Luke Hilliard is approaching the halfway point of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. Hilliard, a Penn State student and State College local, decided to take time off his studies to take an epic journey down the East Coast on the famous National Scenic Trail that was first completed in 1937.
When asked what year he was in school, the response was a bit convoluted.
“I’m not really sure. In some ways I’m a senior, in some ways I’m a junior, and in some ways I’m a freshman. But I’m definitely not a sophomore.”
Hilliard’s three years at Penn State have been a little tumultuous. Despite his gregarious and peppy nature, he has a long history of anxiety and depression which ultimately lead to his decision to hike the trail.
“School is my biggest trigger,” said Hilliard, adding that he had increasingly severe panic attacks once he reached college. He began to find solace in the outdoors, switching from Physics to Recreation, Parks and Tourism Management last fall. Although he had found something he was passionate about, he was still only attending three classes per month and finally decided it was in his best interest to drop out.
“After I left school, I got a job working in a bakery and started saving money,” Hilliard said. He announced his plans through a Facebook post in April. “Getting answers” was his main motivation.
He began his long walk on the trail in Maine on June 7 and reached the Pennsylvania border in late September after hiking through New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey.
Appalachian Trail hikers often pick up trail names along the way, sometimes self-chosen but often given by another hiker. They serve both as a more unique identifier and as a way to separate a hiker from their “normal life” off the trail. Hilliard’s trail name is “Pongo,” a reference to his dalmatian-like appearance after a particularly bad run-in with mosquitos.
“The AT is like one long, skinny town,” said Hilliard, alluding to the strong sense of community and unique culture found on the trail. The bonds that are formed between hikers are instantaneous and surprisingly strong. “I feel like I’ve found my tribe,” he said. Hikers often share stories about their most “hiker trash” experience on the trail, or talk about their favorite types of Chacos.
He listed a few of the characters that he’s met, including Joe McConaughy, who recently destroyed the Appalachian Trail speed record, and Sherpa and Kanga, a couple hiking with their baby Roo who is set to become the world’s youngest Appalachian Trail thru-hiker.
“I was in camp with them when Roo took her first steps.”
Every day is a new adventure on the trail. Some are harder than others. Hilliard reminisced about some of the tougher days, including one night when he slept above a highway and a time he was forced to resupply at a gas station and subsequently ingested one thousand calories of Spam. But ultimately, the sense of peace he feels in the solitude of the wilderness is well worth it.
He will probably reach the end of the trail at Springer Mountain in November or December, but he’s in no rush. “Hike your own hike,” is the motto of long distance hikers everywhere, and it especially rings true for Hilliard.