2,189 miles, 14 states, the highest elevation of 6,867 feet and the lowest elevation of 241 feet. These are the statistics of one of the longest and toughest trails in the world — The Appalachian Trail. Thousands of people complete the trail each year, and this year one local resident completed the trail as a stage hiker. Keith Russell, from East Bend, started his journey in February, and in June, he completed the 2,000-mile journey.
“It felt excellent to complete the trail. It was the accomplishment of a lifetime,” said Russell. “This experience was very rewarding and very challenging. It made me appreciate my bed at night.”
Russell was a northbound hiker as he started his journey in Georgia and ended in Maine. The final piece of the puzzle came as Russell had to tackle one of the toughest parts of the trail — Katahdin Summit in Maine. The summit is a rough terrain that includes a steep climb of sharp rocks with a drop off to one side. Completing this step of the trail made Russell feel accomplished and proud of his journey.
“I was very excited to get to that point,” said Russell. “There were about 15 people there and they were all giving me high-fives. I was the only section hiker that day, everyone else was a day hiker.
“The hardest section of the trail is the Whites Mountain Range in northern New Hampshire,” said Russell. “You had several mountains that the summit went above the tree line. They were steep, but you also had a drastic temperature change from the lower part to the top. It would be 60 degrees at the bottom and at the top it would be about 40 degrees. You had to take more clothes so you had to actually carry more weight.”
Russell, a retired electrician from R.J. Reynolds, is used to hiking as he would travel to Pilot Mountain and hike during the weekends and after work. Along his Appalachian Trail journey, he met countless other hikers from around the United States and Canada. He also ran into bears, foxes, deer and even the occasional moose.
“When I first started the trail, I was hiking along near Irwin, Tennessee, and a tree about 30 yards in front of me started shaking,” said Russell. “I stopped where I was and picked up a rock. About 45 seconds later, a bear made its way down the tree. I knew I was supposed to make noise so I started singing the first thing that came into my mind, which was the Davey Crockett song. It scared the bear off and when I thought I was good to go, the tree started shaking again and a cub came down and took off after its mom. That is the closest I came to a bear during my time on the trail.”
To his friends he is known as Keith, but on the trail he was known as Kountry. Choosing a trail name is one of the many parts that bring the AT hikers together. If a hiker doesn’t have a name, people along the way will help them find one.
“I chose my name because of my country accent,” said Russell. “On the trail I met one young gentleman who was named Slow Jam. He said another hiker gave him the name because he was slow and he jammed up the trail.”
The Appalachian Trail is known for the “trail angels,” who leave supplies along the trail for those that need them. At one point during his hike, Russell was running low on water and came upon a fresh gallon of water on the trail.
“There was water left on the trail two miles from any road,” said Russell. “They would hike in from the road and most of the time it would be from an intersection. I saw lots of drinks — like Gatorade, and the angels would leave several drinks plus a trash bag so there would be no litter on the trail. I probably saw over 25 incidents like this from Georgia to Maine. In Pennsylvania one time, they had two containers full of water and Gatorade. It said on the lid that it was for the hikers of the Appalachian Trail.”
Although many hikers of the AT are thru-hikers, Russell was a stage hiker, which meant he walked the trail in stages and not continuously. On average, Russell walked 15 to 20 miles a day on his journey to the end.
“McAfee Knob near Roanoke was one of the best views because it overlooked a valley. There were a lot of great views, but that one was the best,” said Russell. “Damascus, Virginia, was one of the best towns. They had several hostels where hikers could stay. They had several restaurants where you could sit outside with your hiking pack and eat a good meal. Everyone was really nice and friendly.”
Russell didn’t keep up with his weight along the trail, but to the clear eye, his transformation can be seen. If he had to guess, he said he lost about 25 pounds. Russell was not alone on his trip, as his wife, Kim Russell, also tagged along as his emotional support. The Russells bought a fifth-wheel camper, which Kim would stay in during the day and work remotely, while Keith would be hiking.
“I was in charge of cuddling and cooking,” said Kim. “My experience supporting my husband’s lifelong dream of hiking the AT was well worth it. Whatever sacrifices I had to make along the way were worth it.”
Along the trail, he made new friends while also keeping in touch with his old friends.
“I would send pictures to my buddies back home,” said Russell. “I kept everyone informed with the progression of my journey.”
With each step he took and every person he met along the way, Russell was an inspiration to those on the trail as well as those back in East Bend. Russell managed to raise $10,000 and his church, Richmond Hill Baptist Church, also raised additional funds which went towards the church’s building fund.
“I had some coworkers and they sponsored me while I was hiking. They raised about $10,000 to sponsor me,” said Russell. “I challenged the church and they raised funds as well and all of it went to the building fund.”
Anyone who knows Russell knows he has an enjoyment for life and lives every moment to the fullest. On the agenda next for Russell is a bit of relaxation. After hiking several miles, he is ready to get home and relax while also reconnecting with his friends.
Kristian Russell can be reached at 336-258-4052 or on Twitter @YadkinElkSports.