HARPERS FERRY — Paul Longchamps has that forward tilt to his gait that betrays a man who’s been walking a long time.
He has. Come August, Longchamps expects he’ll be at the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine, capping a 2,184-mile slog up the East Coast that began in Georgia in February at the southern trailhead of the Appalachian Trail.
Upstate New York resident Longchamps – a thru-hiker or someone who is hiking the full length of the trail in one swoop – was on hand at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry last weekend – one of a number of hikers who took a day off to participate in the hiking season’s official spring kick-off event Saturday.
The day’s activities included presentations at the nearby Curtis Freewill Baptist Church, including one on a southbound thru-hike by Justin and Patrice Lavigne, who together manage the Bears Den Trail Center and a discussion on tactics and advice for women hikers.
May marks the arrival of northbound thru-hikers to Harpers Ferry, the psychological halfway point, said Laurie Potteiger, the information services manager at the visitor center.
Potteiger said the event is an opportunity for hikers to coach and help each other, trading tricks and swapping tales of the trail.
She said one of the more interesting things to come out of Saturday’s event was when thru-hiker Eric “Bomber” McKinley helped out a fellow who was starting from Harpers Ferry to do the whole trail, but was lugging a more than 60-pound backpack. “Bomber,” instructed the newbie to spread his gear out on the floor of the lounge and advised him which items were unnecessary. By the time the new hiker headed out, his pack weighed 18 pounds less, Potteiger said.
“He was able to send a number of extraneous items home or leave them here in our hiker swap box,” she said.
Potteiger said 129 visitors stopped by the center for the day’s activities.
Longchamps, a maintenance employee at Syracuse University who will turn 50 in July, goes by the trail handle Orange Lightening. He sat on a panel composed of a trio of current thru-hikers, who talked about their experiences along the first 1,000 miles of trail.
A lifelong outdoorsman given to long jaunts into the woods, Longchamps is tackling the Appalachian Trail for the first time, but he said he’s been preparing for it all his life; for the first 460 miles he carried a backpack given to him by his parents when he was 12. He eventually switched it for a lighter bag in Damascus, Va.
However ready, what Longchamps was not prepared for was the attention his hike has brought.
He’s developed a following at Syracuse, where in the fall he’ll return to a job, but not the one he held when he left. A screenprinted T-shirt that bears his trail name was also printed and distributed, the proceeds going to raise money for the university’s Outing Club. There’s even a two-minute video on YouTube, shot as Longchamps, then beardless and a good bit heavier, was just beginning his walk.
And Longchamps, who describes himself as the least plugged-in guy on the planet even has a blog and wears a satellite communicator that tracks his every move — he once got a phone call from the university seconds after he’d veered off the trail at Unicoi Gap in Georgia.
“They’re literally following my every move and putting a peg on a board where I’ve been,” he said. “I didn’t expect this kind of attention; I thought I was just going to slink away.”
Longchamps averages about 25 miles a day. He did Shenandoah National Park in four days. But his stop in Harpers Ferry caused him to rack up a number of zeroes, the term used to describe days when no trail miles are logged.
His biggest challenge, he said, was when a snafu with his bank left him unable to use his credit card to resupply. He got a little hungry.
What you won’t hear Longchamps do is complain. He said he’s been through too much in his life to do that — having been on his own from 16 after his father set fire to his family’s home.
“I know all the bad; I’ve been through all the bad,” he said. “So I can enjoy the trail without false hope of being disillusioned. The magic of the trail is you just let go and let things materialize.”