Brecksville man calls five-month hike ‘the journey of a lifetime’

by Melissa Martin

Each year, more than two million individuals from all over the world set out to hike the 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail, but only one in four completes the task.

Brecksville resident Chuck Caves joined the ranks of those distinguished few in 2021, navigating the world’s longest hiking-only trail, start to finish, between May and October.

Joining him on 2021’s elite list of ‘thru-hikers,’ a term used for those who traverse the entire Appalachian Trail in a single season, are a few hundred other backpackers, including an 83-year-old Alabama man, the oldest hiker on record to complete the trail, and a Virginia 5-year-old accompanied by his parents.

Completing the trail, which passes through 14 states between Springer Mountain, Georgia, and Mt. Katahdin, Maine, takes tremendous resolve, little of it having to do with the trail’s length. Instead, as Caves can attest, it’s the rugged terrain, weather extremes, illness, injury and other obstacles that can induce hikers to pack up their boots and head home.

“I definitely had my moments out there, that’s for sure,” Caves said. “The elements can really take their toll on you, especially when you have six straight days of rain. That can really wear you down. Not only do your feet get wet and you get blisters, but everything gets wet. With all of your clothes rubbing as you walk, you get blisters all over. You wake up wet, you go to bed wet and you just can’t get dry. It really can be miserable.”

It’s times like these, Caves said, that “challenge you to see how bad you want this.”

Refusing to give up

For the 54-year-old, that moment of truth came in the White Mountain region of New Hampshire, days from the end of his trip. With steep cliffs and large boulders “the size of Volkswagens” to climb, Caves found navigation beyond difficult. Though he was accustomed to hiking 20-plus miles per day on other parts of the trail, his progress was limited to a mere 10-14 miles a day, sometimes less. To put that into perspective, completing the final 300 miles in Maine took him a full month of the 5-month expedition.

“I fell more times than I can even count,” he said. “With all of the slipping and stumbling going on every day, so many people I saw in this area suffered everything from broken ankles and arms to broken ribs. … It’s definitely the most challenging part of the trip and, to be honest, there were times I didn’t know if I was going to make it.”

Caves, a CPA who retired in 2019, began studying the Appalachian Trail more than a decade ago when he and several of his old college buddies took weeklong hikes at different points of the trail annually. He fell in love with the adventure and decided in 2019 to try a solo mission. That meant unlike group outings, Caves would have to carry everything he needed to survive — a tent, tarp, clothing, food, cooking gear, water and more – on his back.

A fitness enthusiast, Caves said he was up for the challenge. He was in top shape and purchased extra light gear to keep from burning calories unnecessarily. What he didn’t account for was how demanding the activity would be and the toll it would take on his body.

“I lost more than 20 pounds the first month just trying to eat healthy, and frankly, I didn’t have 20 pounds to lose,” he said. “At that rate, I knew I wasn’t going to make it five months out there so I had to do something.”

Caves realized he severely underestimated how much food he’d need, given that he was burning 4,000-5,000 calories a day, sometimes more, and only consuming around 3,000. He could only carry five to six days worth of food with him.

Whenever Caves arrived in a town to purchase food and do laundry, he made sure to eat well and, in most cases, that meant consuming more calories in one sitting than he’d ever done in his life.

“I was eating half-gallons of ice cream in one sitting, whole pizzas, ordering double entrees and even then I was still down 12 to 15 pounds when I got back home,’’ he said.

Overcoming homesickness

Caves said he quickly came to appreciate what hikers refer to as “trail magic.” Though the majority of the trail runs through forests and wild lands, parts go through small towns. Many townspeople gather on weekends to provide hikers with food, water, soft drinks, beer and to thank hikers for the business they bring.

“I experienced this almost every weekend, which was so nice,” he said, adding that for many locals, this was their weekend entertainment. “To see so much kindness and generosity in the world was so refreshing, particularly as the nation grappled with COVID-19 and other political issues dividing the nation. … It was really good to see that still exists.”

That wasn’t Caves’ only reminder of home. A total of 14 friends and family members joined him at different parts of his journey, including his wife, mother and two grown children, Taylor and Addison, each hiking a portion of the trail with him. Caves said his wife, Kimmer, joined him twice. The first time to celebrate their 28th wedding anniversary.

“There we were in the middle of nowhere Virginia, but it was probably one of the best anniversaries we’ve ever had,” Caves said.

Caves said he was never truly alone. In addition to calling his family on his cell, he kept a daily log to share his journey with loved ones. He came in contact with dozens of hikers plus deer, black bears, raccoons, porcupines, a bobcat and dozens of snakes. He said only one of the snakes to cross his path was a rattler, the rest were nonpoisonous.

Wooded areas were crawling with spiders, ticks and, worst of all, mosquitoes and black flies, a pair he says were relentless the entire trip.

“Lyme disease was the biggest risk out on the trail, especially in Virginia and Pennsylvania,” Caves said, noting that he checked himself for ticks every night and was fortunate to discover just one, which he removed. “Others weren’t as lucky. Not only did they get sick on the trail and had to cut their trip short, but now it’s something they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives.”

Though he escaped illness, Caves was taken into police custody waiting at a trolley stop in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He was picked up after local police received calls to report a man in the area fitting the description of Brian Laundrie, a Florida man wanted for murder.

“Admittedly I was muddy and looked pretty bad at that point,” Caves said. “But I look nothing like Brian Laundrie, first of all because I have hair and he’s bald. And then there’s that 30-year age difference.”

After police ran a background check through a federal database and made sure he had a permit to hike the Appalachian Trail, Caves said he was released from custody.

Caves said the breathtaking scenery he enjoyed more than made up for any minor inconveniences he endured. Though the trip was more difficult than he imagined, he said it was also far more fulfilling than he could have anticipated.

“Everything is so beautiful, so peaceful up there,” he said.  “It truly was the experience of a lifetime.”

Though he doesn’t see any more five- to six-month hiking trips in his future, Caves said he foresees spending several weeks in the wilderness throughout his retirement. The destinations high on his bucket list include the Pacific Crest Trail along the west coast of the United States, Europe’s Black Forest and the International Appalachian Trail, which extends north from Mt. Katahdin, Maine, through Quebec and Newfoundland.

“Ten years ago, all of this seemed like a pipe dream,” he said. “But after standing at the top of that mountain in Maine after walking thousands of miles, there’s just nothing like it.” ∞

Caves hikes up the trail to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin. The white blazes on the rocks represent the Trail.