Editor’s note: On Feb. 18, Xpress published “Tales from the trail: Hiking Appalachia from Georgia to Maine,” detailing the experiences of Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Gary Sizer. In the story, we met Henry Wasserman, a self-described “conservative, Republican, Bible-thumping NRA member” who — after 30 years of substance addiction, 19 years of sobriety, four failed marriages and an unfulfilling career — was seeking a transformative experience on the A.T. The only problem: He’d never been backpacking in his life.
But on March 19, at the base of Springer Mountain, Wasserman strapped on his 32-pound pack and began his monthslong trek north, trudging mile after mile through red Georgia clay. While making his eye-opening journey over rolling hills and contending with unpredictable elements, he’s been reflecting on his troubled past and identifying the changes needed for his future.
“Hey, Hayley; It’s Henry,” Wasserman says excitedly as I answer the phone. “I’m looking out over this beautiful, absolutely stunning view of a valley going up into the various levels of the Smokies — just an amazing view. I’ll have to send you a picture when we’re done.”
Wasserman calls every Tuesday, provided he has good cell reception. He talks and talks and chuckles at his own jokes — updating me on his experiences and lessons from the trail over the past week. He’s always in a great mood, it seems — enthusiastic about the miles to come, even when experiencing setbacks, minor injuries and dreary weather.
A few hikers stomp up the path behind him, crunching the dried leaves and snapping fallen twigs. I can hear their packs creaking, clinking, shuffling as they pass.
“Hi, Mom,” one shouts.
Wasserman laughs. It’s not the first time a fellow hiker has joked about his phone calls. “Everyone thinks I’m talking to my mom,” he explains.
I first reconnected with Wasserman on A.T. day four, 30 miles in. As a 58-year-old inexperienced hiker, Wasserman said he’s pacing himself. “I tried to tell myself that I’d keep it under 10 miles the first week,” he explained. “I don’t want to hurt myself, but my body is doing way better than I thought it would.”
After completing the optional 8-mile approach from Amicalola Falls to the Springer Mountain summit on day zero, Wasserman was exhausted. “I camped right there by the parking lot,” he explains. “That approach trail is no joke, but I recommend it. It’s a good wake-up call for what’s in front of you.”
By day 10, Wasserman says he shed 10 pounds. Since then, he suspects he’s lost even more — or maybe gained a few back in muscle. But in the middle of the Nantahala National Forest, it’s hard to find a scale for proof, he jokes.
March in Georgia was cold and wet, with single-digit temperatures in the higher elevations.
“I am getting stronger,” Wasserman reported on March 31, stopped just south of the North Carolina border. “And I’m a little more sure-footed on the trail. But [camping] when it was 20 degrees was miserable. My fingers were so sore I couldn’t tie my shoes. I lived in Buffalo 28 years ago, but I don’t go back to the cold on purpose,” he said, laughing.
Up until now, Wasserman has lived in flat places with warm climates, mostly Florida and California — but now, his only address is along the trail.
“They say that Georgia is like a four in difficulty, and North Carolina is like a six. So I anticipate harder climbs, but also I expect to get stronger and faster. I’m hoping to get up to 12 miles a day in the next couple of weeks, and I actually should start hitting 12-15 miles a day” in order to finish before winter hits.
Little by little, he’s getting to that point, having hiked 11 miles the day before our third chat on April 8. But by our next talk, Wasserman said he realized he shouldn’t push himself too hard: “I’ve given myself seven months to do what some people do in four or five. And when I asked Gary [Sizer], ‘If you could do it over, what would you do different?’ He said, ‘I’d give myself more time to enjoy and take in the experience.’”
Even with a slower pace, Wasserman’s already ahead of schedule. In fact, his original intended start-date was April 15. “And here it is April 15, and I’m already at 160 miles,” he said. “When I put my house up for sale, everything went so fast. I was able to get on the trail three weeks sooner.”
A spiritual detour
“Hey, Hayley; I’m sitting on another one of those amazing mountaintops,” says Wasserman, snacking on a handful of M&M’s. A hiker he recognizes walks by, and they tease each other. “He’s taking my picture because I’m always on the phone,” Wasserman explains.
By this point, he had just hiked into North Carolina, an experience he called “anticlimactic,” one of his few negative remarks thus far. “Well, it’s a difficult climb, and it’s just a signpost on the trail — not even in a wide spot — with a little bit of water running behind it.”
It was cold and foggy, and Wasserman was suffering from a bad pair of boots. They were too tight in some places — too loose in others, and after running out of bandages, he covered a blister in duct tape just to continue walking. As he approached the state line, his “feet were on fire, I was tired, it was near the end of the day,” Wasserman explains. “I looked on my guide for the North Carolina border, and it said ‘nearby.’ I looked up, saw the sign and said, ‘You’re kidding.’ I just wanted it to be more exciting.”
His optimism still shines through his disappointment. “But now Georgia’s behind me,” he continues. “And when I hit 100 miles, I realized I only have to do this 21 more times.”
Because he’s a born-again Christian, Wasserman made plans to catch a ride to the nearest town for an Easter morning sermon. “I mean, like you said, I’m a self-professed Bible thumper,” he noted, laughing. “Easter is important to me.”
On Saturday, April 4, he mapped out a destination known to thru-hikers as a good spot to catch rides into town. But in the meantime, he was quickly developing what he believed to be plantar fasciitis, which painfully gnawed at the arches of his feet with every step. “I was afraid I wasn’t going any further and that I wouldn’t get to church for Easter. I was a little disappointed, but I believe God intervenes.”
Later that day, Wasserman walked up to a ridge and saw some young hikers anxiously pacing around. “I asked them, ‘What’s going on?’ And one of them said, ‘Oh, his dad’s picking him up and taking him home [to Franklin] for Easter. We’re hoping to catch a ride.’ So all six of us — with our packs — crammed in the back of an F-150, playing Tetris with our legs, and headed into town.”
In Franklin, Wasserman ran into some familiar faces from Springer Mountain. “I had fallen behind so many people that I was surprised to see them again,” he says. The hikers explained that they were having issues with their feet, and after hearing Wasserman’s similar issue, they recommended he stop by Outdoor 76. “There’s a guy there who’s a magician at fitting hiking boots,” they explained.
Wasserman made an appointment with the outfitter, and, in the morning, he hitched a ride with a retired couple to Biltmore Baptist in Franklin, where he watched the church’s Arden Easter service projected on a big screen.
On Monday, he picked up some properly fitted boots and was back on the trail — at the same point he’d left it. For his personal journey, Wasserman’s decided not to skip any miles, which many hikers do to avoid backtracking after a refuel. “My intention is to see every white blaze on the trail,” he says. “Maybe [later on], if I’m tired, I’ll let myself slack off. But right now my goal is to be able to say that I thru-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail.”
“Really, it’s better than I could’ve expected,” he continues. “All day long, I’m hiking alone. I can go three to four hours without seeing another human being, and in the evenings, you tend to congregate with other people. Only twice have I camped by myself — every other night it’s six to 16 people sitting around the fire, using the same table in the shelter trying to cook.”
In fact, one of the biggest things Wasserman says he’s learned about himself so far “is that I’m totally OK alone. I travel six or seven hours a day by myself and then, at the end, there’s always people at the campsites. I’m not always social, especially if it’s a group of kids sitting around the fire with wine or beer. That makes me a little uncomfortable [due to his personal history]. But it’s amazing how I can walk seven hours alone and be completely at peace.”
While walking, he thinks about his past, his present and his future. Selling his home, most of his belongings and quitting his job, Wasserman is determined to start a new life post-trail — altering his perceptions of his past along the way.
“I’ve been reflecting on so much these past weeks,” he explains. “And, well, there’s no shame in my game — I’m examining the different times in my life as a way of getting in touch with my current self.”
Instead of letting issues from the past drag him down, he explains, “I’m bringing them up through meditation and writing — using exercises to detraumatize some of those things. I spent some time this morning meditating, thinking about the kid in the trailer park playground, the kid that felt like an outcast in junior high — getting into weed and trying to be a surfer, even though I wasn’t good at it. The kid who hitchhiked across the country. I’m trying to put all that together while I’m out here to see things in myself that I still don’t like — and also I’m seeing things that I’m really proud of.”
On any given day, he says, “I’m running back and forth through all my various relationships. I accept that I’m the common denominator, but I still think maybe it wasn’t always my fault. I’m more at peace with that, and I accept the fact that I don’t always fit well with certain people.”
Wasserman’s introspective mind has kept him so busy that, even though he brought an iPod along for the trip, he’s yet to use it on the trail.
On April 14, Wasserman marked a milestone he set for himself at the beginning of the hike: reaching Fontana Dam. Two food packages awaited him there, and he figured if he made it that far, he would put together a solid plan for the next 200 miles — breaking the journey up into 10 percent chunks.
“I’ve probably lost 14-15 pounds, and my body’s not as much of a problem anymore,” he says. “It’s a big deal for me to get here.”
Wasserman says he’s learned so much from the trail in these last four weeks. He has the strength to keep walking, and he now knows how much he can carry. But even with new boots, his feet are still hurting — though not like before. “I’m disappointed that my toes hurt,” he says, after taking a zero to see a doctor. “It takes up a good percentage of my attention. But the nurse gave me ibuprofen, and it’s probably just something I’ll have to deal with: walking through the pain.”
And in between thinking about his feet, his past and his future, Wasserman’s appreciating all that nature has to offer.
“I’ve spent a lot of time thanking God that I’m out here,” he says. “I’m watching the trees bud, the sun poking from behind the leaves — grass, caterpillars, moss, the vines, the ferns — just watching the different shoots coming up out of the brown leaves. That’s something that I’ve been divorced from the last couple of decades: watching this awakening of spring. Every day it’s like you’re walking a different trail. I’m in awe of it all day long.”
And though he still has a long way to go, both physically and mentally, “Right now,” he says, “I’m comfortable with the path that I’m on.”