Chet Anderson of St. Croix Falls, Wis., has accomplished what many retirees yearn to do: He’s travelled extensively in his golden years.
But he hasn’t been traveling by air, RV, car or tour bus.
Anderson, at 74, has put in more than 9,000 miles in a somewhat unconventional way — on wooded paths, over meadows, through streams, across deserts and up and down mountains, all of it on foot, hiking some of the toughest and longest trails in America and sleeping (mostly) on the ground along the way.
The Appalachian Trail
Before he retired as a machinist in January 2008, Anderson didn’t have a golden-years plan — except to “experience a new life.”
His new life began in a big way on March 14 that year, when he took his first step on the 2,176-mile Appalachian Trail, known as the AT (pictured below).
The long-distance, five-month hike took Anderson — on foot — through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, including the Great Smoky Mountains in the south and the rugged White Mountains in the north.
Though people of all ages hike the trail (or at least sections of it), it’s an epic journey. Perhaps most famously described in Bill Bryson’s nonfiction book, A Walk in the Woods, the trail is also the setting for the 2015 film of the same name, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
Anderson, 66 at the time, was tall (6-foot-2) and fit, but he lost weight and even gained an inch in height — as well as the trail name Gray Ghost — during the 5 million-step AT thru-hike.
He also learned from the experience: Travel as lightly as possible.
During his AT trip, Anderson’s backpack weighed about 22 pounds, not counting food and water. These days, he’s an ultralight backpacker with his basic gear weighing about 16 pounds, including his shoes and the clothes on his back.
7,000 more miles
After his adventures on the AT, Anderson had no plan to hike on for another 7,000 miles, but the plethora of scenic trails in this country became too inviting to pass up, and each of them had their special attractions.
So Anderson went on to hike the Arizona Trail, an 800-miler that goes through the Grand Canyon on its way from the Mexican border to Utah; the 486-mile Colorado Trail, which takes hikers through eight mountain ranges; the 65-mile Border Route Trail, which crosses the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and traces the Minnesota-Ontario boundary; the 165-mile-long Tahoe Rim Trail in the stunning Sierra Nevada and Carson mountain ranges of California and Nevada; the daunting 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that runs from Mexico to Canada; and, closer to home, the Ice Age National Scenic Trail (IAT), which traces the edge of the farthest advance of the ice-age glaciers in Wisconsin.
No leisurely rambling
Anderson’s hikes haven’t been mere strolls across bucolic valleys and alpine vistas.
Nature has provided a wide variety of obstacles that have had consequences for Anderson, including sore soles and heels — “the pain doesn’t go away; it just rotates” — miscellaneous leg and back pain, blisters, sunburn, a bout with a giardia intestinal infection on the PCT, and a case of ehrlichiosis, a bacterial infection from a tick bite on the IAT.
Diet on the trail has been another challenge. Long-distance hikers need between 3,000 and 5,000 calories daily.
But carrying sufficient food to consume that many calories isn’t easy.
Anderson ordinarily carries about a pound and a half of food per day, around 2,700 calories, which he admits is insufficient.
In fact, he’s experienced weight losses of up to 55 pounds on hikes, roughly 25 percent of his normal body weight. Like other long-distance hikers, Anderson often makes up for the lack of calories by piling them on when he comes to the occasional off-trail eatery.
Anderson wrote in his journal about one memorable meal he had in Seiad, Calif., just off the PCT.
First he ordered a large cheeseburger and a salad. But he held on to the menu, just in case.
When his lunch arrived, he ordered another meal of fish and fries with a side of cottage cheese and pineapple. That meal came to his table just as he was finishing off his first.
A little later, he ate a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and drank a quart of orange juice.
Keeping hydrated on long-distance hikes is also a challenge. Because water is relatively heavy and bulky compared to other pack items, Anderson usually gathers agua as needed from lakes, streams and rivers, using water filters that remove bacteria and other contaminants. But when water sources are far apart, as is often the case on trails out West, he must carry all the water he needs to survive.
The Pacific Crest Trail
In 2011, Anderson struck out on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which travels through California, Oregon and Washington.
At 2,650 miles, the PCT is the longest trail Anderson has completed and features some of the most demanding elevation and terrain in the country, including parts of the Mojave Desert, the High Sierras and many, many mountain passes.
The PCT (pictured at above) is legendary among hikers and non-hikers. Author Cheryl Strayed, in her 2013 memoir — Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail — has made it even moreso, along with the subsequent film starring Reese Witherspoon in 2014.
Conditions in mountains on the PCT often prevented Anderson from making timely progress. High winds sometimes had him stepping backwards to keep his balance. Hard, crusty snow required him to both tread lightly and lift his knees high. And that slowed him down, too, along with fog and rain.
Despite those challenges, Anderson reached a major milestone on the trail: On Aug. 17, 2011, he wrote in his journal: “Today I accomplished two personal hiking goals. One goal was to hike over 40 miles in one day; the second was to hike 100 miles in three days. I hiked 41.2 miles for the day and a total of 104.1 miles for the last three consecutive days.”
If you ask Anderson what his favorite trail is, he’ll say it’s the one he is presently on.
“It’s like with grandchildren,” he said. “Which is your favorite? They’re all different and you love them all. The same with trails.”
Anderson repeats hikes on some trails, however, suggesting that he does have preferences. For example, he’s hiked the Tahoe Rim Trail three times, and his repeated visits to the carless Isle Royale National Park reflect his fondness for the 165 miles of trails on that Lake Superior island, which is south of Thunder Bay, Ontario, but part actually of Michigan.
Isle Royale also has a special attraction for Anderson — a lack of wood ticks.
Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail, which passes through Anderson’s hometown, has to be another favorite.
Anderson has walked countless steps and contributed thousands of volunteer hours to the upkeep of the trail.
Maintaining the IAT
Still partly under construction, the IAT stretches 1,200 miles east to west, beginning at Potawatomi State Park in Door County and ending at Interstate State Park on the St. Croix River.
Anderson praises the IAT’s well-organized system for volunteers, which includes group projects led by crew leaders, of which Anderson is one.
The projects are organized in sessions for a period of several days, and a trailer with a kitchen is set up to provide free meals for volunteers.
The National Park Service keeps track of volunteer work hours and individual volunteers get awards, such as a water bottle, a volunteer cap and — after a thousand hours — a long-sleeved shirt the with the park service logo, which Anderson owns and prizes.
This spring, Anderson received a jacket for putting in 3,000 volunteer hours.
Now 9,000 miles into his new life after retirement, will Anderson continue his long-distance hiking?
“I keep buying more equipment,” he said, “so I expect I will.”
Edward Voeller is a retired journalist and English teacher and lives in Roseville.