WEST VIRGINIA – Former Glocester resident and Ponaganset High School graduate, Class of 1992, Matthew Costello, is on a journey, both literally and figuratively, which began on September 1. His goal? One thousand miles on the Appalachian Trail, heading south to Georgia.
“It was a long dream of mine,” he said.
Costello, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Rhode Island, and a master’s degree in holistic leadership from Salve Regina University, said there were other factors besides fulfilling a dream that led to his decision as well, all of which seemed to work together to inspire him to start the journey. The program for which he was working closed, and his lease was up. An old poster of the trail hung on his bedroom wall, beckoning.
“I had the time, I figured ‘Why not?'” he recalled. “The next compelling driver was my deep love for the forest, the power of nature and vigorous exercise to stir the spirit and travel and adventure. The third tier was a little more personal and existential. Losing my mother a year and a half ago and the ensuing work that followed was difficult and depleting. I knew that beyond the grief were big questions, about my place in the world, and what home means, and that I needed a large journey to begin to get perspective and breathe and allow answers to unfold.”
And so the journey began, heading south from Mt. Everett in Massachusetts. Along the way, Costello, 49, posts daily logs of his thoughts, encounters and revelations:
AT: day 24
Rain. Water. Storms. Drenched. Soaked. The mental game goes on, walking walking walking towards some unseen goal in a gray dark forest. “Where am I?” Doubt about everything creeps in. A decision to bail out down a side trail, fighting off chills, then catching a lift to a small Pennsylvania town. Walking in like a cross between a western cowboy vagrant and a fisherman coming to port. Steely eyed at the local abodes; open hearted at potential. The hostel is warm, and the pub has Guinness and a Ukrainian flag and Jambalaya and a bar that has the entire AT embedded into it. This is the blessing.
Preparing for the trip was nothing new to Costello, who has hiked and backpacked a great deal over the years and in a variety of places across the United States. He put in miles of walking in the months before the journey began to be ready for the challenge.
“You can’t develop true ‘trail legs’ without actually carrying a pack up a mountain, but you can get your feet in a decent place,” he explained. “Other than that, it was just really going through gear and looking at blogs, reviews of stuff, etc. When you are planning on carrying items 1,500 miles, you tend to really overthink everything about it.”
His pack consisted of basically a small one person tent; an ultralight down quilt; sleeping bag; butane cook stove; a pot; water bag, filter and bottle; a food bag; clothes bag; sandals; foot care; hiking poles; and a battery bank and charging cords. The average backpacker, he said, burns 4,000 calories a day. That means when he gets the chance to eat a meal in one of the towns along the way, it is important to load up with as many calories as possible.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail, however, brought different experiences and different challenges, many of which were unexpected.
“What I think is most surprising is the sort of cultural/historical nature of the travel,” he said. “Being on the East Coast, it’s not as wild or remote as the Pacific Crest Trail or even the Long Trail, which continues through Vermont to Canada. But it has these poignant moments of experiencing little strange places, like camping on monastery grounds or a deli yard… walking across the Hudson River and then through a zoo, or having lunch and a beer with the locals in some odd little (New Jersey) village that welcomes hikers with open arms. It feels like a secret alternative universe where kindness and appreciation for life is abundant.”
Costello usually puts in 15-20 miles a day, depending on the weather and the terrain. Sometimes he sleeps in a shelter, sometimes in a tent, sometimes in the open air. Other times he may be taking a day off to dry out and reset after walking through a tropical storm or other weather event, doing some laundry and resting his feet in the process. The trail varies in other ways as well. At one point it was partially blocked by a private deer farm. Other times, Costello found himself traversing rocky outcroppings and muddy terrain, steep inclines and descents, and miles of forest. So far, no bears, he added. But, of course, there were other unexpected events, as well:
AT Day 26: Well, awoke to the news that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy had put out a warning that an “armed and dangerous” man was on the loose and had been last sighted on the section of trail I was about to head out on. And it was raining, again. So rather than get soaked again and waiting in a shelter for this character to arrive, a fellow hiker and I decided to shuttle ahead one town to Boiling Springs, get a hostel and start hiking tomorrow. So I’m sitting here with a Benedictine monk watching Field of Dreams on VHS… “Is this heaven?”—”No, It’s Iowa…”
Other unexpected encounters include a variety of people, not just hikers, he has met along the way. The majority of hikers, he said, were heading north to the end of the trail at Mt. Katahdin, Maine, hoping to make it there by early October. Going south, he found was a good deal more solitary, but not entirely lonely.
“I ended up hiking for two weeks with a Ukrainian-American, who emigrated 30 years ago to Chicago,” recalled Costello. “He had a great sense of adventure, humor, and perspective on society/politics/America. (He was) also a pretty serious amateur pilot and just had a way with people. He got us a lot of Trail Magic.”
“My other hiking buddy is a Benedictine monk/priest who is on a sabbatical. (It was a) fascinating sort of journey, as he seems to bring a certain bumbling/inquisitive spirit to his journey. (He) brought a flask of wine and communion wafers with him, and sneaks off to say Mass every evening. Beyond those two it’s been a revolving door of small town people sort of looking at our smelly ‘rockstar hobo’ get-ups and mostly genuinely curious about the what, why, and where of it all…”
The trail, he adds, has affected him in ways that are hard to put into words. It has been not only a physical journey, but a mental, emotional journey as well.
“The best parts are definitely the community and kindness of everyone involved, the sense of freedom and competence that comes from being strong and fit, the sheer constant aesthetic of being immersed in the woods,” says Costello. “It’s hard to explain, I shed tears walking across the Delaware River out of a deep patriotism rooted not in politics, but in the land itself.”
As the journey progresses, so does Costello’s sense of wonder, excitement and adventure, as he continues to head south, hoping to make Georgia by his 100th day. As of October 3, it was day 32 and counting, and he had just crossed the state line into West Virginia.
“The most surprising thing is the constant sense of adventure and surprise and novelty,” he said. “On paper every day should be about the same, but whether it’s the terrain, the views, the historical/cultural landscape, or the exuberant kindness of strangers, my imagination and sense of exploration hasn’t receded at all. Even today we stopped for a slice of pizza in a place called Cascade, Maryland, and ended up getting a four mile ride to the trailhead from a Jamaican fellow and another gal just from chatting in the parlor for awhile. It’s weird coming from sometimes stoic Rhode Island. By the way, on the trail it is customary to go not by your ‘real’ name, but by a ‘trail’ name. The rule of thumb is that it be bestowed upon you by others on the trail somewhere, so there’s always a story. Mine’s ‘Rhody,’ given to me for obvious reasons by a large gregarious crowd of people from Indiana one evening by the campfire.”
And, so, for “Rhody,” the journey continues….