than I thought it was going to be. I’d recommend if you’re young and you want to do it, do it when you’re young. Because when you get older, things tie you down – and I would say a lot of older people start and never complete it, because it’s so difficult. Not to say that there aren’t a number of old people like me, or older people in their 60s who are in good shape complete it.

I had an injury as soon as I entered Maine with my foot. If that happened way back in Virginia, I don’t think I would have completed the trail. Instead I toughed it out for the last 273 miles and got it done, but had that happened 1,073 miles earlier, I don’t know if I would have been able to.

Q: Had you been doing a fair amount of hiking before? Did you start doing more to prepare?

A: No, I had done a fair amount when I was in college, but that’s a long time ago. With the exception of some day hikes, I hadn’t done any long-distance hiking in decades.

There’s two different philosophies on that … One is you try and train for it, but it’s pretty difficult to train to hike 10 hours a day other than hiking 10 hours a day … I’d say to start slow and not put too many miles in for the first month and a half. Let your body work into it, and then build up your mileage.

I’d say that’s the No. 1 problem is people try to put in too many miles… There’s a saying on the trail: ‘The people who do 20 miles a day in Georgia and North Carolina don’t make it to Virginia.’

Q: Anything about the experience that we haven’t covered?

A: Well, you make a lot of friends and have a lot of camaraderie on the trail. You look out after other people, and other people are kind of looking out after you. Again, there are these groups of people that have what they call trail families that are kind of tight-knit. But then I would say there’s the trail family, which is much more encompassing… And the aspect of the freedom the trail offers day after day – gorgeous views and tremendous experience .

And you get really healthy. If you manage to stay hiking on the trail, you become phenomenally healthy. If everybody hiked the trail, what we spend on health care in the United States would drop dramatically.

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or mjunker@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Carl Wilcox of New Gloucester finished his 6½-month journey on the Appalachian Trail at the top of Mount Katahdin in September.

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