Late on Wednesday, July 18th, Harvey Lewis finished what he started 49 days and 15 hours earlier: the entire Appalachian Trail. I’d like to say there were tears and hi-fives and over-the-top chest bumps, but it didn’t end that way. Rather, it ended the way it started: in the dark and all of the sudden.
He didn’t break the record.
One thing I’ve learned is that the Appalachian Mountains never deliver what you expect; they wrap you up in a soft, peaceful embrace, only to surprise you from behind.
Photo by Tim Lewis
Harvey’s only opponent was mother nature. Tropical storms. Falling trees. Giant flies, bears, rattlesnakes, slippery boulders, narrow cliffs, and cold, dark nights under the green-black canopy.
I hiked several miles in the darkness of the Shenandoah National Forest with Harvey one night. “The trail keeps coming at you,” he told me as he used his hiking poles to scramble over a rock slide. “Every day, it throws you a curveball.”
Harvey dealt with potentially serious injuries early on in the form of achilles pain and tendonitis, among other things. By the end of week two he looked defeated. He was hobbling along the trail with tape on his knees and was icing his foot at every stop.
Photo by Tim Lewis
That morning he told me quitting the trail had crossed his mind, because he couldn’t see how he could possibly complete the some 1,400 miles that still lay ahead, given the shape he was in. It was the love and encouragement of everyone rooting for him that made all the difference, he said.
“The human body’s ability to overcome is something I’m amazed by. You are far more capable than you realize.” He was right. Somehow, his injuries healed and his daily mileage began to climb. He credits this to his plant-based diet and built-in stubbornness.
While each section of the trail is something special, the wilderness and majesty of northern Maine was the pinnacle for me. Main roads (I like to call them “Maine Roads”) that appeared passable on the map often dwindled into ATV trails or rocky streams. Gravel roads offered hours of driving without ever seeing a streetlight, power line, or dwelling of any kind. Below are some actual roads that appear on Google Maps:
We found Harvey Jr. (Harvey’s father) in good spirits when we arrived. He commenced to making fun of how sweaty I was and laughed at the fact that the heaviest thing I packed was a lightweight hoodie. I think everyone was excited that the end was nearing - this was the jovial Harvey Jr. I recall from day one on the trail.
We followed the Harveys north and east through the dense, steep terrain, sometimes abandoning vehicles so we could intercept them on foot. At night we slept wherever we could find a place with vacancy in order to charge the camera gear.One place, the Herbert Hotel in Kingfield, was apparently haunted.
Mount Katahdin was no joke. From a distance it’s this emerald, majestic landmark that dominates the surrounding landscape. The climb begins at roughly 1,200 feet and ends at 5,200 feet where you can see forever. The first mile meanders along a clear, picturesque stream peppered with waterfalls and fallen trees. In mile two, things become steeper and the dirt trail gives way to large stones. By mile three, you’re scrambling up boulders in what seems like a never-ending, physically-torturing climb.
Finally, you rise above the canopy, and the views are breathtaking. This is where Harvey caught up with us.
This trail is strenuous, and in spots, quite dangerous. We made the decision to send Harvey Jr. and some of the crew back down into the canopy before the daylight dissolved behind the western ridge.
As we descended with the sun, Harvey Jr. and I talked about his engineering days in the coal mining industry, raising kids, and how the documentary might turn out. It was here I tasted a small morsel of what Harvey dealt with every day: the incessant pounding on your joints coming down. Most of the trail was rock, and you feel it all the way up your entire body with each step.
After stowing our gear away at Katahdin Stream, Harvey radioed from somewhere up the mountain, indicating they had found another way down and would meet us at the Abol Bridge Campground. We drove to the trailhead, shut off the headlights, and soon fell asleep in the car.
In the distance, headlamps. Harvey emerged and gave me a big hug. “We did it buddy!” Typical Harvey. I slept in hotels and ate at restaurants (mostly).He ran almost 2,200 miles and dined on Clif Bars and instant pasta. But, he really felt like we were all in it together. And I must admit, I felt that way too. Daily planning sessions and phone calls, logistics, working with the crew and the ROAD iD staff, sweating and bleeding for the right shot, long days with my talented friends atHarris Media Co., losing sleep and checking the tracker, even doing Harvey’s laundry and cleaning up the crew van - it all culminated in this moment.
The stars were out in droves and the milky way was painted across the sky. “Look up at that guys, what a night!” was the next thing out of Harvey’s mouth as he entered the Abol Campground and the end of the hike down Katahdin. Always in the moment.
We chatted about the trails, then piled into the small SUV and returned to Katahdin Stream campground where we were reunited with Harvey Jr. From there, we caravaned out of the park and returned to Millinocket, the closest town with a hotel.
It was there we said goodbye, and the van pulled away, heading south toward Portland as I limped into the hotel and promptly collapsed.
I interviewed several more thru-hikers during this final leg, but one of them stood out for me. He was a long-haired, bright-eyed twenty-something who was heading southbound and hoping to finish in the fall. His trail name wasGreen Machine, because he found a trashed campsite, got angry, and quickly picked up every speck of trash he could find. I asked him why he was hiking the trail, and he thought about it for a long time. He finally answered, “I don’t really know yet...but I think I’m going to find out.”
What’s been most interesting is learning the reasons why. I always thought it was about escape; a way to sneak out from under the trappings of modern day life, to get back to nature. What I’ve realized through my conversations is that it’s really aboutfinding something.
Photo by Harris Media
After you’ve listened to your entire music collection, to all your downloaded podcasts, after you’ve eaten the same thing for two weeks, after your gear starts to deteriorate, after you’re tired of your own voice, you begin to scrape away the layers that obfuscate the core of your world. And you're left with the real questions:
What means the most?
How will I shape the world?
What no longer seems daunting?
Who do I really want to spend the time I have left with?
Fast forward one week. I’m writing at Braxton Brewery, which is located just around the corner from the ROAD iD office. City bustle and concrete surround me.
It’s all over. All the preparation, the logistics, the chasing of footage, the navigating, the conversations with Harvey’s dad on the trail.
To be honest, I never cared if he broke the record.
That's not entirely true. I wanted it for Harvey. But what I care about most is telling a story about why. Why do all these hikers embark on an adventure that’s so demanding? What did they realize along the way?
The trail will change you, no matter what.
Photo by Harris Media
Some realized a career change was needed. Another was hiking to Maine to start a new life. One man decided he would decline a job on the west coast, and instead stay close to his family because that was the most important thing.
For Harvey, it was always about finding adventure with his dad. When I interviewed him prior to the start, I asked what he hoped to take away from all this. He never mentioned a record.
When I knew there was little hope left of breaking the record, I texted him to say that no matter what happened, he’d already won. He agreed.
As I clung to Katahdin’s rocks high above the forest canopy, the wind whipped through my sweaty clothes and chilled the bleeding scrapes on my knees. Behind me a sheer drop-off, up ahead more boulders to climb. In that moment, I thought about my family and how they were just getting to bed in the fading light. How I couldn’t wait to see them and tell them all about the things I’d experienced. It dawned on me that I loved exploring, but I loved coming home even more.
The trail is still out there, wild and twisting and lush, welcoming us back and daring us to try all at once.
The other night as I was tucking my three-year-old daughter in, she said, “dad, are you going back to the trail to see Harvey?”
“Nope, Harvey finished the trail.”
“Oh. Will you miss Harvey?”
“Yeah...yeah, I think I will.”
“Well...I guess you’ll just have to find a new trail.”
The full-length documentary following Harvey’s AT adventure is tentatively set for release on November 17th at a theater in the Cincinnati, OH area. If you would like to attend, go toROADiD.com/WheresHarvey and provide your email address. This way, you’ll receive updates on when and where to buy tickets.
You can also read my blog about the beginning of the trailhere.
You can check out my Maine adventures in more detail on Instagram @roadid.