The trail was a river.
Bobby O’Donnell had just walked into the middle of a flash flood near Swatara Gap in Pennsylvania, and the section of the Appalachian Trail looming ahead of him had transformed into a roaring, chest-high river.
The Easton native wasn’t sure what to do. Hitch back? Camp out? Backstroke?
But then a hiker — a man in his 60s — emerged from the other direction, seemingly unfazed by the flooded trail around him. He strolled through the water (which was almost up to his neck) and past O’Donnell, giving him a nod.
“Watch out for snakes,” he grinned.
That man, an unlikely inspiration in a Hawaiian shirt and jean shorts, was all the motivation O’Donnell needed.
“So I stripped down, put my pack over my head, and did the only thing I’ve done for the past two-and-a-half months,” he said. “Walk forward.”
O’Donnell, a 2012 Oliver Ames High School graduate, is in the midst of a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, walking more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine on what many consider the crown jewel of the American hiking experience.
The 24-year-old is no stranger to adventure — in November he took part in the Everest Marathon to reach his goal of running marathon events on all seven continents. And, yes, that included Antarctica.
Only a few months later, O’Donnell caught the adventure itch once again.
He started his hike at Springer Mountain in Georgia on April 11, and just stepped into Vermont two weeks ago. He now has about 500 miles before his final steps on Mt. Katahdin in Maine.
It’s a long, strange and often revealing trek for those bold enough to put one foot in front of the other for six months. Thousands of people attempt the hike each year, and only 20 to 25 percent typically complete it.
O’Donnell said he was nearly one of the failed majority.
On his third night, he woke up to a mouse on his face near Neel’s Gap in Georgia. It had sniffed out an open bag of trail mix in his tent, and also chewed holes in his tent, his backpack, and some of his gear.
A day later, he started feeling pain in one of his Achilles tendons, so he had to cut the heel out of the back of his shoe. Another day later, his cell phone broke in the rain.
That was just the first week, and O’Donnell started wondering just why he was doing this. Maybe he should leave the trail, buy a ticket to New Zealand, and travel for five months instead.
But he called his dad, retired Stoughton firefighter Robert O’Donnell Sr., and received a few words of wisdom.
“He said ‘You can’t quit on a bad day,’” O’Donnell recalled. “You’ve just had a string of tough days. If things don’t turn around in a week, then you can think about heading home.”
Only a few days later, O’Donnell ran into a “trail angel” — a term for those who assist thru-hikers by providing food, shelter or rides.
It was a Georgia man sitting at a road crossing, offering up all kinds of food, cookies and drinks for those passing by on the trail. The man attempted his own thru-hike years ago, O’Donnell learned, but started suffering a strange pain. He was soon diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to give up on his hiking dream.
He’s in remission now, he said, and now comes out to the road crossing each weekend to hand out food to hikers — “he felt like it was his duty to help others complete the hike he couldn’t,” O’Donnell said.
There’s a common refrain on the hike, O’Donnell soon learned: “The trail provides.”
“Whenever you’re having a crappy day, something will turn it around,” he said. “Or help you realize how grateful you should be in life.”
He soon earned his trail name (another bit of Appalachian trail lingo), which is a nickname fellow hikers bestow to you on the trail.
It was “Handyman” — so named for his use of medical sutures to take care of the holes in his tent and backpack after his mouse encounter.
“Jack Rabbit” gave him the name, and “Red Stripe” seconded it. That’s perhaps the most touching part of the trail experience, O’Donnell said: the people you meet and the relationships you build.
“You see the kindness of people every day,” he said. “Strangers being nice to strangers every day. There are people who will pick me up at a trailhead, let me sleep at their home, cook me dinner — just because they want to. And that kindness is contagious.”
The same goes for his fellow hikers. No matter the background or life story, everybody who walks into a campsite that night hiked the same mountains and battled the same weather conditions.
“We’re all going through the same stuff,” he said. “The AT is the ultimate leveling ground.”
And the weather conditions certainly united the hikers early this summer. In his first 40 days, O’Donnell and fellow hikers saw about 25 days of rain (plus a few snow showers). A few weeks ago, they hiked through a record heat wave. Then came that massive flash flood in Pennsylvania.
But O’Donnell has persevered. He’s learned to repeat a mantra to himself: “There are good days and hard days. No bad days.”
He’s also learned to lighten things up with his blog, titled “Trailstoked,” where he keeps friends and family updated on his miles hiked, beers drank, bears spotted and beard length (we’re up to Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant).”
O’Donnell shares updates on his last few days, his latest trouble with bugs or weather, his newest food cravings (peanut M&Ms) and stories of the latest trail angel. And then he’ll usually delve into more thoughtful ideas — have I figured out why I’m out here? Have I learned more about myself?
When asked why he hiked Mount Everest, O’Donnell writes, adventurer George Mallory famously responded: “Because it’s there.”
But that answer doesn’t quite satisfy O’Donnell. He points to explorer Ben Saunders, who often provides O’Donnell with bits of inspiration with his lectures and TED Talks.
“If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it — that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward — then you won’t see why we go,” Saunders said in a lecture. “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
With about 600 miles remaining, the trail is already becoming bittersweet, O’Donnell said. When he reaches that famed sign at the top of Mount Katahdin, he’ll have to return to the real world, and his job as a paramedic in New Hampshire. It felt like yesterday, he said, when he was watching the flight tracker on his trip to Atlanta three months ago, wondering how he’d ever be able to walk back home.
O’Donnell had a poignant moment in Bennington, Vermont, last week while picking up a new pair of shoes. He’s figured out that he gets about 600 miles to a pair — which will make these his last pair of trail shoes.
“That hit me,” he said. “I thought, geez, I should slow down. I don’t want this to end.”
He’s settled into the routines (and freedoms) of the hiking life. The morning snacks. The 20-mile days. The resupplies every week or so. The friends. The conversations. The surprise visit from his parents. The PBRs he’ll squeeze into his backpack and enjoy on a mountain summit.
Even those days when a flash flood in Pennsylvania forces you to nearly swim the trail.
“That one definitely sucked while you were doing it,” he said. “But it’s one of those days on the AT I’ll never forget.”
And his advice for those thinking about hiking the trail?
“It’s another one of those don’t-wait scenarios,” he said. “You’re always going to be able to come up with an excuse about why you couldn’t have done it. But I’m so glad I did. It’s been one of the best experiences of my life.”