As a seasoned hiker, Avery Forbes decided that she would dispense with certain everyday staples to carry out her latest expedition. Such as her hair.
So when she landed in late March in Georgia at the start of the trip, she headed straight to a suburban Atlanta barber shop for a close cut of her curly red hair. With a couple of disposable razors and Swiss army knife scissors, she then sheared what remained on her head. Next, she etched the word "growth" on the back of her bald pate. The 25-year-old Fairfield native was now ready to embark from Springer Mountain, Ga., to fulfill a longstanding ambition: completing a continuous "thru" hike of the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail.
"I put that word on my head because I wanted the hike to be about growth," she said. "It wasn't just an adventure, it wasn't just about fun. It was also about learning about myself, and making a point of trying to grow throughout the hike."
During the first half of that journey, she set a rigorous pace, averaging about 14 miles per day on the trail. She hiked about 10 hours each day, hauling an average of about 30 pounds of gear and apparel in her backpack.
In Georgia and North Carolina, Forbes trekked through rolling mountains, while she made her way through rolling foothills in Virginia. In the latter state, she also encountered an apparently fearsome trail inhabitant: a black bear.
"My first thought was, `You have to stand your ground if it charges,' " Forbes recalled. "And this bear was clearly not charging. So I planted my poles and stood my ground. That was all I could think of."
To further deter the bear, Forbes picked up her hiking poles and waved them over her head. Because of bears' limited vision, Forbes' gesturing with the poles made her appear much larger, as the bear could not discern that the poles were separate objects.
"Once I got through that first bear sighting, I realized they're pretty skittish," Forbes said. "They don't mess with you, if you don't mess with them."
By June 17, Forbes had trekked approximately 1,000 miles and reached the de facto halfway point of her journey in Harper's Ferry, W. Va.
Her plan was to hike the second half of the trail from north to south, finishing back at Harpers's Ferry. So after a two-week break, Forbes traveled to Mount Katahdin in Maine and set off on the second half of her journey.
From late July until late August, she was joined on her trek, by her cousin, Kea Trevett.
"She was very much a thru-hiker already," Trevett said. "She moved very quickly, she had a very strict routine for what happened every day. She had a time that we woke up and a system for how the tent got organized and how breakfast got organized."
The duo covered about 200 miles during their hike together, traveling through Maine and the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Forbes, however, increasingly noticed the pain of a stress fracture that she had developed in her foot. A doctor in Maine advised her to take a six-to-eight week layoff, but she decided to press ahead with her trek, albeit at a slower pace.
"When I cut my miles down, I started just being in nature and thinking about the trip itself and enjoying it more," she said.
After Trevett departed, Forbes soon linked up with another group of hikers in the Green Mountains in Vermont. They quickly coalesced into a close-knit group, and dubbed themselves the "Pirate Crew." They adopted that name after they "pirate-blazed" or hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail, which they had been advised to avoid by the U.S. Forest Service during the first week after Tropical Storm Irene struck.
Staying in a hotel in Killington, Vt., Forbes had escaped the storm's wrath when it hit the Green Mountain State. But she soon saw its punishing impact. In Bennington, Vt., she saw homes that had been ravaged by the swelling waters of the Walloomsac River. "It really hit me. It was one of those moments where I was kind of questioning what I was doing on the trail," Forbes said. "Here I was doing this recreational, fun activity while other people were trying to rebuild their homes."
Before Forbes and the other Pirates moved on, they donated to a bake sale in Bennington to aid local storm victims.
Forbes did not hike solely to accomplish a long-term goal. As she journeyed along the trail, she posted online lessons based on her travels. She created the syllabus -- which focused on math, science and English -- for elementary school students at Beardsley School in Bridgeport and the American Horse School in Allen, S.D. At Beardsley, she had participated in volunteer initiatives with fellow congregants of the Unitarian Church in Westport, while she taught two years at American Horse through the Teach for America program.
"You're basically walking all day, and it helps to have something to take your mind off, `My foot hurts, my foot hurts,' " she said. "Having teaching to think about and planning out lessons was just a really nice way to collect my thoughts as I was hiking."
Assignments posted by Forbes asked students, for example, to calculate how far she had traveled by a certain juncture during her trip or to choose which items they would carry with them if they had to adhere to a backpack weight limit.
"It provided students access to nature, which they wouldn't normally have living in the city," said Beardsley principal Amy Marshall. "The work Avery provided was open-ended and thought provoking. It really made them think about what they had to do."
Forbes' hike also raised about $10,000, which will be split by Beardsley and Teach for America.
After the hike
After her trek through Vermont, Forbes continued along the trail through southern New England and the mid-Atlantic states before returning to Harper's Ferry on Oct. 22. In about seven months, she had hiked through 14 states.
Now, back home in Fairfield, Forbes is preparing to move next month to New York City. There, she will resume her former job as a prop painter for Weapons Specialists, which creates props for shows like "30 Rock" and "Boardwalk Empire."
"I'm a lot calmer and more centered now," she said. "What I realized along the hike is that you always make it. Stressing about making it and spending all day worrying does not help you get there."
After another stint at Weapons Specialists, Forbes plans to eventually become an art teacher. In the meantime, she said she would reflect on the lessons she learned in a classroom that spanned from Georgia to Maine.
"I liked that it was going to be hard. It's not an easy thing to do," she said. "There were so many beautiful moments, and so many things that you learn about yourself. They're all made more important by the fact that they weren't earned easily."