The hair is longer.
The beard is bushier.
The job is ... done.
Charles Stephens recently finished an undertaking not too many people have seen through to the end: He hiked the Appalachian Trail.
“I’ve known it was there from the beginning to do,” he said. “We had some pretty good hikes, but when I was in ROTC at Cherokee (High School), I talked to a hiker, and he told me, it could be done.
The Rogersville resident recently conquered the Appalachian Trail from start to finish, covering all 2,192 miles through 14 states over 198 days, from March 10 through Sept. 28. Stephens said the decision to hike the trail had been on his mind, dating back to high school.
“If you want mountains, you’ll get those. If you want waterfalls, you’ll get those as well.” he said.
Stephens said his military training prepared him for his trip along the trail. Stephens graduated from Marine boot camp at Parris Island in 2003, and served with the 2nd Light Armored Recon Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Once his Marine career ended, he joined the Army in 2011, and saw action in the Iraq War.
“The hardest part is to make you (get up to continue the hike). You have to do it every day,” Stephens said. “The point is the perseverance. Every day has to have a purpose.”
Only 25% of hikers who start the Appalachian Trail make it to Mount Kathadin in Maine, the official end of the trek. Beautiful in its brutality, the trail forces some hikers to stop the journey because of the weather or the terrain, while others suspended their treks due to injuries, illness or family reasons.
Stephens encountered rough weather and minor injuries on several occasions during the hike, but continued the trip through adversity nevertheless, saying “no pain, no rain, no main” is the attitude one has to have if success is on the horizon. He also said “no main” is part of his personal philosophy, meaning the ultimate goal, the final destination for any undertaking.
“You have to be able to hike in poor weather. You can’t take days off,” he said. “You won’t make it if you do that.
“There were a lot of hardcore dudes saying they can make it (down the trail), and you believe it because of their motivation and their attitude, they can make it – and they don’t for one reason or another.”
Stephens also said some hikers expect an easy and glamourous walk through the mountains, but that is far from the case.
“The realization of it is that it is not glamourous, like people think it is,” he said. “The fun is quickly gone. No more rainbows and butterflies. All you have left is perseverance.”
Stephens said his main reason for the trip was to fulfill a personal goal.
“Plenty of people have different reasons for doing this. I really needed to take some time to myself,” he said.
Stephens said he couldn’t have accomplished the feat without the support of his family. His wife Julie, his son Maximus, 13 and his daughter Avalon, 10, accompanied him for the first 210 miles of the journey from the approach trail in Georgia to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in East Tennessee. This leg of the hike is roughly the same distance from East Tennessee to Nashville – only more elevated and mountainous.
“One of the big drivers for me was having my family for the first part (of the hike). My wife and kids did the first 200 or so miles with me. That’s what helped me persevere,” Charles said. “It was amazing how the kids did it at their age.
“There were plenty of ‘are we almost there’ moments from the kids. They encountered some trials like (my wife and I) did. No amount of words or pictures will describe how hard the Appalachian Trail is.”
Stephens’s trip through the trail – and the mountains surrounding it – lasted longer than any trip he’s taken with a vehicle, but he is thankful for those who helped him along the way. Several groups of people called “Trail Angels” provide hikers with supplies and dry places to stay for those looking to complete the trail.
“I’ve never even driven past Pennsylvania in a car. A lot of the trip is quite mountainous,” he said. “A lot of the appeal is how hard it can be. You go into in the small towns to resupply for the rest of the trip, but most of the people along the trail will help with your supplies.”
There is a perception of danger from animals or criminals on the trail. However, it is a rare occurrence, according to Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. About two million to three million people hike the trail each year.
“You have more of a chance of getting hurt in a four-wheeled death trap machine than on the trail,” King said.
Stephens took a short hike the day before reaching the end of the arduous trek at Mount Kathadin. He said neither words nor pictures can describe the feeling of reaching a goal just one out of four people who begin the journey accomplish.
“It’s hard to describe (the hike) when it’s over. It hasn’t dawned on you that you’ve finished,” Stephens said. “It doesn’t seem that it’s finished. There’s nowhere else. It’s surreal.
“The end felt like the beginning to me. The lessons I learned I can apply them to real life. Pictures won’t ever do it justice.”
Stephens said he would do the trip again in a heartbeat. He also doesn’t plan on shaving his beard nor cutting his hair anytime soon.
“I would definitely do this again, but I’d start off a little lighter because I know what I’m doing now,” he said. “I don’t plan or shaving my face or cut my hair. It’s a memory from my time on the trail.”