Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Man embarks on journey of lifetime

by on March 30, 2013 11:00 AM

A Marion Center man is roughing it through snowstorms, downpours, strong winds and tough terrain with few belongings and a kind blessing to everyone he meets.

“May God be with you and keep you safe,” Quakerland Forge, as he’s known to other hikers on the trail, tells other travelers in passing.

Mike Briggs, 66, has taken on the challenge of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail for his mom and late dad, who passed away Feb. 25. The trail also includes 430 miles of the Pinhoti and Benton MacKaye trails, which are connected to the Appalachian because of their history of the making of the trail. When he reaches the end of his hike in Maine, he will have walked 2,615 miles and traveled through 14 eastern states. His other purpose for the hike, according to his wife Cindy, is to spread the word about Jesus, greeting everyone with his blessing of a safe passage and, if he has a chance to talk, sharing his Christian experiences with them.

The retired Indiana University of Pennsylvania chemistry professor started his journey Jan. 6 by walking the Pinhoti Trail across Alabama and Georgia, and then a part of the Benton MacKaye Trail across Georgia. He took his first step on the Appalachian Trail at 11:40 a.m. March 7.

Mike has dreamed of hiking the Appalachian since he was a child, along with his father, Marland, he said in an email through Cindy. (His cellphone use is limited, but he and Cindy try to talk every day. He uses a tablet computer to access maps, which Cindy and their son, David, put together for him, through email attachments.)

Mike’s family lived in Florida ever since he was a little boy, and his grandparents lived in Illinois. Mike and his family would drive to Ohio or Pennsylvania then to Illinois, passing through areas of the Appalachian Trail, through the Smoky Mountains and Neels Gap.

“They were good memories for his dad and him,” Cindy said. “Whenever they would camp … he and his dad would walk pieces of the Appalachian Trail where they were camping nearby. It had always been a fond memory of his dad and his that they wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail.”

Life prevented his father from being able to hike the trail, Mike said, so now he is fulfilling the dream for them both.

As Mike makes his way along the trail, he relays his experiences to Cindy, who is chronicling them in an online journal at www.postholer.com/quakerland.

Before Marland passed away, he was “closely glued to the computer, watching the journal” as she would put update Mike’s progress early on in his hike.

“He really enjoyed it,” she said, adding that Marland had maps that showed the trail, and Cindy would update him by placing sticky arrows with dates as indicators on the maps to show Mike’s current location, which is how she and David are keeping track of him. He’s currently hiking through North Carolina.

It took two to three years for Mike to prepare for this hike. He researched equipment and would go “ultra light” as far as his supplies, Cindy said. He used the Pinhoti and Benton MacKaye trails in the South, and the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania in November, as test runs “to see what he needed to change in the way he was doing things, especially eating and drinking, and the size of his pack,” Cindy said. He also walked the Ghost Town Trail early last summer and would measure distances in all directions around their home because of the varying terrain.

“It kind of helped him know what he needed to do on the AT, because once you get on the AT there aren’t a lot of towns nearby; sometimes it goes through towns, but it’s pretty rugged,” she said.

The trail has volunteers who pick up hikers and shuttle them to and from the trail to bus stops or other locales, such as post offices or hotels to pick up packages. Mike takes a break every 10 days, Cindy said.

Mike has been lucky to come across a lot of shelters on the trail that he can stay in without needing to set up his tent. But “a shelter is not what you think it is,” Cindy said, laughing.

“It’s a three-sided building with a roof, but the fourth side is open,” she said. “They’re not particularly warm, but you can get out of the weather and the wind. It saves you if it’s raining.”

Mike did, however, come across a problem earlier this month, when the National Forest Service had a kickoff for the hiking season on the Appalachian Trail, Cindy said, bringing about 400 hikers to the trail, which has occasionally left him without a spot at a shelter if he doesn’t get there in time.

He tries to start his hike early in the morning so that he can reach a shelter in the middle of the afternoon “when nobody’s ready to really quit,” Cindy said, but he hasn’t always been that lucky.

A typical day for Mike starts before dawn, when he gets up and packs up his tent and brings down a food bag that he’s stored 16 to 20 feet above ground in a tree. After breakfast, he packs up his belongings and sets off on the trail as early as possible, making sure to have plenty of water to get him to the next stopping point. (Cindy makes sure his maps have all the necessary information he needs, especially the nearest water sources to Mike’s location.)

Every 1οΎ½ to two hours he eats a high-calorie snack or food to keep his energy up, and prepares lunch around noon by heating water and packaged food over a small stove. After checking his water supply, he hits the trail again and starts looking for a shelter or campsite around 4:30 or 5 p.m. He’ll eat a snack of crackers, cheese, sausage, candy and a hot drink before going to sleep.

The amount of ground Mike covers varies from day to day. He tries to average 15 miles a day, but it’s not always possible. Some days are really hard, Cindy said, with Mike getting six miles at most because of the weather or terrain. On better days he can hike 18 to 20 miles, she said.

“If it’s flat ground, like through Virginia, it’s on the ridge in the Shenandoah Mountains all the way, and that’s easy hiking,” Cindy said.

Hikers have to sign in at the beginning of the Appalachian Trail so the National Forest Service can keep track of them, Cindy said. Rangers, called trail runners, are assigned to different sections of the trail to keep tabs on hikers to make sure no one gets lost or goes missing, Cindy said.

Mike has been in the company of a lot of kind souls during his journey. When you’re sharing the trail with hundreds of other people, you’re certainly not alone along the way.

He met a group of six visitors from Germany who saw a documentary about the Appalachian Trail and came all the way from Europe just to walk it.

There were the 200 mountain-bikers doing time trials who invited him to stop at the end of their trail course for a meal.

He shared a shelter with a biology class that was doing a field study on salamanders, and who claimed to have discovered seven new species on the trail.

He camped in a field next to a home in the countryside whose residents invited him to dinner that night and breakfast the next morning.

A church sent its bus to pick up hikers who were in town and brought them back for a pancake breakfast.

Then there are the many “Trail Angels,” as he calls them, who gave him very helpful advice, took him into town and provided him with food, as well as other hikers generous enough to share their essential food supplies.

There’s also the family that picked Mike up while he was hitchhiking into a town for a break. They took him to the post office to pick up a package from Cindy, who sends him food, medical supplies and clean clothes, then dropped him off at his motel. Later that evening, they returned with a homemade Southern-style dinner for him to enjoy.

“There are so many nice people on and near the trail,” he said.

Being away from his family is the most difficult thing of all, Mike said, but “meeting new people and creating new friendships is the best part.”

His family is very supportive of his trek. Mike and Cindy’s daughter-in-law, Stacey, calls Cindy and David “mission control.” David pulls the maps from the Internet, and Cindy prepares the annotations with all the details of the area, including the mile markers.

Not only does he have the support and encouragement of his family, but of his many friends and IUP colleagues who follow his online journal and leave encouraging messages.

He’s even met people on the trail who ask him for his journal address, which prompted Cindy to create cards with his name, trail name, journal address and his words of blessing that Mike hands out to fellow travelers.

His journal has the most hits out of any of the journals created by other hikers — more than 16,000 views. Cindy said it may be because of the way she chronicles Mike’s daily adventures with lots of photos, making it “more like a story.”

“He was real tickled about that,” she said.

Mike will hike all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine, and must arrive before Oct. 15, when the park closes.

“They won’t allow anybody to go into that national park up there (after Oct. 15) because it’s so dangerous,” Cindy said. “They have heavy snows and have lost hikers.”

She said Mike has talked about hiking back to Pennsylvania by way of the North Country Trail, but that it’s too far in advance to know.

For now, Mike’s taking the trail one day at a time, making friends and enjoying some of nature’s most scenic landscapes.

“The trail has a lot of ups and downs, and the only thing that keeps you going is willpower,” Mike said. “It’s all a state of mind and solving problems that you run into.”

To follow Mike’s journey and sign his online guestbook, visit www.postholer.com/quakerland.



Heather Blake is the wire editor and an assistant web editor for The Indiana Gazette. She covers courts, Saltsburg and Homer City borough councils and Penns Manor and United school districts, in addition to writing feature articles. She can be reached at hblake@indianagazette.net.
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March 30, 2013 10:59 AM
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