A journey starts with the first step

by Eric A Thomas

It started with a picture of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). For one Jacksonville man, seeing that picture sparked something inside himself — he knew an adventure awaited him. So, with the blessing of his wife, Angie, Mike Fenner started his Appalachian journey February 28.

Starting at mile zero at the southern terminus on Springer Mountain in Georgia, Fenner embarked on the 2,194-mile trek. “My personal goal for this hike is to simply finish it,” comments Fenner. “I have stopped hiking the A.T. for this year and hope to restart the trail in May 2023.”

Periodically, he would take a break from the trail by coming home to be with family and rest up. Subtracting all his rest days this year, Fenner has logged 1,408.1 miles over a 93-day period. When he resumes in 2023, he will have 785.9 miles to go to complete the entire A.T.

If Fenner was hiking along the entire length of the trail from end to end in a single trip, would be called a “thru-hike,” something that only 25% of hikers will accomplish. The term used to describe Fenner’s journey is “section hike.” Since the creation of A.T. in 1939, just over 20,000 have completed the entire trek.

At the start in Georgia, Fenner was able to hike 8-10 miles per day. For such a hike, it takes a month or so to develop what are called “trail legs.” Fenner notes, “My calf and hip muscles had to get significantly stronger in order to move up and down several mountains a day while carrying 25-30 pounds on my back. Furthermore, the tendons and ligaments in my feet and around my ankles, knees and hips needed time to harden so they could handle the difficult trail.” Since the physical conditioning during the early part of the trail, Fenner is more recently able to hike 20 miles a day (or 100 miles per week), updating that his average pace is roughly 2 miles per hour.

The weather he has experienced has been all over the place — from some snow in North Carolina or parka and down mittens in freezing temperatures to higher temperatures in June that necessitated wringing out his sweat-soaked pants and shirt at the end of the day before going to bed. By taking a vacation from the trail in July, he avoided days when the heat index was persistently over 100. “My ideal trail day would have a constant temperature in the low 50s with intermittent light breezes and a mostly cloudy sky,” states Fenner. “I’ve slept nights in my tent with a drenching thunderstorm and being buffeted by 50 mph winds. Those times made me very grateful for that millimeter of nylon protecting me from the elements.”

Surprisingly, 80% of hiking A.T. is mental energy, paying attention to and avoiding dangers and obstacles on the trail — everything from a boot catching rocks and roots to mud, puddles, slippery boulders and fallen trees. Not only has Fenner seen phenomenal natural beauty, but he has also met some great people on the trail and in the towns through which he has passed. Fenner explains, “The people along the way that bring a special blessing are called ‘trail angels.’ They are volunteers who might serve food at a road intersection or set out water jugs during times of the drought.” There were many instances when exhaustion would almost get the best of him, and he needed extra encouragement. There were other times when food was running low, he needed liquid refreshment, or he just needed to talk to someone … and they were there.

The hardest part of the journey has been facing the repeated episodes of physical exhaustion. Because of this, Fenner has taken breaks from the trail to come home and relax. During those times, he has enjoyed being with his family, having a comfortable chair, going barefoot in his bug-free home, being able to shower, sleeping with soft sheets and using the icemaker on the refrigerator door. He will enjoy being back in Jacksonville for the next several months, and when he gets back to the simple life on the A.T. sometime in late spring of 2023, he will have gained a new perspective on the beauty of nature and people around him.

Fenner said that when he was on the trail, there were two ideas that helped him and continue to amaze him: our bodies and minds are capable of much more than we give them credit for, and no job is too big if we just put our mind to it and persist in the effort. “Seeing things from the Appalachian perspective, I see that the trail offers me the best of both worlds,” concludes Fenner. “Each day is filled with simple tasks like the taking of 30,000 tiny steps, while my nights are spent recovering from the effort and sleeping beneath an unimaginably large universe with its uncountable number of stars.”

Fenner has been married to the love of his life, Angie, for 30 years. They have four grown children who live in the area: Grace, Will, Emma and Calvin. Mike Fenner is a retired general surgeon who practiced with Springfield Clinic in Jacksonville up until December 2020. He loves traveling, hiking (obviously), going for walks with the dogs, writing, painting and cooking for his family.

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