Stops on 2,150-mile Appalachian adventure

BETHANY - Al Wohlpart took a welcome break from hiking the 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail to visit a friend here recently. He "popped out" from the famous Georgia-to-Maine footpath at Kent, near where the trail crosses into Connecticut's northwest corner for 53 miles, and then enjoyed a lift to Laticrete International's world headquarters in Bethany for a reunion with its president, David Rothberg.

The two men, both adventurers, met on a kayaking and rafting trip in Utah's Desolation Canyon last fall. Learning of Wohlpart's plans for the "AT," as it's known, Rothberg invited the retired Tennessee biology professor to stop by his company's spacious offices and plant for a tour and a stay at his Woodbridge home.

Looking tan and as fit as the proverbial fiddle, Wohlpart, 64 next month, smiled as he recalled how his solo journey began March 3 on Springer Mountain in Georgia in warm rain "and quickly got into snow and ice for a solid week."

Except for a brief interlude, snow dogged him for most of the first three weeks. At "Max's Patch," a "bald" or mile-wide open mountain area in Tennessee, three hours drive from his Oak Ridge home, Wohlpart suffered a near death experience after emerging above the treeline.

The wind was howling across the vast meadow, icy snow pellets stung his face like bullets and he was wallowing in snow to his knees for three exhausting hours. "I feared for my life," the bearded hiker said.

After descending, Wohlpart said, "I was so beat, I called my wife Pam and said, 'Come and get me.I've had it.' " His face was red and swollen from the ordeal, but after two days rest he was back on the trail heading northward. He plans to be on Mount Katahdin's 5,267-foot summit, the AT terminus, by mid-August.

Connecticut has been the hottest and muggiest part of the trip so far, he said.

Wohlpart is setting a stiff pace, walking an average of 17 to 18 miles a day. His longest day was 26 miles in New Jersey.

In addition to weather extremes, Wohlpart has had several encounters with bears. In one he and bruin come up opposite sides of a railroad embankment to suddenly confront each other. The bear, like others, was not aggressive and fled.

There have been glorious moments, too. The highlight to date was the North Carolina highlands. At one meadow-covered plateau the view opened out into a "you could see forever" panorama of range after range of blue mountains and deep valleys. The scene turned apprehensive, however, when Wohlpart noticed the smoke of grass fires approaching. He began to look for an escape route when he realized it was a controlled vegetation "burn."

Wohlpart previously hiked the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada over two summers with a partner. He decided to go by himself this time "to see how I would cope with being alone in a natural environment." His past outdoor experience included the National Outdoor Leadership School program in the Rockies and leading college wilderness trips. "I like adventure," he said.

"I loved being alone in the daytime and could walk alone and be totally happy," he said, but evenings were lonely.

One exception was the four days his grandson Michael, 10, hiked with him in New Jersey's Kittatinny Mountains. The youngster grew homesick at night until they placed their sleeping bags together and " he snuggled into me," grampa reported.

Wohlpart carried everything he needed on the trip in his 40-pound pack, going off trail every six to eight days to restock food and other supplies. The trail guide pinpointed water sources or he purified steam water. Where lean-tos were not available he used a small tent. After the first week he slept peacefully, he said.

Wohlpart began walking at 6:30 every morning and ended 12 hours later, with half an hour for lunch and two 15-minute breaks.

Although he met relatively few people (mostly younger men), some were noteworthy. One middle-age man was walking from Key West, Fl., to the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada. Then there was the young man dragging a 12-foot, 50-pound cross on trail segments "to remind people Jesus loves them," Wohlpart said.

A family with five children (the youngest 18 months) was working its way from north to south when they passed by. The "Barefoot Sisters," in their 20s , had walked about half the way without boots because they gave them blisters - until they ran into snow.

Wohlpart recently completed writing a book about his Pacific Crest hike. Not a diary, it provided a springboard for reflecting back on growing up in the United States and Germany, the joy of teaching at Kenyon College ("the highlight of my life') and coming to terms with his retirement, which had led to feeling he was no longer contributing. Most recently he served as vice president of a multi-university program associated with Oak Ridge National Laboratories.

The Pacific trail adventure provided the linkage among his reflections, he said.

Wohlpart headed back on the AT at Kent, despite rain, last week. As he pushes steadily north his new Connecticut friends wish him good health, fair weather - and a glorious view at the end of the journey.