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AT Trip Becomes Hike of Self-Discovery

  • Kyle Castillo of West Lebanon walks on the Velvet Rocks section of the Appalachian Trail in Hanover, N.H., on Oct. 28, 2013. Castillo, who started hiking the trail in Georgia this April, finished hiking the trail earlier this month. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Kyle Castillo of West Lebanon walks on the Velvet Rocks section of the Appalachian Trail in Hanover, N.H., on Oct. 28, 2013. Castillo, who started hiking the trail in Georgia this April, finished hiking the trail earlier this month.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kyle Castillo of West Lebanon, recently finished hiking the 2200 Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

    Kyle Castillo of West Lebanon, recently finished hiking the 2200 Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.
    Valley News - Sarah Priestap Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kyle Castillo of West Lebanon walks on the Velvet Rocks section of the Appalachian Trail in Hanover, N.H., on Oct. 28, 2013. Castillo, who started hiking the trail in Georgia this April, finished hiking the trail earlier this month. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap
  • Kyle Castillo of West Lebanon, recently finished hiking the 2200 Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. <br/>Valley News - Sarah Priestap

Growing up in Hanover, Kyle Castillo often observed curiously as Appalachian Trail through hikers made their way through town.

Taking on the trail himself this summer, Castillo got to know — and host — plenty of them.

Five months after leaving Georgia’s Springer Mountain to embark on the 2,180-mile journey through 14 states, Castillo crossed the Ledyard Bridge into Hanover in early September. Wanting his hiking brethren to feel welcome in his hometown, he and his mother, Doreen Dworzanski, made their home available for hikers to stay for the weekend. Many took advantage, with several dozen crashing at their condominium over three nights.

“There were, like, 30 people there at one point,” said Castillo, who turned 21 on the Fourth of July while on the trail. “We wanted to give people a place to stay, a place to shower and do laundry, have some food and some beers.

“They definitely came,” he added with a laugh. “There were something like three dogs there, too, and a cat. I have no idea where the cat came from.”

Though exhausting to cook for so many, Dworzanski enjoyed all the company. “It was so much fun,” she said. “They were so appreciative.

“When they left, the place was spotless. They vacuumed; they did the dishes. Every one of them said, ‘Thank you so much for having us. What can we do to help?’ ”

Inspired by day hikes with his older brother, Ryan, Castillo planned and saved for the trip after graduating from Hanover High in 2010.

He flew to Georgia and headed north on the trail beginning April 3. It didn’t take him long to realize he needed warmer gear.

“It was really cold and hilly for the first month,” he noted. “I’d done some day hikes, but nothing like this. I kind of took a lot of days off at first. I kept having to get more gear.”

Obtaining his trail legs as he continued through the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee and into Virginia, Castillo engaged in the opportunity to reflect on his life.

“When you’re out there for so long, you can really find yourself in certain ways,” he said. “You get to the top of the mountain and you really feel a sense of inner peace, even if the weather’s bad. You’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of hours in the wilderness, so you have a lot of time to learn about yourself.”

Castillo also socialized, such as when he was issued the trail nickname Quinoa by a fellow hiker.

“Quinoa is a grain that’s kind of like a super-food because it’s really nutritious, but not everyone likes the taste, and it’s kind of hard to make (into a meal),” Castillo explained. “The first time I heated it up on a stove and gave it to someone to try, he gagged on it. Said it was the worst thing he ever had and started calling me Quinoa, so that was what stuck for my trail name.”

Castillo also departed from the trail on Independence Day for his 21st birthday. Having already reached Pennsylvania, he received a ride to Washington, where he spent two days off the AT visiting attractions in the nation’s capital.

“I figured you only turn 21 once, so I decided to spend a couple days there,” Castillo recalled. “The fireworks were awesome. I went to the Washington Monument. I went to a Nationals game. It was a great time. I took a train back to Pennsylvania to get back on the trail where I left off.”

After navigating the Keystone State’s notoriously awkward paths strewn with baseball-sized rocks, Castillo made strong progress through New Jersey, New York and New England, save for the three-night holdover while hosting company at his home.

“There are some pretty big mountains (in New England). You’ve got Mount Greylock (in Massachusetts), you’ve got Killington, you’ve got the Whites,” he said. “But you really have your trail legs at that point, and everything is kind of methodical.”

Castillo reached Maine’s so-called “100 miles of wilderness” in early October, traversing the AT’s final stretch to Mount Katahdin during peak foliage season. He completed the journey on Oct. 14, more than six months after leaving Georgia.

“There were about 15 of us who finished together, summited Katahdin at the same time,” Castillo said. “It was so beautiful out. One of the people I was with, Tumbleweed, said she didn’t want to summit. She didn’t want to get off the trail and go back to the real world.”

Another pair of Upper Valley hikers, cousins Stephen and Josh Whipple, also hiked the Appalachian Trail this year, with no shortage of serendipitous moments.

In Lee, Mass., the pair visited Josh’s dad, Rodney, and their aunt, Elizabeth.

“We said bye to them and got back on the trail, but I ended up seeing them again,” Stephen Whipple, of Hartford, recalled. “I went into Lee to get some food and snacks for the people I was with, and they drove by in the minivan. They were, like, ‘I thought you were back on the trail,’ and gave me a ride back (to the trail).”

The pair reached the Northeast in time to attend the wedding of Stephen’s sister, Jauntessa, and groom Travis Ash in late August. The ceremony wasn’t the last Stephen would see of the couple while on the trail, however.

Having separated from Josh, Stephen Whipple was at a brew pub in Caratunk, Maine, when a familiar face strolled in. “They were up there for part of their honeymoon, I guess, but I had no idea. All of a sudden. Travis comes walking into the brew pub. My sister couldn’t believe it.”

A Hartford High graduate, Stephen Whipple turned 21 on Sept. 24, one week after completing the trail. Josh Whipple, 21, of West Lebanon, completed the AT on Oct. 10.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.