Mike, The Southwest Desert
“Starting out was one of the highest points. Just getting more excited every day because you’re getting to know all these people that you’re hiking with and you see them again and again… Then it hit us how freakin’ hard the whole thing was gonna be.”
Mike flew out to Utah last November to join me in my van for an epic 10-day rock climbing trip. It was the perfect time of year to go; with cool enough weather and not a drop of rain, we were able to play around on some rocks each day. We initially planned to mix in a couple rest days, but we couldn’t help ourselves from exploring as much of the southwest desert as we possibly could. With sore muscles and wrecked fingertips, we checked out various crags in Saint George, had a couple of unforgettable days in Zion National Park, and ended the trip in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon.
I met Mike just as we were starting our respective journeys on the Appalachian Trail in 2014. Along with five other thru-hikers, we formed a trail family that stuck to each other like glue as we made our way from Georgia to Maine. Over the course of six months, we spent many days hiking single-file telling each other stories, and spent many nights crammed in a mountain shelter or tiny motel room. We faced many challenges together, supported each other when we were at our lowest, and we all became life-long friends.
After the thru-hike, our group had a few reunion trips to the Red River Gorge and New River Gorge, where I caught the bug of rock climbing. Last year I parked my van in his and his wife’s driveway for a couple weeks, and I’m excited to see them again for the future trips we’re planning at the moment. I’m also excited to meet the newest addition to their family; since this southwest trip, Mike and Lindsay brought a beautiful baby girl into the world. On the last night of the trip, I asked Mike about his highs and lows on the Appalachian Trail, how he feels about sharing the outdoors with his daughter, and what he loves about the outdoors.
What made you decide to hike the Appalachian Trail?
I had it in the back of my head ever since I found out about it in high school; I always thought it’d be this awesome, adventure-status, epic thing to do. When my wife, Lindsay, and I revealed to each other that it was something we both thought would be cool to do, we were like ‘Well, we gotta do it’. It kind of took precedence over anything else. It was like a goal, an objective I wanted to put under my belt—to be able to say I did something like that, and carry that with me forever. Making stories is what motivates me.
Do you think hiking the AT changed you as a person?
Oh yeah, totally. I mean honestly, in more ways than I thought it would. My whole outlook on necessities and what you really need to function as a person or feel fulfilled [has changed]. It doesn’t take a lot.
I still eat like a hiker. Even with a full time job, I enjoy canned food, I still eat ramen at my house. I find myself minimizing things, I reuse things more.
What was your lowest point on the AT?
I think my rock bottom was actually in your home state, [New Jersey]. It was the middle of summer—the dead of it. We hiked up to this shelter, and it was basically swarming with mosquitos and we did everything we could: we built a fire; we cooked dinner; and ate it as fast as we could to get in our hammocks. Lindsay and I made bugnets for our hammocks ourselves, which were terrible—they weren’t working at all. We were getting torn up so we moved into the shelter; nobody was sleeping in it because the bugs were so bad. ‘Well let’s just put our bugnets over ourselves while we sleep, maybe that’ll work’. And it was even worse because the mosquitos were just landing on the bugnets and biting us through them. So we were like ‘Okay, fuck. We’ll go set our hammocks back up’, so we did that.
We didn’t set up our rainflys because we didn’t think it was gonna rain. Sure enough as soon as we got in our sleeping bags, we heard thunder. And not even a minute later it started raining on us. So we went back in the shelter. It was probably like 3am by this point; I actually asked Lindsay if we can just start hiking. She was like ‘No, I am not hiking right now.’ I hated myself and everything around me: I hated that shelter; I hated that campsite; I hated the AT. It was one of those things where you just can’t escape it. You can’t just opt out.
Do you remember your highest point?
It’s hard to say. I think starting out was one of the highest points. Just getting more excited every day because you’re getting to know all these people that you’re hiking with and you see them again and again. That buzzing sort of feeling of like, ‘Hell yeah, this is gonna be awesome. I’ve got 6 months of this ahead of me’. I didn’t have too many physical ailments, so I was mainly just having fun the whole time. The energy was pretty high, that was a fun phase of the hike. Then it hit us how freakin’ hard the whole thing was gonna be.
What is it about climbing that makes it special to you?
To me it’s the movement aspect. All through high school and into college I did martial arts. That was the bridge for me; doing cool moves feels fun. And the problem solving aspect is really satisfying—feeling like you’re unlocking something and you get to see that result play through.
The community too; I don’t think I’ve ever met someone climbing that I didn’t like or didn’t want to be around. There’s obviously a spectrum but people are generally really friendly and really warm. And it’s cool to have a group of friends to go climbing with.
I’m sure there’s a big climbing community in your home city of Chattanooga, how did you end up there?
Honestly I feel spoiled, Lindsay and I didn’t move there for the climbing. It was kind of a coincidence that we ended up there. One of my best friends from back home, Joe, and his girlfriend were living in Chattanooga, and they sold us on it and we moved up there, and come to find out it’s like the fucking epicenter of climbing in the southeast. So yeah, I’m really happy to be there, it’s a big part of why we’re still there at this point.
Are you excited to introduce the outdoors and climbing to your daughter?
I’m anxious to see how it’s gonna play out. I’m definitely gonna expose her to the outdoors and it’ll absolutely be a big part of our family. I don’t want to force it on our daughter, because as a former kid, I feel like [if it were forced on me] I would kind of resent that. I’m hoping that she’ll just think it’s cool and that she’ll want to go do stuff with us.
What do you love about the outdoors?
Being surrounded by nature and things that were not created by a man. It’s absolutely free to go outside and explore an area that you’ve never seen before, and experience something you’ve never experienced. It’s just there. You just have to go do it, or go see it.
This interview has been trimmed and edited to fit this format. If you would like to access the unedited interview audio and unposted photography, see my Patreon page.