At reunion, local trio reflects on an epic hike through the Appalachian Trail

Nov. 5—PETERBOROUGH — Three guys — Popeye, Papa Bear and Dreamer — walk into a bar.

That's not the beginning of a joke, but rather a reunion of sorts. The trio — Mark Paquin and Michael Lebo of Stoddard and Larry Chambers of Antrim — recently met up at Post & Beam Brewing in Peterborough to share their experiences thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail earlier this year. Those monikers are their "trail names," nicknames hikers traditionally pick up along the roughly 2,190-mile journey from Georgia to Maine.

Though the men all live within about 15 miles of one another, they had never met before embarking on the roughly six-month trek through 14 states.

"He's got to go by my house every day," Paquin, 60, said of Lebo, who like him lives near Highland Lake in Stoddard. "And I'm like, 'You're kidding me.'

"And I met him on-trail, where was that?" Paquin asked Chambers.

"I want to say Virginia," the 64-year-old Antrim resident replied, though he said this was "sort of a default answer" since the commonwealth has nearly 532 miles on the trail, more than any other state.

"That's what I want to say, too," Paquin agreed.

Paquin didn't meet Lebo on the trail, but rather learned through a Stoddard Facebook group that they were each tackling it. Their meet-up at Post & Beam was the first time all three had met.

While the men didn't know of each other before their adventure, that didn't stop them from slipping into an easy conversation, swapping stories like old friends over drinks in Peterborough.

For instance, they each endured the same mid-March snowstorm, even though they were in different parts of the South when it struck. Lebo, 44, was in Dalton, Ga., on the Pinhoti Trail, which begins in Alabama and added a total of 420 miles to his thru-hike.

"I woke up, my backpack was completely frozen solid," he said, describing how the storm brought winds upward of 40 mph. "It took me a lot to just open my bag. The next day I did, like, 23 miles to get into town because everything was frozen."

Chambers, who'd been at Blood Mountain in Georgia, called the spring squall a "New England-style" snowstorm, while Paquin in Georgia's Gooch Gap contemplated hiking through the night just to stay warm, before eventually finding an old access road flat enough to set up camp.

And just as they have their own stories from the trail — from the weather, to challenging terrain, wildlife encounters and colorful characters they met along the way — each also took a unique path to their decision to attempt it.

Paquin was living in Florida in 2018 when a friend asked him if he wanted to take a backpacking trip through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, the final stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, ending at Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park.

"At the time, he told me that's the toughest section of the Appalachian Trail," Paquin said. "So I said, 'If this is the toughest, I can do the rest.' ... I'd been talking about it for years. My wife finally said, 'Go hike, go do it.' "

Lebo also got some encouragement from his wife, who told him to go for it after he'd talked about the Appalachian Trail for two years.

"My first backpacking trip was in 2020," he said. "I did the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway, and I just fell in love with it. And after I finished that, I put together this bucket list, and a lot of it was on the AT."

For Chambers, 2022 was his second attempt at the thru-hike. He first started at Springer Mountain in Georgia, the trail's southern terminus, on March 8, 2020, when COVID-19 "was on the horizon, but it wasn't here yet."

"... But by the time I got to Franklin, North Carolina, it was really everywhere, and a lot of people were leaving the trail," he said. "And the trail, too, changed. It wasn't the AT experience of a very social place and meeting people and hanging out with people."

The social aspect of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a crucial element of the endeavor. The recent local reunion is good evidence of that, but scholarly research also backs it up.

In a 2009 paper in the Journal of Unconventional Parks, Tourism & Recreation Research, a trio of researchers from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo looked at the benefits of hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

"Interactions were strongly linked with camaraderie, and camaraderie was linked with fun and enjoyment of life. Generally, data indicate that people hike the AT for fun and enjoyment of life and to develop warm relationships with others," Eddie Hill and Barbara Freidt of Old Dominion and Cal Poly professor Marni Goldenberg wrote in the paper, based on interviews with 50 members of the Norfolk-based Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club.

In an interview Thursday, Goldenberg, herself an avid hiker and backpacker, said the communal nature of such activities is central to the experience.

"The people talk about who they meet and what they get from the experience; it's all important," she said. "It can be life-changing."

This is particularly true of thru-hikers, said Jordan Bowman, communications director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a West Virginia-based nonprofit that works with local, state and federal partners to protect and maintain the trail.

"Especially with thru-hikers, there's really that sense of community, that you're with these people day in and day out and getting closer to that goal," he said in an interview Thursday.

That camaraderie goes beyond the 3,000-plus people who attempt the thru-hike each year, notably with a phenomenon known as "trail magic."

"Over time, it's become this quintessential part of the trail experience," Bowman said. "Trail magic, really, we define it as a spontaneous act of generosity on the trail ... And that can be anything from handing them a Snickers bar, like, 'Hey good job, here's a little something to get you over that next hill,' to giving people a ride into town, and to a much-needed shower."

Each of the local thru-hikers had their own trail magic stories, too, like when Chambers and his hiking companions at the time arrived in Damascus, Va., the same weekend the town was hosting a marathon, filling every available hostel and hotel bed.

"We went to the post office. Walking out of the post office, a local, this lady, says, 'Welcome to Damascus. Where are you guys staying tonight?' " Chambers said. "I said, 'Well, everything is booked. We're going to walk out of town and camp.' And she said, 'No you're not. You can tent in my backyard.' She put us up in her backyard, made dinner for us."

Trail magic has stuck with the Monadnock Region guys, too.

"I want to do some trail magic next year," Paquin said. (New Hampshire has nearly 161 miles of the Appalachian Trail, primarily though the White Mountains.)

"Absolutely, yeah," Chambers replied. "Pretty amazing. We all have, I'm sure, tons and tons of stories you remember, and ones you forget."

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.