Snow, sleet and rain fell as hikers Joanna Swanson, 28, of Willow River, Minn., and Bart Houck, 43 of Mollins, W.Va., entered the mountains of Harlan County.
Weary from the cold weather, the hikers spent a few days in Harlan County before continuing their journey on the Great Eastern Trail (GET).
An environmental education employee, Swanson most recently worked with AmeriCorps VISTA in West Virginia where she met Houck and they decided to hike the GET, a task which has not been done to date.
Houck is an athletic trainer for a high school football team and a substitute teacher.
“I’m a huge trail geek,” said Swanson. “I was doing some work on the Great Eastern Trail through AmeriCorps VISTA and ended up moving to Mollins, W.Va. I’ve spent the last year working and trying to make this trail happen. Bart was a local volunteer and that’s how we met.”
Beginning their hike in January on Flagg Mountain in Alabama, the southernmost mountain range above 5,000 feet of the Appalachian Mountains, Swanson said eventually GET will extend to the Florida-Alabama border in phase two of the project.
“Our destination is Finger Lakes, N.Y.,” said Houck. “We’re guessing the Great Eastern Trail, which runs parallel with the Appalachian Trail, is approximately 1,800 miles. We’ve been told its 2,000 miles, so we’re keeping count of our mileage as we hike. No one has ever hiked this trail before.”
As of Saturday, the hikers had traveled approximately 600 miles. Swanson added there are “extra miles” from visiting other small trails along the way, getting lost and traveling into towns to resupply.
“There was a previous attempt in 2007 to hike the Great Eastern Trail, but it was not successful,” said Swanson. “She only made it to Tennessee, which is a difficult state logistically with a lot of little sections of trails that we link. We got through there and found Kentucky not as difficult. Once we get onto the Little Shepherd Trail, we’ll have a huge bunch of trails to get us to Elkhorn City.”
Swanson and Houck left Harlan on Sunday and spent the night on Pine Mountain at Goss Park near Putney. They traveled to Black Bear Shelter in Kingdom Come State Park on Monday.
“The Harlan Fiscal Court has done a tremendous job of rehabilitating Goss Park’s campground and picnic area,” said Harlan County Extension Agent Jeremy Williams. “The park offers a great stop along the way. Goss Park is 18 miles from Kingdom Come State Park and 16 miles from Harlan, thus offering a good one day hike. Most hikers try to keep their distance at 15-20 miles per day.”
When Swanson and Houck were asked why they decided to attempt this first-ever hike, which travels through Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, Swanson replied “it had never been done” and they “wanted to be the first ones.”
“When Jo first asked me to go, I said ‘no,’” said Houck. “I later changed my mind. I had the flexibility of leaving and I wanted to promote my home state of West Virginia. This trail, before Jo’s work, was going to be completely rerouted out of West Virginia due to land issue problems. Jo was able to link up a lot of state parks and different land companies — get them talking on logistic trails through West Virginia. Now, the trail will actually go through my hometown — right downtown Mollins.”
The Great Eastern Trail project began as an attempt to create a second long hiking route through the Appalachians west of the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States. Several other names were suggested and used earlier, including the Western Appalachian Alternative.
More recently, it was redefined as a potential connector in the U.S. National Trails System, linking the Florida National Scenic Trail in the south to the North Country National Scenic Trail in New York.
In between, it would connect with and briefly overlap two other National Scenic Trails: the Appalachian and the Potomac Heritage Trails.
Hiker Jo Swanson said a lot of coal communities “need a boost” and she feels the GET can help Kentucky and West Virginia especially since they have issues such as unemployment in the coal fields in common.
“A trail like this can bring in a huge amount of money,” said Swanson. “It can bring in businesses and give locals something to enjoy in their own backyard. We’re really hoping this trail will take off. We think it will once someone has hiked it and shown it can be done — and have fun doing it.”
Both Swanson and fellow hiker Bart Houck said they hope to finish the hike at the end of May or the first of June. They said it all has to do with the weather they encounter. Saying weather conditions had been one of the hardships they have encountered thus far, they both agreed they prefer hiking in the colder weather.
“We did sleep in snow at the Hensley Settlement in Bell County,” said Swanson. “We had snow in every state, but we’ve seen the most in Kentucky. It’s just how we hit it I think.”
Houck said they have received “so much kindness” from everyone they have met thus far.
“Even before we made it into Harlan County, we had people, like Jeremy Williams, welcoming us. The hospitality has been wonderful,” said Houck. “When we arrived at the Smith Community Park we had locals who came out and checked us out, talked with us and brought us food — just super kind.”
Harlan County Cooperative Extension Agent and Pine Mountain Trail Conference board member Jeremy Williams said these hikers will leave a positive source of information for future hikers along the GET and the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail. He said these trails will have an “economic impact” on the areas hiked through or near them.
“For instance, the hikers stayed in Harlan three nights in a motel, two for resupplying and one due to the weather,” said Williams. “Most through hikers want to come into town a day or two and rest up, send or receive items at the local post office or get supplies. While in town they usually eat at restaurants, maybe check out an event that would possibly be taking place and then resupply on what they might need until they get to another town along the way.”
Carrying between 30-40 pounds of weight on their backs as they hike, Swanson and Houck said they will most likely resupply once they get to Whitesburg.
“We try to keep our weight down and take only what we need until we reach another community where we can resupply,” said Swanson.
Houck said the best part of the hike thus far has been meeting the “salt of the earth and absolutely wonderful” people.
“I had no idea of the kindness and encouragement we have gotten on our travels,” said Houck. “I knew it would be beautiful, but it’s been the real beauty of the people, helping us along the way, that stands out most for both of us.”
Swanson said total strangers have supplied food, offered their homes and paid for motels for them to spend a night or two in. She said people have provided maps and information to help them find the trails they needed to travel.
“Every time we get help that just boosts us up to complete this journey,” said Swanson. “There is no way we’re quitting. We’re carrying everyone else’s hopes with us. We want to promote the little trails and communities we encounter as well as the Great Eastern Trail. The fact we can let people know this trail is right in their backyard is exciting.”
Swanson said backpacking burns lots of calories and is inexpensive to do. She said you don’t have to hike 2,000 miles like they are doing, but just a few miles will be beneficial to your health.
“Both Harlan and Bell counties are very beautiful with the mountains and wildlife,” said Houck. “We have seen deer, squirrels and raccoons. We encountered some wild boar in Tennessee that ran away, which is something we’d never seen. We’re hoping to see some bear and elk in Harlan County and have been told we might. Our experience overall in Harlan and Bell counties has been remarkable. We will never forget the kindness extended to us and look forward to seeing new friends we have made after the completion of our journey. We invite everyone who loves hiking to put the Great Eastern Trail on your list of things to do.”
Harlan Daily Enterprise | Civitas Media, LLC