He started reading up on the trail, taking in journals and histories from others’ hikes, and he came across an idea.
“I’d actually read a book called A Walk for Sunshine which was from a gentleman from Ohio who used his hike as a fundraiser for his brother’s group home. I thought, ‘OK, I can do the same thing.’”
A worthy cause
It didn’t take long for Smith to figure out who should be the beneficiary of his hike. Smith and his wife LouAnn had been long-time supporters of The Community Table in Sylva, giving financially and showing up reliably at functions to support the soup kitchen and food pantry.
“Without The Community Table, people couldn’t have good nutrition and the foods that they need, and I think that’s important,” Smith said. “Some people have hard times for no reason. They need the additional support that way.”
So, Smith worked out a pledging system, himself promising $1 per mile of the 2,180-mile trail and asking for pledges of a penny, nickel, dime, quarter, half-dollar or dollar per mile. So far, the hike has raised about $6,000 to fight hunger in Jackson County.
“He could have gone on this hike and he didn’t have to have any link to a cause,” said Amy Sims, executive director of The Community Table. “That just means so much that he chose to do that. He didn’t have to do that.”
Beginning the journey
But he did, and the decision launched Smith into a 177-day-long journey toward something almost completely new to him. Despite having lived in Jackson County for more than 20 years, Smith had never been backpacking before he started training for the trail, and he’d never even really been hiking in the Smokies. A competitive racewalker who travels to competitions all over the world, he was in great physical condition. But the rigors of the trail and complexities of gear-related decisions were pretty much new.
So he took the distances kind of easy those first few weeks, but it wasn’t long before the trail took on a rhythm of its own.
“You’re doing the same thing every day for 160 to 170 days — it’s basically almost like a job,” Smith said. “You get up in the morning, you have your breakfast, you hike for 10 hours. You get there, you get your water, you get your dinner, you go to bed. And then the next day you do the same thing.”
There was a lot of room for thought in those days, though. Often, Smith was hiking alone, and even when hiking with a partner there was a lot of silence on the trail, a lot of time living within the space of his own head. A lot of those thoughts would center around scenery, where to spend the night, where to get water and, a drive repeating over and over, where and what to eat.
“They say that you’re burning about six to 7,000 calories a day, and there’s no way you can end up eating six or seven a day because you’re carrying your food,” Smith said. “So in town, you make up for it.”
Though the whole trail is 2,179.1 miles, it wound up being more like a series of three- and four-day hikes, Smith said. Every few days there’s a place to go off-trail and spend the night in a hostel or head into town for showers, resupplying, laundry and mail. During those opportunities, hikers stuff their faces with every scrap of food they can get. Smith easily completed the half-gallon challenge at Pine Grove Furnace General Store in Pennsylvania’s Pine Grove Furnace State Park, handily polishing off four quarts of ice cream in one sitting. Over the course of his time on the trail, Smith, who wasn’t overweight to begin with, lost 32 pounds.
“I’d been starved that way,” Smith said, though adding that the calorie deficit didn’t really cause him discomfort.
The process helped him reflect on The Community Table and the reason he was hiking the trail. During his resupply stops, mostly at Dollar Trees and Dollar Generals along the way, Smith would stock up on dollar pasta sides and tuna cans, as well as Snickers bars and Ramen noodles. He wound up spending about $8 a day on the processed food he was living off of.
“That was another side that I thought about at times,” Smith said. “How little money sometimes we can eat on, but on the other hand if you don’t even have that much money, you’re not going to be able to get the food.”
Smith’s diet did a 180 turn during the trail, changing to consist mainly of easy-to-pack packaged foods. When he drank soda, which was often, it wasn’t diet. When he ate Snickers bars, they weren’t fun-sized.
“I drank more soda in six months than I probably had in the last four or five years,” Smith said of his time on the trail, reflecting at a different point in the interview, “The biggest thing that I’ve always noticed is you can buy 2 liters of soda cheaper than you can a gallon of milk, and that’s wrong, I think.”
With his body constantly demanding fuel for the average of 12 miles he was hiking each day, food was always on the brain. And along with that, his pledge to The Community Table.
“There were a couple of times I was going to quit, but I couldn’t disappoint. I had to go through the whole thing,” he said. “If I did more miles, I would get more money and that would raise more funds.”
It helped to have that extra incentive to finish, because the trail is hard. There’s the weather to deal with — though Smith experienced minimal snow and rain on his hike, some days came with highs in the 20s — the strain of being away from home and the steep mountain terrain.
“Maine was probably the hardest state there was because the first 100 to 150 miles was very steep, uphill, rocky terrain,” Smith said. “The White Mountains were also fairly intense.”
But make it he did, completing the trail on Sept. 24, just two days ahead of his 65th birthday.
“I try to think back when I hiked up all these hills and all these rocks, and I still can’t believe I actually did it,” he said.
The feat couldn’t have come at a better time for The Community Table. By November, the Table had already surpassed its 2013 numbers of meals and food boxes served. The 2014 stats, still incomplete, are 143 percent higher for meals and 498 percent higher for food boxes than in 2011.
“We keep hearing that the economy’s improving, but we’re not seeing it right now,” Sims said.
The Community Table serves elderly people on fixed incomes, people who are between jobs, and those whose lack of access to health care for chronic problems makes budgets tight. But it also serves a lot of working families who just aren’t making a living wage at their jobs. There are a good number of obese people who use The Community Table, too, people who fill up on cheap calories like those found in soda and candy bars. Those calories cause weight gain while still resulting in malnourishment.
Many people in Western North Carolina aren’t aware that these problems are so prevalent in their backyard, Sims said. That’s why Smith’s hike has been so important to The Community Table. It’s not just the lump sum of the hike pledges — it’s the community enthusiasm that those pledges bring with them.
“We have to have those champions out there to help us tell our story and to make it known to people that we’re here, what we’re doing and why it’s important,” Sims said. “We’ve definitely seen positive results from that [Smith’s hike], and we need those champions.”
How to help
The Community Table is always in need of volunteers and donations, and Smith is still taking pledges for his recently completed Appalachian Trail hike.
• Donate online, whether as a hike pledge or a general donation, at www.communitytable.org, or mail checks to: The Community Table, P.O. Box 62, Dillsboro, N.C. 28725.