Val and Phil Rogosheske, of St. Cloud, posed for a photo after hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, estimated at 2,180 miles long. The couple hiked hundreds of miles a year for several years, just skipping one year, to complete the task.
When Val Rogosheske says “Life is a journey,” she might just be referring to the 38-week journey, over five years, during which she and her husband walked from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT, a famous hiking trail that runs along the ridge of the Appalachian mountain range, is estimated to be 2,180 miles long. It was completed in 1937.
Val and Phil Rogosheske, of St. Cloud, hiked the AT in sections, about 500 miles a year, beginning in March 2007. They hiked 11 weeks the first year, followed by nine weeks in 2008 and six weeks in 2009. They skipped the next year but went back in 2011 for 10 weeks. “We would have finished that year, but Hurricane Irene knocked us off the trail,” Phil explained. So, last year, they took their final steps on the AT in Maine, finishing up in two weeks.
Val had hiked the Superior Hiking Trail north of Duluth, prior to the AT. “Hiking was my thing,” she said. She wanted to walk the AT, and it wasn’t until about three months before she left that Phil decided he wanted to go along. They originally thought they would try to through-hike, complete the entire AT in one uninterrupted journey. But, they decided instead to hike the trail over a period of years, known as section-hiking.
To prepare for the hike, Val began walking to and from work every day. Phil did Nordic skiing and racewalking. They also talked to people who had already hiked the trail and studied map books with important details like elevation and distances to the nearest water and between campsites. “The best advice we got was from people who had already done it,” said Val.
When deciding what to pack, weight was a critical factor because everything needed to be carried on their backs. Besides the tent and sleeping bags, they carried food for five to six days, enough water for one day, a water filter and a few clothes. They packed good rain suits and Val brought her camera and journal. Everything was packed in plastic. Val carried about 22 pounds, and Phil carried 30 pounds. Both used Nordic walking poles.
There were no cooking pots in their backpacks because they ate rehydrated food. Breakfast was always oatmeal with fruit. They had energy bars during the day, and supper was brown rice with vegetables and fish. Dessert was usually pudding because it was lighter than Snickers bars. “We ate pretty well,” Phil said.
Most hikers, including the Rogosheskes, begin the AT at the southern end, in Georgia. As they hiked northward, Val said they were able to experience spring over and over, and to see rhododendron, wild flowering dogwood and mountain laurel in bloom. They did, however, get caught in two spring snowstorms in the Great Smoky Mountains, where they had to walk in knee-deep snow, and their water froze during the night.
Both agreed that meeting people from all over the world and all walks of life was one of the highlights of their adventure. The hikers were of all ages. There were recent college graduates, people going through a life transition and retired people. It was possible to walk all day and only meet a couple of people, but the shelter was a place where hikers congregated and shared stories in the evening. The shelters are three-sided structures with a roof and a cement floor. “It was nice to be in the shelter if it rained or snowed,” said Val. But if weather wasn’t a factor, they preferred sleeping in their tent on the ground. “I put pine boughs under the tent, and it would be softer than the hard floor,” Phil said. The tent offered more privacy and some distance from potential snorers. They had down sleeping bags rated to 15 degrees and a neo air mattress for extra comfort.
“The AT is a friendly trail,” said Val. “You can link up with others to hike with during the day.” Phil added that there are no secrets out there. “Word travels fast down the trail.”
Hikers each have a trail name. “You can choose your own or someone else will choose it for you,” said Phil. He and Val had a trail name for the two of them- “Willing and Abal.” Val explained the unique spelling of her name, Abal. “Our daughter’s names are Abby and Ally and this was a way to bring them with us.”
Val’s biggest fear was of snakes, and she had to endure encounters with both rattlesnakes and copperheads. She used her walking pole to clear the path before her if she suspected a snake was nearby.
After five to six days of hiking, the Rogosheskes would go into town and stay at a hostel for a night or two. Besides getting supplies, they could take showers, do laundry, eat some good meals at a restaurant and take in some cultural activities. Hiking the AT in sections, as opposed to walking the entire trail at once, allowed them to take longer breaks if they wished and to spend extra days in a town that they liked. A through-hiker traveling north may have a stricter schedule because of weather considerations. Thousands of people attempt a through-hike each year, but only one in four makes it the entire way.
Val and two companions once came across a man who had broken his leg. Her companions were doctors so they were able to assist him before he was carried off the trail for further medical attention. It was late in the day so if they had not come by, he most likely would have spent all night out on the trail.
Val carried her cell phone and was able to call her mother and family members if she got to the top of a hill, but she and Phil could not communicate with one another when hiking during the day.
When asked if there was a place they would like to revisit, they agreed on Virginia and the spectacular beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. The Rogosheskes learned a few things about themselves while hiking the AT.
“I learned that life is a journey that you carry in your heart,” Val said. “I learned what’s important in life. The most important is love…and water!” She also learned to appreciate her spouse more and that a diet of rice and fish got boring after awhile.
Phil learned that hiking the trail is a confidence booster. “You learn to be self-sufficient and that you can survive. You learn patience, to be in the moment. You really appreciate the small things in life.” And, unlike his wife, he did not find the trail diet boring.
The Rogosheskes have more hikes in their future. They plan to travel to Spain this fall and walk the Camino de Santiago with friends that they met on the AT. After that, maybe the Pacific Crest Trail. Happy hiking!