A life changing journey on the trail  

  • A friend of Ross Breen’s made while hiking the Appalachian Trail stands atop an iconic rocky outcrop named "Charlies Bunion" in the Great Smokey Mountains. —Courtesy photo

  • Ross Breen of Bennington takes a quick selfie to send to Mom before he goes into the 100 Mile Wilderness. —Courtesy photo

  • This is the sign marking the southern entrance to the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. This section proved to be the toughest for Breen both physically and mentally, as going into this last stretch his body was completely exhausted, all his gear seemed to be failing simultaneously, and he was dealing with several injuries.  —Courtesy photo

  • Ross Breen of Bennington put 1,200 miles on his shoes before reluctantly switching them out for a new pair.  —Courtesy photo

  • A typical camp set up. —Courtesy photo

  • —Courtesy photo

  • The trail is marked by 2'x 6' white blazes like the one shown here in Southern Pennsylvania —Courtesy photo

  • Ross Breen of Bennington standing on top of Mt. Katahdin (the finishing point for Northbound Appalachian Trail through-hikers). —Courtesy photo

  • Ross Breen strikes a daring pose on McAfee Knob in Virginia. This one of the most photographed locations on the whole Appalachian Trail.  Courtesy photo

  • Signs similar to this the can be found all along the trail. —Courtesy photo

  • Above: Ross Breen of Bennington hiked in the dark of the early morning to catch the sunrise on Clingman's Dome in the Great Smokey Mountains. This is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail at an elevation of 6,644 feet. Pictured is a fellow hiker named "Papa Smurf" capturing the incredible sunrise. Left: Breen’s first look at Mt. Katahdin, seen in the background. The fall colors in Maine this year were the best he’s ever seen. Courtesy photo

  • Ross Breen of Bennington hiked up Mount Washington in New Hampshire with a group to watch an incredible sunset. It was reviled only by the sunrise he saw on Clingman's Dome.  —Courtesy photo

  • Ross Breen, 27, of Bennington —Courtesy photo

  • Ross Breen’s first look at Mt. Katahdin, seen in the background. The fall colors in Maine this year were the best he’s ever seen. —Courtesy photo

  • An American Flag painted on rocks in the mountains of New York. —Courtesy photo

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/1/2018 12:49:18 AM

Ross Breen, 27, of Bennington seized the chance six months ago to set out on a life-changing journey, taking half a year to hike the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200-mile long trail stretching along the eastern half of the United States, from Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It takes an average of about six months to hike in its entirety. 

Breen returned from his six-month hike on Oct. 5 both physically and emotionally changed, he said in an interview Thursday. 

“You go in knowing you’re going to come out more fit. But you don’t realize how much more compassionate and attuned to other people you’re going to become,” he said.

When you’re on the trail, he said, something as simple as getting water makes you think about who was there before, and who will come after you. You have to be aware, he said, of the impact you’re having, and hope that those who were there before you took the same care.

That mindfulness becomes a part of the trail culture, Breen said, and contributes to what those that hike it call “trail magic” – the idea that the trail will provide for you when you’re in need.

What “trail magic” is more often than not, he said, is people.

“I’ve seen people who’ve run out of food meet people that aren’t that much better off, who are still willing to share,” he said. “‘The trail provides’ is something you’ll hear over and over again.”

Breen said he went into the experience with little preparation. When he had the opportunity, he knew that if he waited, he’d never take the plunge, so he scrambled to get together equipment and set out, essentially from “couch to trail,” without much conditioning. He’d considered himself fairly savvy about outdoor life, he said, having grown up hunting and hiking and doing some overnight hiking trips. But he quickly found that the Appalachian Trail was going to outstrip his expectations. 

“I quickly learned how much I had to learn,” he said.

Though he started his journey alone, he made friends along the way, some of whom he hiked alongside for weeks at a time. 

The trail forges strong friendships, he said, perhaps because in order to hike alongside someone for that long, you need to have similar rhythms.

“It’s never a verbal agreement,” he said, of how he came to be hiking companions with some of his trail-mates. “It’s a conversation that continues for an hour, then two hours, then you’re making your camp together, then you’re planning your course together. Everything is very organic. You’re two like-minded individuals with similar styles and paces. That’s how you make friends out there.”

Even those who have a drastically different view, there’s something to learn from them, Breen said. He said he’s become a much more patient person since returning from his trip. 

“It’s a refreshing view of humanity, because the trail has so many good people. If you’re ever feeling cynical about humanity, that’s the place to go,” he said. 

Developing that patience was crucial for him in the last leg of the journey, he said, which is the toughest terrain offered on the trail, but also the most mentally taxing, even though he said the hiking offered in New England still has his heart over all of the other views he gathered along the way. 

“By the time I got to Maine, everything was failing – my gear, my body – and it was definitely the hardest mentally. It was like a Bermuda Triangle of challenge,” he said. 

In some ways, he said, it’s easier to push yourself when the bigger challenge lies ahead. The closer to the end of the goal, the more it seemed to weigh on hikers. Though he never considered not finishing, he could see how it would be easy to fall into that mindset, he said.

Now that he’s back home, and looking for a job after his six-month hiatus, Breen said he’s taken those challenges and hardships and all of the positive aspects to heart.

“It definitely changes you in ways you didn’t think of,” he said. “You’ll carry those things with you for a long time.”


Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT. 


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