By Emily Royalty
GROTON -- My brother has become a legend.
After a month and a half on the Appalachian Trail, hikers he has never met before cross his path and recognize him by nothing more than rumored description, calling out his trail name, "King," like a character out of folklore.
The recognition is not for his hiking prowess, but for another attribute entirely.
"My beard is by far the best beard on the trail. Everybody at the table with me just validated that statement. It's legendary, in fact. It's disgusting," Ryan told me one night during our periodic phone calls.
After about six weeks on the trail, Ryan has officially made it past the quarter mark of 550 miles.
"I'm having the time of my life," he told me in mid-April.
Along the trail, he said, hiking culture is practically revered by the locals of the towns that border it.
"People just pay for meals. There are hiker discounts everywhere. There are free meals at churches. It's a huge culture thing down here," he said.
But despite that, the trek hasn't been a walk in the park. When I spoke with him on April 9, he had just been coming down off the Smoky Mountains, which include Clingmans Dome, the highest point of the trail. The trip up the Smokies, as they're called, was the most physically grueling part of the hike thus far, he said, largely due to the wintry weather, alternating between heavy snow, sheets of rain and gusty wind.
"The trail through the Smokies probably would have been very nice, I assume, if it wasn't a solid sheet of ice the entire way," Ryan said. "Literally the second day and third day were the worst parts of the trip so far."
Ryan and his travel buddy, Slip, (whose trail name I misheard last time we spoke and who I identified as Flip) walked seven days straight without resupplying in an effort to push through the treacherous terrain. On a trip wherein he needs to eat about 4,000 calories a day to keep up his stamina and pace of about 20 miles a day, a week is a long time to go without resupplying.
"I wouldn't say I wanted to quit, but I definitely hated life for a little while," he said. "The worst part was my wet boots. If I had continued to walk for a much more extended period of time, my feet would have become really messed up."
Luckily, there was a light at the end of the treacherous tunnel: A small town called Hot Springs.
As soon as he turned the corner off the Smokies, it was as though winter had melted away and spring had bloomed overnight.
"You came around the corner to the other side of the mountain, and it was like in 'Narnia' when Aslan came back to life. Back behind you is snow and ice and in front of you, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping," he said.
In Hot Springs, the Appalachian Trail is quite literally the sidewalk down Main Street. Sitting in a bar full of other hikers, Ryan said the town was the best part of the trip thus far. Part of the experience is the Jacuzzi-like hot springs for which the town was named. The other part is the interaction with the swell of hikers that take advantage of the town's hospitality for a few days of much-needed recuperation.
"Slip and I meet a new group of people every day. Everyone is super friendly and awesome. We're instant best friends with everyone we talk to," said Ryan, promptly passing around his cellphone to a group of hikers at his table.
One of the hikers, who identified himself only by his trail name of Great Legs, a 32-year-old Connecticut native, confirmed the statement.
"The views have been amazing, but honestly, it goes beyond that. The people, the interconnection of people, it's like you're with a big family," he said, referring both to the hikers and to the townspeople who help provide for them. "You don't even know them for more than a few days. But they're so giving and charitable and they look out for you. It's almost restored my faith in humanity."
Great Legs, who said he plans to stop in Virginia to visit his 9-year-old daughter, said that everyone takes to the trail for different reasons.
"My grandfather passed away in January. He was my last grandparent and it kind of hit me that I don't want my life to pass me by without fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine. In the end, all you really have is your memories and the people you love," he said.
Not long after leaving Hot Springs, Ryan caught the norovirus, which left him ill and debilitated for a day. Since then, he has gotten back on his feet and has begun what will be the longest part of his journey: Damascus, Virginia.
"Virginia is the largest state that I have to walk through," he told me during our next phone call on April 22. "There's this thing called the Virginia blues that hikers get. Getting through the Smokies was the physical challenge. If you can make it through that, you can get through the trip physically.
"Virginia is the mental challenge of the trip," he said. "It's long and boring and almost 500 miles.
"There are no real milestones, so it won't feel like I'm making any progress," he said. "If I can make it through Virginia, I can make it through mentally after that."