Sunday, September 10, 2000

Hiking for a cause

To honor his handicapped brother, Jeff Alt trekked 2,000 miles and wrote a book about it

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jeff Alt had everyone at the gym confused.

        Here he was on the treadmill, walking endlessly but going nowhere with 50 pounds of sand strapped to his back.

[photo] 33-year-old Jeff Alt hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 147 days in 1998.
(Stephen M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        It's what you do if you're going to hike the Appalachian Trail, something Mr. Alt did in 1998: 147 days, 2,160 miles a step at a time through 14 states. He tells the tale in his new book, A Walk for Sunshine (Dreams Shared Publications; $14.95).

        No one has counted, but hikers estimate it's 5 million steps — uphill, downhill, seldom flat, always on bumpy trails — to get a hiker from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine. It's a hike that costs the body 6,000 calories a day.

        Most hikers don't call it a walk for sunshine. Mr. Alt did because of Aaron, his 27-year-old brother, born with cerebral palsy, mental retardation and unable to communicate verbally or with adaptive devices. He lives in the Sunshine Home in Maumee, Ohio.

        Mr. Alt dedicated his hike to Aaron, then gathered donations, turning the trek in to a Sunshine fund-raiser that made $16,000.

        That's all in the book. So is the now funny but then ugly story of the day he put his arches in the wrong shoes and developed such enormous blisters he had to wrap his feet in duct tape. So is a miserable stretch of 10 days when constant sleet evolved in to a snow storm that dumped 10-foot drifts along the trail.

        “Yeah, it was miserable, but it's not the physical thing that wears you down,” says Mr. Alt, 33, a newly married speech pathologist from Symmes Township.

        “It's the mental thing — the boredom. You're so removed, so isolated and apart from the rest of the world. It's just you and the trail. But then when I started feeling sorry for myself, I'd remember how hard it would be to do it in a wheelchair, like Aaron.

        “Aaron couldn't say anything. But when I saw him afterward, he had a huge smile. I know he knows.”

        Things Aaron doesn't know:

        • About the time Mr. Alt and a trail buddy were hiking along and “for reasons neither of us understood we wanted a cold beer. Now. Out of nowhere, a carload of people headed back to a dry county gave us their whole trunk full.”

        • About the time he and another trail buddy were stomping through Pennsylvania and realized it was the day of the last Seinfeld. “We left the trail and were hiking to a bar, when a group of bike riders came by and told us the bar was too rough. They rode home, got a truck and picked us up. We watched at their house.”

        • Or the time in Virginia when he just had to have a hot breakfast and some guy, for no reason, picked up his tab, then drove him around town sight-seeing.

        “People who do things like that are called Trail Angels and I met dozens doing things like leaving a cooler full of cold drinks at trailside. Those good deeds are called Trail Magic.”

        We need to hear more . . .

        The most important lesson I learned on the trail . . .

        I guess to trust, let your guard down and trust your surroundings. And that simple things are the most important ones. Oh, and that a sense of humor will carry you through sore feet.

        Here's how a real pro deals with sore feet . . .

        Well, there's moleskin patches to wrap them. And duct tape, a lot of ibuprofen — hikers call it Vitamin I — and a wad of clothes to keep them elevated at night. You gotta sprinkle them with powder, too. Deodorant, you know.

        If Aaron could, I think he'd tell you . . .

        That, I don't know, maybe life isn't so bad. He always has this glow, even though he's medically fragile. But he just carries on, always with a glow.

        The hardest trailside lesson I had to learn . . .

        Was to enjoy the here and now. You get so point A to point B oriented that you really have to stop and say, here I am and I'm going to enjoy it now and stop obsessing about point B.

        One mistake I made planning this trip . . .

        Starting March 1 with El Nino tossing out ice storms up and down the coast. If I do it again, it will be April 1.

        The thing that scared me most . . .

        I don't want to scare anyone off the trail, but, uh, scary hikers. Some of them, you just don't know. Also, my sprained ankle because it had the potential of spoiling my dream.

        My very strangest experience on the trail . . .

        Oh wow, there are so many. I think the night I slept with a skunk. It sort of dropped down from the rafters in a shelter and snuggled up between my knees. It was the first time I ever slept with a skunk. Last, too, I hope.

        The one piece of advice I'd give anyone thinking of making the trip . . .

        Before you go all out, try it for a few days. Rent or borrow gear, take a veteran along and make sure you really want to do it. Most people who quit do so because they didn't know what they were getting in to.

        If I had unlimited time and money, my next adventure would be . . .

        The Pacific Crest Trail through the Pacific Northwest. I thought about hiking the Great Wall of China, but I keep hearing how dangerous it is, with vagrants camping all along it. My idea of hiking doesn't include near-death experiences.

        One thing I wish you had asked me . . .

        Whether hiking 2,000 miles in the woods is for everyone. It isn't. But everyone has a dream, and they should go after it. Don't sit and wonder. Go for it.

        Jeff Alt has a lecture/slide show and book signing at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, at 7 p.m. Tuesday. He has another at 7 p.m. Sept. 21 at Benchmark Outfitters, 9525 Kenwood Road, Blue Ash.


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