This is part of my unconventional interview series, designed to demonstrate the wildly varied ways we can live, work, and chase our dreams. Please keep in mind that, since these are interviews, the opinions, methods, and websites contained within do not necessarily reflect my own views or experiences. (Which is, in my opinion, part of what makes them wonderful.)
Today, I’m excited to have an interview with Dustin Waite, a man I met five years ago (on…wait for it…an online dating site) and whose online path I randomly crossed again just a few months ago. He’s currently thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (one of my own personal favorite places to hike in the states, though I haven’t done more than an overnight at a time) and I asked him if he’d be willing to share his journey with us. I’m so glad he agreed.
First, tell us about you, your hike, and the trail.
My name is Dustin Waite. I’m a 30-year-old male who grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I’m a sports buff and a Geology and Marine Sciences graduate. And I didn’t do a whole lot of backpacking until after college.
The total Appalachian Trail is just under 2,200 miles and it spans from Springer Mountain in Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine.
A lot of a hiker’s hike depends on their fitness levels, experience, pack weight, and overall just how they want to hike. I carry a relatively heavy pack compared to most. Mainly it is filled with cooking gear, anywhere from 4 – 6 days worth of food and water, other general backpacking necessities (water filter, sleeping pad/bag, tent), and few luxuries (i.e. cutting board, coffee grinder).
Along the way, I try to enjoy some of the small towns the trail passes through, as I have not spent a lot of time in this part of the country. So I don’t mind sacrificing miles for extra time to cook and enjoy the campsites and cities. I also make sure I take time to get to know other hikers if the opportunity presents itself. I have met many people out here from all sorts of backgrounds and I think if I don’t take the time to chat or get to know someone, I’m missing out on broadening my horizons a little bit. It makes me a better person by knowing so many different types of people.
What were you doing before the trail and what made you decide to leave that behind and walk the trail?
I was living and working in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii for the previous two years. I was working for the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, a non-profit historical society that helps maintain and preserve historical locations and museums on the west side of Maui. This was a bit of a career shift, as I had been working in the environmental field prior to this (I was a geologist for three years in Santa Barbara before teaching environmental education for three years in Denver before heading to Maui).
I was involved with a range of the activities–from building and fabricating museum displays to cleaning and preserving artifacts to research and graphics displays for signage. When these projects were completed, we weren’t sure what I’d work on next.
Also during my time in Maui, I had two nephews born and many friends had been married. I hadn’t seen my grandparents since I left the mainland and their health has not been the greatest lately, so I figured it was a good time to move back to the mainland.
I didn’t have any set plans for where I planned to work or live yet, so I figured I’d pull the trigger on this hike. I have been thinking about doing it for years and this seemed like a good time for it.
Is this your first distance hike? If not, where else have you hiked?
This is my first “thru” hike–a term that refers to many of the longer trails around the world with distinct, well-known start and end points. America has three major thru-hikes: the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Pacific Crest Trail. All of these are a couple thousand miles long. There are shorter thru-hikes (like the Long Trail in Vermont). which still cover hundreds of miles.
I have completed multiple backpacking trips (ranging from 20 – 40 miles each) in various national parks and forests over the past 10 years. These locations include the Rockies (both in Colorado and Montana), The Los Padres National Forest in California, The Channel Islands of the California Coast, Haleakala National Park in Maui, and lots of other day hikes in these locations and also Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, and Peru.
What did you do to prepare for the trail?
For the most part, I believe I am a pretty naturally healthy individual and I keep that up with regular running and other activities. Since I have backpacked before, I knew I would get my ass kicked physically that first week, but my legs would get stronger over time. So I really wasn’t too worried about the fitness aspect.
I read a few Appalachian Trail guide books with tips and advice, but these stayed pretty generic and described mostly general backpacking skills. I suppose they are good for hikers that may not have much experience.
Mostly, I just needed to find ways to get to the starting point in Georgia. I figured I would learn the rest of this trail’s logistics on the way (which has so far been the case. It would have been impossible for me to plan for every detail of the past three months).
The largest part of my preparation was getting back from Hawaii and getting all my belongings taken care of. I hate leaving loose ends when I leave for trips and this one was no different. So I spent a lot of time making sure I wasn’t burdening anybody else because of something I forgot to pack or send away.
Anything you wish you’d done differently?
The main guide book I have been using, which gives a lot of information about camping locations, mileages, water spots, and city information is called the “Companion” and it is produced by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. It has been a great guide to have–but I didn’t really review it too much before the trip. As much as not planning a whole lot has been great, I probably should have read a few pages to give me a good idea of where things were. I guess I was just excited to start hiking.
How did you save for/finance your trip?
Math. This is something I’m kind of passionate about. I budgeted. I sat down with a pen and paper and wrote out what my liabilities are and what this would approximately cost. I actually looked at real numbers and said “this is what I need.” I still have school loans, ongoing donations, and all the other bills that everyone has. Some people have asked if I’m independently wealthy. (I’m not even sure what that term officially means.) I worked up until the week I left and had cash savings put away.
I also have eight years of fairly steady career history and so I have a few IRAs that I knew I would be able to tap into if needed. The way I see it, I’d rather hike this trail now, when I’m 30, instead of taking three cruises when I’m 80. I know after this is done I will return to the workforce in some way and build back up whatever net worth I’ve depleted.
What has been the biggest challenge of hiking the trail?
Physically, the first week was definitely the hardest. As I mentioned above, I knew it would take a few weeks for my legs to get used to the hiking. Also, my pack was still pretty heavy with gear that I would later decide to send home and I was carrying a lot of food because I wasn’t used to planning my re-supplies yet.
I had about a five-day stint of very painful shin splints. They hurt so bad that I thought I may have to end my hike. Instead, I let them rest for about three days and that was crucial to me being able to continue. You definitely have to listen to your body. If it needs rest, give it rest.
Mentally, there have been many days with bad weather and it is always hard to head out on the trail when it’s raining. I was actually stuck in a shelter with another hiker for two days in a snow storm. The waiting part was actually kind of fun, but when it was time to hike out, the snow drifts were knee-high and by then end of the day my feet were wet and cold. Wet feet is probably one of the biggest things that make you want to quit.
Another very normal thing to caught up in during your first few weeks of the trail is the “race mentality.” You see and hear other hikers talk about hiking longer miles than you want to and it can make you feel like you’re behind. It’s important to remember: it isn’t a race. There is no trophy at the top of Mt. Katahdin. Develop a hiking strategy that works for you. If you want to push it or change it, then listen to your body and to your personal goals and make a decision. But do it because you want to do it, not because someone else does.
Finally, logistically, I just took a month off to visit family and friends around the country and also to do another hike that I do every memorial day weekend with friends in Santa Barbara. Planning to get off the trail in a random location, get around the country (five different states), and then get back to that random trail location was kind of a nightmare, but since I don’t really have a set schedule everything worked out okay.
What has been the greatest joy?
Waking up everyday and realizing I don’t have to do anything. There’s no alarm aside from the sunshine and maybe the rustle of a few other hikers. I’ve read more books. I do what I want. I hike how I want to hike. If I’m with a group of people I enjoy being with then, yes, I may alter my plans to stay with them, but ultimately, while I’m on the trail, my worries seem to melt away. To quote Forrest Gump: “When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go, you know, I went.”
How has the walk changed your life?
I don’t know if it has changed my life, per say, but it has given me lots of time to reflect on how I want to move forward when this is all done. Even though I have a geology degree, I’ve discovered I really love working with my hands, building things, and figuring out how things are made. One of my greatest personal accomplishments was when I re-built my motorcycle engine. My previous job in Maui (which involved building museum displays) has further enhanced this passion.
The hike has also really allowed me to acknowledge how fortunate I am. Not everyone can do what I’m currently doing. My life is pretty good right now and I don’t have too many things to worry about. Taking the time to slow down and think about what is really important to me in life has been a very fulfilling. You take enjoyment in the little necessities of life and It turns out I don’t need much.
How much more walking do you have to go? When will you finish?
I started hiking the AT on February 26th and have thus far made it approximately 800 miles in 69 days. 15 of those days have been “zero days,” essentially days off.
Depending on the hiker, it typically takes about six months to complete the total trail. However, I have seen people hiking anywhere from eight miles per day to 30 miles per day. I have been roughly in the 15 miles per day category.
I think I want to stick with this pace, which will have me finishing sometime in September. The one deadline hikers have to watch out for is that they close Baxter State Park in Maine sometime around October 15th, depending on weather.
Anything you’re looking forward to about getting back on the trail?
As much fun as traveling around the country seeing friends and family for a month is, it can be a bit exhausting. I loved every minute of it, but in the last few days I could definitely feel that if I didn’t get back on the trail soon I may decide to just call it quits. It was also a bit more strain on the budget than anticipated, so it’ll be nice to spend $40 on a week of food as opposed to $40 on one meal again!
What’s next for you?
No idea. If I had to guess, I’d say that I would like to pursue some more formal education in a trade school for motorcycle mechanics. I’ve looked into a few options, but not too extensively yet. I think the biggest thing would be to decide where I want to live. At this point, I have an open slate for location, so I’ve been keeping that in the back of my mind. Some other things may impact that decision (whether I go back to school, the location of certain friends, etc.), but I haven’t decided yet. I still have a few months of this journey so I will probably start thinking of some of those logistics closer to the end.
Have you guys ever done any thru-hiking? Would love to hear your own experiences in the comments.