Retired postmaster finds ‘magic’ on Appalachian Trail trip
DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Most people know him as Michael Whittaker, a retired postmaster in Ozark, but on the Appalachian Trail fellow hikers simply call him “Swimmer.”
The Appalachian Trail is estimated to be about 2,200 miles long. The route, which begins and ends in Georgia and Maine, navigates hikers through 12 states and typically takes roughly five to seven months to complete.
Day in and day out, Whittaker slips on his hiking books and, as he puts it, “just walks and walks and walks.”
After going on some smaller backpacking trips, reading endless books, and watching documentaries, Whittaker found a healthy obsession with the trail. He studied what it took to complete the route from a mental and physical perspective for roughly six to eight years before completely diving in. He retired from the U.S. Postal Service in Ozark after 32 years, and leapt.
His journey on the trail began alone. He kissed goodbye his loving wife and biggest supporter, Debbie, put his backpack on, and just like that, he was off.
But it didn’t take long for Whittaker to find a new family, one that changes with the ebbs and flows of trail — his “trail-mily,” or trail family.
Though they very seldom hike together, a trail family is a group of hikers that typically pass each other often or finish up a day of backpacking with rest at the same camp sites, Whittaker said. He added that in his current family, there are roughly 200 hikers covering a 100-mile stretch and headed in the same direction. Some will hike faster and catch up to a new family, and others that may take extra rest days and a new family will find them.
“At first, we would have a nice campfire at the end of the day and sit around and talk. The day is kind of over when the sun goes down, and when I started on March 16, that was at like 5:30. Now by the end of the day we’re all so beat that we don’t have fires anymore, it’s just too much work. It’s mostly just a bunch of dirty, tired people that set up camp, eat, and pass out,” Whittaker laughed.
On some occasions, Whittaker has the chance to trade in his blow-up sleeping pad for a night in a hostel, to shower and perhaps get some supplies in the nearest town. Leaving the hiking for the trail, Whittaker learned that the best way to get anywhere is by hitchhiking.
“It sounds kind of crazy to hitchhike, but most of the people that pick you up know about the trail and have a special relationship with it or have hiked it themselves,” he said.
Sometimes, when the hiker returns to the trail from town, he finds a bit of what the backpackers call “trail magic.”
“There might be water bottles near the entrance of the trail or, like sometimes there’s full buffets and people are giving away hotdogs and hamburgers, and apple pies and things to people passing by,” Whittaker continued, “I mean it sounds so small but you’re tired and always hungry and just that little bit of kindness from strangers can carry you for hundreds of miles.”
It’s the trail magic, and his wife and daughter, that Whittaker thinks about most when times get tough on the route.
“It’s been defeating in some respects and fulfilling in others. There are days that I just miss home. A lot of these younger hikers don’t really have a place that they’ve settled into yet. But I have a wife and my daughter is pregnant and sometimes it gets hard. But I just give Debbie a call, or my daughter a call, and I keep going, and things get better. Debbie always tells me that if I quit I’ll probably regret it, and I think she’s right,” Whittaker said.
Once he’s completed the route, Whittaker will take away countless lessons and memories, but most of all, he will never forget his trail name, he said.
A trail name can either be chosen by the hiker at the beginning of the trail, or the trail will give one to you along the way.
Whittaker was hiking out of Erwin, Tennessee. The night before had dumped an intense amount of rain on the trail, and he decided he wanted a picture of a fast-flowing river that had swelled overnight. After taking the picture, he attempted to enter a bridge that was lead up to by rocks. Whittaker took a spill on the rocks and found himself in the water, swimming with all of his gear still on, to get to the other side. Just after, with his clothes still soaked, snow began to fall.
“I was absolutely freezing, but it was one of those things we’re I just couldn’t help but laugh,” he said. “The very next day I was telling a section hiker named Traveler about it. He’s from the Blue Springs area believe it or not. He gave me my name, Swimmer. It was special because it came from someone close to home and from a day I will never, ever forget. So now, I’m Swimmer.”
Whittaker is currently 1,535.2 miles into the 2,200 mile trip. He updates his Facebook profile with pictures, videos, and trail trivia when he has cell phone service. Comments from the community are always welcome, he said, and encouragement from home is always added to his own stash of trail magic he reserves for times of need.