Local couple follows every sign on the Appalachian Trail
The handful of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers that I have met agree that the sign on Mount Katahdin in Maine signifies the pinnacle of a journey that changes you forever.
A local couple who completed their thru-hike in 2015 found there were signs along the way that held life-altering messages too.
Nate and Sharon Harrington, known to those on the trail as “The Hiking Vikings,” started their hike on Feb. 10, 2015 and reached the summit at Mount Katahdin on July 12. That’s 153 consecutive days of togetherness that, according to Nate, “sealed the deal.”
In early March, Nate and Sharon met with a group of people in Warren who were interested in hearing some of the story of their thru-hike and the possibility of hiking along with Nate on various area trails. During the gathering, he spoke about the logistics like planning and packing and mentioned a few personal details, including a trail proposal. For more of the in-depth story of the hike, he referred to a link to an interview done by Steve Adams titled episode 67 of “Mighty Blue on the Appalachian Trail.”
One of the first questions people at the event and Adams both had for the Harringtons pertained to the trail name given to the couple. It’s customary for hikers to have a trail name chosen for them by other hikers. Trail names bring a sense of community to the hike and add to the sense of adventure, according to Nate. But, why Hiking Vikings?
It all started with Nate’s brother’s wife who “knits goofy hats.” She knitted a fish hat for a baby that once it’s worn looks like a fish sucking on the baby’s head, according to Nate.
Prior to Nate and Sharon’s departure, since it was February and would be cold outside, she gave the couple knitted hats that looked like Viking helmets complete with horns and pigtails attached only to Sharon’s. It was at the Woods Hole Hostel in Virginia that the two took on some individuality as Nate officially became Viking and Sharon was dubbed Hiking.
So how did a couple from the Warren area take on the role of Scandinavian pirates? It could be said that opportunity knocked and they opened the door.
Nate grew up on a dairy farm. As a child he spent a lot of time outdoors hiking and camping in the woods. He said he first heard of the Appalachian Trail when he was 14 or 15 years old and wanted to do it some day.
Sharon said she was always interested in the outdoors but nobody ever got her out there until she met Nate. She discovered her love of hiking with Nate in the Adirondacks.
The couple had been together for more than a year when they decided to take on the hike they had dreamed of. Nate said it was a big commitment for the pair who got to know each other via a long-distance relationship, but their connection was almost immediate.
Nate met Sharon at what he calls “the lowest point” as he was grieving the loss of his former girlfriend, Ashley, who died in a car accident about five years prior. “I took it poorly,” he said. The day before the couple left on their hike, Nate visited Ashley’s grave. He told her of their plans and invited her to come along.
They met when Sharon was also dealing with the loss of her father, Tom.
Sharon described her dad as a “big guy with a great personality.” It was at the end of her first semester of medical school that he got sick. He resisted getting medical attention, but once he did he was initially diagnosed and treated for diverticulitis. It was soon discovered that he also had liver cancer. Approximately four months after the initial discovery, Tom died.
Sharon’s family didn’t know how much time they had, so they spent as much time as they could together. “We didn’t know it would be our last but we were able to take one last family vacation,” she said.
Fast forward about a year and a half. Sharon needs to take time off from medical school for scheduling purposes. Nate has been working as a machinist in a steel shop for about 10 years. Sharon suggested to Nate, “let’s do it.” Nate couldn’t take months off from his job, so he quit.
Many AT hikers start and end each day with a group but spend much of each day hiking solo. Nate and Sharon were never more than 10-feet away from each other the entire time.
“When you’re walking for 12 to 14 hours a day, you just think and talk,” Sharon said. “We covered topics that most couples never get to.”
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Nate said of their time together.
They also agree that they didn’t always feel like they were alone. Sharon said she feels her dad’s presence daily, not just on the trail, but it can be more noticeable when you don’t have a busy life to distract you.
Nate said he isn’t certain if Ashley came along on the hike but there was at least one occasion that left them wondering.
Nate admitted he’s not much of a photographer, but along the hike he got into the habit of taking pictures of bridges. “I carried the camera so it was always Sharon in the photo,” he said.
One day, Sharon suggested they change their routine. She told Nate to go up on the bridge so she could take a photo of him. “I told her to tell me when to stop,” Nate said. He stopped as directed, placed his hand on the bridge and felt something under it. Next to his hand he saw the AT symbol carved in the wood. Once Sharon got the shot, he lifted his hand. Under it was carved “Ashley.”
“There’s so many ways to interpret that,” Nate said. Neither he or Sharon dismissed it as coincidence. In fact, they couldn’t help but mention that when their children were born a nurse named Ashley took care of them. “Different nurses,” Sharon said. “I know it’s a common name but…”
Nate tells everyone that Sharon is his planner, navigator and weather-girl when it comes to hiking. Prior to the trip he tried to make his own plan — to hopefully make their partnership official.
“I had the idea to propose before we left,” Nate said. “I’m not good at planning.” He had a family ring to give Sharon but he didn’t bring it on the trip because he didn’t want to lose it.
He planned the proposal for sunrise at McAfee Knob in Virginia. “I thought I had lots of time but the knob snuck up on me,” he said.
As the proposal destination got closer, and the reality of not having a ring sunk in, Nate started to “act weird”, according to Sharon. “He was picking up foliage,” she said.
He was also taking a long time to use the privy in the morning. “I was trying to fashion a ring,” he said.
The day before they were to reach McAfee Knob, a storm forced them to seek shelter at the Pickle Branch Shelter. Earlier that day Nate had looked upward to ask Tom for permission to marry his daughter.
The morning after sleeping at the shelter, something caught Nate’s eye as he was coming back from his visit to the privy. He saw something shiny in the mud by a fire pit. “It looked like tin foil but it was pretty buried in the mud,” he said. “I had to dig it out. It was a wedding ring.” He took it as Tom’s way of saying yes to his question.
When he told Sharon about his discovery, she insisted he ask if it belonged to anyone. When nobody claimed it, she told Nate to leave it there. Nate hung the ring on a nail and they went on their way to the knob.
The proposal went off without a hitch at McAfee Knob, with Nate admitting he had no ring. Once he got a “yes” from Sharon, he told her the details of the ring he had found. “We have to go back and get it,” Sharon told him.
They completed the hike on July 12, got married on July 22, moved to downtown Philadelphia on July 31 and Sharon started medical school on Aug. 3.
Post-hike adjustment can be difficult for many thru-hikers, but they found life was just too busy for them to not keep moving. However, there were some changes that they couldn’t dismiss.
“Your sense of smell is heightened,” Nate said. “You smell people before you hear them coming.”
Riding in a car can be a fun experience when you haven’t done it for five or six months also. “Going 30 mph can feel like flying,” Nate said.
Thru-hikers may have to make some wardrobe purchases following a hike. It’s probable that days of hiking can trim the waistline, but Nate pointed out that a hikers feet can grow. “Your foot flattens out,” he said. “I went through three pairs of shoes on the trail.”
Change wasn’t a bad thing for either Nate or Sharon. “When you step away and come back, you really appreciate stuff,” he said.
That doesn’t mean that the hike is over. Both Nate and Sharon, and most likely their children, have no intention of becoming even slightly sedentary.
Nate’s initial meeting in March has turned into a weekly hiking club right here in our neck of the woods. Meetings are held on Wednesdays in order to plan a hike for the following Saturday. There is no fee to join the hiking club. Nate says he’s just happy to do what he loves. Meetings are held on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at Allegheny Outfitters in Warren.
Nate has also found multiple ways to give back to the trail since the 2015 experience. After their return to “civilization” Nate decided to create a miniature version of the sign at Mount Katahdin where thru-hikers pose. It is designed to hold the summit photo on top.
When he posted a photo of his sign on Facebook, people started asking where they could get one. Four years later, the signs are sold in multiple locations and a portion of the proceeds go back to the trail.
If you’d like to read more about the couple’s adventures visit betweentheblazes.com.
It’s estimated that 2 to 3 million visitors hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail each year. Most enjoy day hikes and short backpacking trips, but each year a fraction of those hikers complete the entire Trail. Since 1936, more than 20,000 hike completions have been recorded by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).
Each year the ATC gathers statistics on how many people attempt and complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. According to the numbers from 2017, more and more hikers are attempting the 2,190-mile thru-hike.
According to the ATC’s estimates, the number of hikers attempting a northbound (Georgia to Maine) thru-hike has more than doubled in just the past seven years, from 1,460 hikers in 2010 to 3,735 in 2017. Those numbers translate to a 155 percent increase.
The number of southbound thru-hikers (Maine to Georgia), has increased from 256 in 2010 to 489 in 2017, an increase of 91 percent.