Some do it for the bragging rights. Others to "find themselves." Still others, like Lawrence native Leslie Scally, hike the entire 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail just to do it.
Scally is among an elite group called "thru-hikers" who traverse the trail in one continuous hike, usually taking from four to six months from start to finish.
Author Bill Bryson calls the trail "the granddaddy of long hikes." The trail winds through national parks and forests in 14 states from Georgia to Maine. Most hikers, like Scally, start in the spring at Springer Mountain in Georgia and end up at Mount Katahdin in Maine in the early fall.
Of the thousands who attempt to thru-hike the trail each year, only about 400 finish the task. And of that 400, only 20 percent are women, according to Brian King, public affairs director for the Appalachian Trail Conference, a confederation of the 31 clubs with delegated responsibility for managing sections of the trail.
Scally, 31, started planning for her trip in December by reading books about what to bring and what to expect, and talking with hikers who had completed the trail. She left in March for Georgia, and returned in mid-September to Lawrence.
"To do the trail in four months is fast," she said. "Doing it in six is not being in a big hurry, but not slacking either."
Scally graduated from Lawrence High School in 1987, and Kansas University in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in English and environmental studies. She now lives in Denver.
Before hiking the trail, she had only backpacked four nights, and had hiked "a little bit" when she previously lived in Massachusetts. Scally leads an active lifestyle, though, and was in good shape before hitting the trail.
Still, she said, "nothing can get you in shape for it like just getting out there and doing it.
"By the second or third week, you're hiking 15-mile days with a 40-pound pack. It's as much mental as it is physical, and it's during those first few weeks that people usually quit."
Nervous about starting out alone, Scally decided to begin the trail hike with two other women. She had met them through a classified advertisement in one of the trail-preparation publications. The three women hiked the first four or five weeks together before going their separate ways.
Scally said she did most of her day hiking alone "that way I don't feel pressured to go a certain pace."
But because of the social nature of the trail, she would often meet up with groups of hikers along the way, especially at night at the camps. Scally said she enjoyed the instant friendships and camaraderie with other thru-hikers "who knew what I was going through."
Scally carried a tent and used it occasionally, but often camped with other hikers in three-sided wood shelters maintained by the Appalachian Trail Conference and National Parks and Recreation Services at regular intervals along the way.
Those that imagine the trail as a remote, middle-of-woods adventure are partly right: There are few public showers. (Scally went eight days without a shower at one stretch.)
But the trail goes through or is near towns and Scally said she would stay in motels some of the time, and go "into town to eat, shower, do laundry and get mail."
Like many thru-hikers, Scally took advantage of mail drops where you prepare and package food and supplies ahead of time and have relatives mail the packages to you at specific times to designated towns. Her mother, Peggy, helped with the mail drops from her home in Lawrence. That way, Scally didn't have to carry six months worth of supplies the whole time.
One of the hardest things to overcome and prepare for along the trail, Scally said, was the unpredictable weather. Hiking over six months, she experienced three distinct seasons in varying climates snow in Georgia, rain through Virginia and sunny shorts-and-T-shirts days as she climbed farther north.
Rain, though, was the worst.
"In the middle of the trip, it rained for a week straight," Scally said. "I got to the point where I would wake up, put on wet clothes I didn't even bother with waterproof gear and do it again the next day."
Not a walk in the park
The terrain, too, is a challenge. The trail is clearly marked with white blazes on trees, but the trail itself varies from well-worn dirt paths in the southern states to rocks and boulders in New Hampshire and Maine that make the "hike more like a climb," she said.
A couple of times, Scally said, she misjudged how far she could go before reaching a campsite. Running out of daylight, she had to hike for miles using a headlamp like the kind coal miners wear.
On another part of the trip, she encountered 50 mph winds while on Mount Madison in New Hampshire. "It was blowing us all over the place," Scally said. "It was one of the only times I really got scared."
And three times during her six-month trek, Scally saw a doctor because of knee problems. Still she continued.
The payoff for six months of aches, cold, wet clothes and few showers? Hiking under a sky full of stars and seeing the sunrise over Mount Katahdin the finish line in Maine.
"You look back down the mountain and see the headlamps bobbing along," Scally said, "and you're on top and you've made it."
King of the Appalachian Trail Conference said it's that sense of accomplishment that continues to draw thousands of thru-hikers each year. Official totals of how many thru-hikers attempted and completed the trail this year won't be available until April, he said.
But as long as there are books like the best-selling "A Walk in the Woods" by Bryson who didn't complete the trail, by the way that continue to mythicize the Appalachian Trail, there will be hikers wanting to check it off their life's "to-do" list.
Scally is pleased that she can be counted among them.
"I am proud of the fact that I made it. I'm glad I did it," Scally said. "I would tell anyone who wanted to do the AT that they won't regret a minute of it."