Longest journey starts with single step

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 29, 2003

One week ago, Leah Surplin was standing atop Maine's Mount Katahdin. Her arms were raised in victory. She had just completed a 2,000-mile trudge to the top of the world.

The longest journey begins with a single step and Leah's journey of more than 5 million steps began on March 1, on Springer Mountain, Ga., the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

The Appalachian Trail, the world's longest footpath, slinks for more than 2,100 miles over mountaintops, ridge lines, valley floors, wildflower meadows, isolated cow pastures and a few paved roads, all remote but within shouting distance of 100 million people along the American East Coast.

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Each year, only about 200 of those who begin the long trudge reach "the top of the mountain."

At 3:17 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2003, Leah trudged down from the mountain top and signed out at the bottom of Mount Katahdin. That swish of the pen brought her six month-journey to an end and officially logged in the realization of a dream.

Three years ago, Leah hiked the Unicoi Gap in Georgia and someone mentioned their desire to hike the Appalachian Trail.

"That was the first time that I'd heard about the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) and I thought, 'That's cool. I want to do that,'" she said.

While a counselor at a church camp, Leah met another counselor who expressed a desire to hike "The Trail."

A year later, Leah and Emily Capes hiked a section of the A.T.

The weather didn't cooperate, but nasty or not, the hikers decided they wanted to "come back and hike the entire trail."

The hike takes about six months, give or take, depending on how Mother Nature decides to treat her guests, so Leah had to pre-plan the trip. That meant taking time off from nursing school at Troy State University. So, she bowed out for a year and began to prepare for the journey of a lifetime.

"I didn't really know how to prepared to walk 2,000 miles," she said, smiling. "So, I started running and riding a bike, hoping to get in shape, but I really wasn't in that good of shape when we started.

"We" were Emily, her sister, Julie, and two of Emily's friends, Jason Anderson and David Smith.

The beginning of the south-north trail at Springer Mountain is said to be some of the roughest terrain along the trail.

"I think it's rough because you are just getting started," Leah said. "We hiked about eight miles that day and were completely exhausted."

Leah said she was highly motivated going into the trudge and that kept her adrenaline pumping until she got to Virginia.

"Then, I had what A.T. hikers call the Virginia blues," she said, laughing. "Virginia is such a large state. It took us about a month to get through it and the hike just wasn't that much fun to me anymore."

Leah wasn't the only one with the Virginia blues, so she and her hiking companions sat down and talked about where they were and how they were feeling.

"The question we asked was were we just hiking the miles or were we hiking to have fun," she said. "We knew that if we were going to make the entire trail, we had to slow down and smell the roses along the way."

The hikers began doing just that.

"We did a lot of talking, some singing, a whole lot thinking and we began to really take in everything around us," she said.

"Most of the nights were spent in tented shelters and there was often a longing for a soft, warm bed. Most of the food was dried and there were cravings for fruit and ice cream. Some nights were cold; some days were wet, but there were sunsets and mountain vistas to stir every hiker's soul.

"I would do it all again," Leah said. "It was the experience of a lifetime. When it was over - when we reached the top of Katahdin, it was an unbelievable feeling. It was such a special moment. I didn't want it to end. I was on top of the world."