Hiking long distances is hard enough.
Going through the ups and downs of a trail, fighting through weather, people and anything else that might step in your way.
There’s making sure you carry enough food to make up for all the calories you burn and hauling enough water to get you from water source to water source.
That’s for your average person.
Now, imagine what it’s like if you were nearly seven feet tall. Welcome to Bill Walker’s world.
Hiking with the trail name of Skywalker — which makes sense being that Walker hovers above most other hikers — Walker has done some major thru-hikes, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. That’s two-thirds of the Triple Crown in the United States, with the third part being the Continental Divide Trail.
However, for the 50-year-old Walker, who currently lives in North Carolina, the CDT and he are not a match. The problem, Walker said, is right now, there is a lot of it that is not actual trail. With the CDT still developing, some data books and guides telling you how to get to where you need to be and some of it can be finding other trails.
“As a hiker of modest ability, I like having an actual trail to follow,” he said. “It is my best friend on lonely days.”
An author of two books on his adventures on the AT and the PCT, Walker said he enjoys meeting people along the way.
“I revel in meeting a glorious cast of humanity along the way,” he said. “But on the CDT, a hiker meets very few people. A lot of times it is groups that go out together and stick together. My hat is off to those who attempt it; I may yet some day. I hear it’s gorgeous, but could it possibly be any more gorgeous than the PCT?”
In 2005, Walker took his first long-distance hike, traversing the Appalachian Trail. A few years later, he did the Pacific Crest Trail. In recent years, including this past summer, he’s hiked the El Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile jaunt in Spain. Both times have taken him 34 days to complete the hike.
But the biggest hikes he’s taken are the AT and the PCT. Each has its own merits, he said, and he wouldn’t choose which was better than the other.
“It would be like asking a parent who they like best between two kids,” he said. “You can never make a choice.”
A walker for much of his life, Walker said hiking almost comes natural. And when hiking, the hustle and bustle of the world isn’t as noticed.
“Life is much more simpler (on the trail),” he said.
For the earlier part of his adult life, Walker worked as a trader in Chicago. You know the type — the crazy, loud and boisterous fellows on Wall Street. That was Walker.
Through it all, Walker was a, well, walker.
“I had a long history as a street walker,” the 6-foot-11 Walker said. “I walked all over. Over those years, I walked miles and miles and miles. Days I didn’t do it, I was depressed.”
So, after life’s path took him to London and other places, Walker went to make things simpler in his life.
“Walking, especially in the woods, is a good thing to do,” he said. “It’s a win-win. … My job was replaced by a computer. That was over with.”
For a bit, he taught English as a second language in Latin America.
Bryson’s book opened a whole new world. It showed him this community — this hiking lifestyle — where people walked long distances. With the Appalachian Trail, it was from Georgia to Maine.
“It sounded cool to me,” Walker said. “What a great way to travel.”
As a middle-aged male (he turned 45 while he was on the trail), it seemed like an interesting and fulfilling thing to do.
“The thing about the Appalachian Trail is it allows an average person go do something that is somewhat extraordinary,” he said. “That, to me, is one of the great things about the trail.”
After training and taking a class on hiking the AT, Walker was soon pushing ahead with this trip. He was advised to pick his own name (and he notes that after seeing some of the names people got while on the trail, he’s glad he did), and said his name was quite logical.
“The height drew a lot of attention,” he said. “The reaction was predictable.”
Everyone thought because Walker was 6-11, this trail would be nothing. Long strides must equal a quicker hike, no?
If only it was that simple. Walker notes that many of the best hikers are shorter.
The main reason is that though he’s 6-11, that means he burns more calories when he hikes. That also means he needs to eat more to keep those calories up. The problem is, he couldn’t keep up. So he lost a lot of weight.
“You become stronger, but you require more food because you burn more calories,” he said. “The longer step requires 50 or 60 percent more calories.”
As the hike went on, it took its toll. In the first 10 states, he said he was in amazing shape and passed people often. Once he hit New England and the final four states, that changed.
The hike on the AT was worth it, however, in every aspect. And it’s a tremendous challenge, he said.
“It really focuses your mind and brings the best out of you,” he said.
Along the way, he met a colorful cast of characters. He shows them well in both of his books and he said this was some of the best parts of the hike.
“You’re not meeting couch potatoes out there,” he said. “You’re meeting colorful people with stories to tell. When you are out there thru-hiking, you feel like you know them. It’s authentic and real bonding.”
Traveling can be done faster by car, plane or train. But talk to someone who just hiked 20 miles in a day and it’s different, he said. There’s a sense of accomplishment. That feeling flows over through the hiking community.
Through all this, however, it makes you see the world a bit different and once the hike is over, sometimes it’s tough to go back to a 9-to-5 job.
“You have trouble conforming,” Walker said. “Some people choose not to go back to the corporate world. You really realize you can get along with a lot less. It makes me more secure.”
The three major hikes he has done are all different.
With the AT, there’s a lot of staying in shelters and more people to see. The PCT doesn’t have shelters, so there’s a lot more tenting and sometimes you don’t see people for a while. On the Camino de Santiago, people mainly sleep inside in places that resemble hostels. On that hike, people do 15 miles per day, carry less weight and are not really in any danger.
Walker first did the Camino de Santiago in 2010 and said he liked it so much, he went back this year.
“It’s the Appalachian Trail of Europe,” he said. “It is, in many ways, the perfect way to travel.”
That trail, he said, is a good one for hikers. It’s an older crowd for the most part and you follow a set trail. It’s not as difficult as the AT or the PCT. The terrain isn’t as difficult as the two American trails, but there are some climbs.
“It’s a great way to see Spain,” he said.
His books have gotten good reviews, for the most part, on places such as Amazon and Good Reads. The books have a humor approach and he makes fun of himself more than anyone else. It’s basically, as he says, a guide of what not to do on the AT or PCT.
Still, his descriptions of the people he met and of the situations some of them were in are well-done and tasteful. However, not everyone is in a positive light. After all, not everyone on the trail is going to be the perfect person.
“People have strong opinions about what is written about them,” Walker said. “Most portraits were positive. But humans are humans. Some people have strong reactions because they are reading about themselves. … I certainly can justify it. The person I made most fun of is me.
He said he’s had some people get upset and not want to talk to him anymore. But, he said, everything he’s written is true.
“It doesn’t mean they are a bad person,” he continued. “Humans will be humans. It’s not the Saints will be marching on.”
Advice for future hikers
So you want to hike the AT, the PCT or some other long-distance trail?
As someone who started as a novice, Walker said there are several things people should consider and work on before making a serious hike.
The first is that you really have to want to do it. You have to want to be out there.
“You should never try and convince someone to do it,” he said. “You are going to have contours and go into funks. If you don’t want to be out there, you’ll rationalize quitting.”
There’s a difference between that and a person who says they want to be out there but aren’t capable of it.
“That’s where I was in 2005,” he said. “That person has a lot to gain. Someone like me. New to the whole thing, but determined.”
Some things to keep in mind include:
- Keeping pack weight down. “What do you need with you? Keep that weight down. Anything you can save weight on is advantageous.”
- Get the right equipment — learn it and know it and how to use it. “The AT is easier to prepare for than the PCT. Equipment becomes important in bad weather.
- Get in shape. “I was in the best shape of my life,” Walker said. “I trained in the gym all winter. I needed to get my weight up. The level of enjoyment is somewhat linear to your physical shape.”
Walker said he doesn’t anticipate stopping his hiking. It’s become part of who he is. Keep an eye out for him on the trails — if he’s on the same trail as you he likely won’t be hard to find.
More about Bill Walker:
- October 16: Win an autographed copy of Bill Walker’s book about his Appalachian Trail hike
- October 17: Preview
- October 19: Emily Harper
- October 22: Chris Nadeau
- October 24: Tyler Bedick
- Today: Bill Walker
- October 28: Wrap and contest winner announced
Reminder! Contest going on! I am holding a contest this week for an autographed copy of Bill Walker’s book “Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail”. It runs from October16- to 12:01 a.m. Oct. 28. You can see all the details on the contest page. Enter for your chance to win!
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