About 80% of the 4,000 or so who start an Appalachian Trail thru-hike each year don’t finish. Brian Davidson of Orlean was one of the determined 20% who accomplished the 2,194.3-mile journey, overcoming a broken foot and bonding with an inspiring group of comrades along the way.
The 2010 Fauquier High grad took an uncommon route before finishing on Nov. 27. His meandering seven-month “flip-flop" hike saw him head both north and south and finish in the middle in Hartford, Tenn.
Davidson, 30, started out the conventional way on April 15 in Springer Mountain, Ga., walking north through early May before a stress fracture on the third metatarsal of his left foot stopped him in Tennessee. He came home to Fauquier County to get his injury diagnosed.
After a few weeks home resting and babying his foot in a protective boot, he returned, skipping ahead some 740 miles north to eventually reunite with his “trail family,” an international cast of 12 similar-minded 20- and 30-somethings he’d connected with in the early days. The pack regrouped near the New York border.
“I think I’m an introvert, I did not expect to be part of a family,” said Davidson. “That was my favorite part of the trail. It made me realize how much I can enjoy a group of people. It was pretty wonderful. We all wanted to stay together.”
Members of his party included Eli, an Australian who had previously hiked the grueling Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. “He was a beast. He had no trail name, but we called him ‘Trail Dad,’’’ Davidson said.
There were two Irish women, “High Kick,” who fell in love with the AT from a YouTube video, and “ZIP Code,” who left early due to visa issue, and “Brunch,” who extolled the virtues of big meals eaten between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
There was “Fuega,” who excelled at starting campfires, and “Timer,” whose watch went off at 1 p.m. every day. “Wiki” was named for Wikipedia because he knew everything. “Tarzan” didn’t use a tent or tarp and looked like the fictional jungle character. And Texan “McConaughey,” who vlogged the whole trail under the YouTube channel “Matthew Mayer Hikes.” “Snickers” was from Quebec.
Davidson’s trail nickname was “Slipknot,” bestowed after a somewhat clumsy attempt to hoist his foodbag over a branch at night. The bag fell and tightened around his finger, requiring a knife to cut him free. “There was 20 pounds of pressure on my finger, and I couldn’t get it off,” said Davidson. “Big rookie move. So they gave me the name Slipknot.”
On Sept. 30 the group summited Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the iconic finishing line for northbound AT hikers. “It’s the most difficult climb on the trail and felt like the spiritual end for sure, but because I hiked in a strange order, I had to hike for two months more after that,” he said.
After a break in Boston, his dad, Alan, delivered him to Mile 981 near Markham to gut out the final 740 miles. Trail family member Brunch joined him for two weeks in early November, but the final push was mostly him and the woods. He completed the stretch in just 45 days, finishing without a lot of fanfare -- but a great feeling of accomplishment -- on Nov. 27 at Standing Bear Farm in the northeastern tip of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
“I have a bad habit of leaving projects unfinished and I said, ‘Let’s not leave this one unfinished, too.’ I proved to myself I can wrap this up and push through,” he said.
Davidson began the AT after extensive research on gear but not a lot of long hikes in advance. Besides a broken foot, he was briefly sidelined by giardia. The AT’s grinding ascents and descents also took a toll.
“You wake up pretty stiff and uncomfortable every day. You stretch it out and the pain seems to go away after two or three miles. The body figures you’re not going to give it a break and gives up,” he said.
Normally 6-foot-2, 150 pounds, the lanky 2014 Virginia Tech grad bulked up to 175 to prepare. He weighed about 160 at the end. “I have calves that are huge and there’s a muscle in front of my shin that has crazy definition,” he said. “When you walk you get good at walking at the expense of other things. My upper body is gone.”
Now he is getting caught up with his work as a patent analyst and catching up with his hobbies: disc golf and a 1985 Toyota Celica Supra that he’s restoring. Another long hike – perhaps out west or a 400-mile trail in Jordan -- is possible in the next few years.
“It’s setting in now what I did,” he said.