No Rest for the Weary: Lebanon’s Morrill Finds Ending AT as Hard as Starting

  • Alexander Morrill, of Lebanon, N.H., and Grace Rivera, of Phoenix, atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin at the conclusion of their Applachian Trail through-hike on Aug. 25, 2017. The two hikers connected early in their five-month trek and covered the majority of the 2,181-mile route together or within larger groups.

  • A turtle encountered along Lebanon resident Alexander Morrill’s through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

  • Above: Lebanon’s Alexander Morrill catches the sunrise at McAfee Knob, near Catawba, Va., during his through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, on May 27. The former Lebanon High and UNH offensive lineman completed his trek on Aug. 25 after 148 days. Below left: A snowy encounter along the AT at North Carolina’s Snowbird Gap on April 11.

  • Alexander Morrill, of Lebanon, shows off his muddy first pair of hiking shoes early in his Appalachian Trail through-hike in late April. He went through four pairs of boots on the trip, getting between 300 and 500 miles from each set.

  • A snowy encounter at North Carolina’s Snowbird Gap along the Appalachian Trail on April 11.

  • The Appalachian Trail offered frequent reminders to hikers of how far they’d come and how far they’d still to go, as Alexander Morrill, of Lebanon, displayed in this photograph from the Pennsylvania-New Jersey state line on July 16, 2017.

  • Piles of rocky cairns greet hikers along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia in an undated photograph.

  • Alexander Morrill, of Lebanon, takes in a view of the Hudson River in southern New York during his summer Appalachian Trail through-hike in an undated photograph.

  • A rattlesnake encountered during Lebanon resident Alexander Morrill’s through-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

  • Alexander Morrill, of Lebanon, N.H., meets one of the wild ponies that visit hikers as they pass through Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park along the Appalachian Trail in early May 2017. (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 9/23/2017 11:51:36 PM
Modified: 9/23/2017 11:51:37 PM

Lebanon — He grabs the 45-pound barbell plate, stands up, whips it from his waist to his chest a half-dozen times or so in quick succession and puts the weight back down. Then it’s off to a cable pull or some other exercise machine, ever always in motion.

This would be Alexander Morrill training for a University of New Hampshire football season in any other situation over the past few years. Except the Lebanon native and Lebanon High School graduate finished with Durham last spring. He’s done playing football. And there are about 90 fewer pounds of him since his last UNH snap, back in his 310-pound playing days.

Having completed his Appalachian Trail through-hike late last month, Morrill has found comfortable stillness a difficult thing to achieve.

The 23-year-old began his 2,200-mile AT trek on March 31 atop Georgia’s Springer Mountain alone, well-prepared but not possessing much intuition about what he was attempting. By the time he ascended Maine’s Mount Katahdin on Aug. 25, he’d shared his experiences via social media over 148 days spent largely in the wilderness and had made acquaintances out of people he’d never known, from places he’s yet to visit.

Getting started wasn’t as hard as stopping has been.

“The whole trip, playing it over my head, the whole time you’re getting up (Katahdin), you’re very psyched because you’ve accomplished something incredible,” Morrill said during a break from a recent workout at the CCBA’s Witherell Recreation Center. “But at the same time, you don’t want to summit because that means it’s over. You’ve met so many incredible people, seen so many incredible (sights), you get to the top and you want to turn around and head south.

“Don’t get me wrong; there were days I didn’t want to hike. … But now that it’s over, I find myself just wanting to go out and hike or be active. I can’t slow down at all, and that’s kind of hard for me right now.”

People attempt the AT for a variety of reasons. Morrill encountered a variety this summer: a Vietnam War veteran trying to bury memories, two women mourning the deaths of their sons, recent college graduates like himself with the time to take on a challenge.

Hikers may not know what fully awaits them on the trail, but they’re always willing to share it with others. Informal families form, and together they pass the experience through discussion, communion, cards and a lot of walking.

“It all-around changes you,” said Grace Rivera, 23, of Phoenix, with whom Morrill spent the most time on the through-hike. “Now that I’m back home, I notice like my brain can’t shut off. I need to constantly be doing something, or I’m not satisfied. All I want to do is hike, but Arizona is so hot right now, so I can’t go out and hike.

“There’s so much time to think, and the clarity, exercising those endorphins. I feel addicted to through-hiking right now. It’s such an adrenaline rush. Every day you’re working toward some bigger goal.”

Morrill picked up his trail name, Bigfoot, within a couple of days of the trek, when he accidentally startled a sleeping hiker. He first ran into Rivera — trail-named Katniss, for her archery acumen, like the protagonist of The Hunger Games — in the Smoky Mountains, about two weeks in. They would be together, either by themselves or in larger groups, for nearly the entire remainder of their trip.

As a loose-knit family — one that included, at one time or another, girls and guys trail-named Oz, Chip, Smoky Bones, Atlas, Smalls, Goalie and Hubba Hubba, among others — they woke up to snow in North Carolina, trudged for days under green-leaf canopies without a view, avoided stepping on snakes, came to grips with being many insects’ daily snack. Then came the payoffs: a spectacular sunrise atop a rock outcropping in Virginia, petting wild horses, viewing the Hudson River in the deep distance, climbing above a New England treeline, absorbing nature.

“You kind of get in your head a little bit when you’re out there,” Morrill said. “There were times when I’d have conversations with myself, like full conversations … and I’d be like, ‘What am I doing? Stop. You need to find someone to talk to.’

“I feel like, week 2 or week 3, I kind of got into that routine of waking up, eating, hiking, eating, hiking, eating, sleeping. That was the routine every day. … It was definitely tough to get into a routine of doing all those things, but after that month my body started feeling better. I was losing weight. I got in better shape, and that’s when I realized I needed to, not slow down, but stop and enjoy everything more and meet more people and talk to more people and make those connections and friendships that I ended up making.”

Morrill had ample support back home in Lebanon. His half-brother, Nick DePalo, came out on occasion to hike sections. A relation in Virginia hosted Morrill, Rivera and their group during a break. When Morrill needed supplies shipped to a certain spot on the trail, his mother, Theresa DePalo, sent them on their way. Morrill’s group bedded down briefly at his home as they passed through the Upper Valley in early August.

Similarly, the group met up with the AT’s famed trail magic at times when it was most needed. Morrill recalled the snowy North Carolina morning, where a stranger ferried hikers down from a ridge in his truck, knowing someone might need the help. Another rainy day, at a road crossing in Virginia, the crew ran into a family grilling hot dogs and offering donuts, snacks and sodas to anyone needing a bite to eat.

Rivera found the unanticipated hospitality a highlight of her hike.

“I was really shocked by the humanity on the trail,” she said. “The kindness and people who would go out of their way to help us any way they could. I’d never experienced something quite like that.”

Nor did Rivera — who grew into the idea of an AT through-hike while completing courses at a Washington state wilderness college earlier in the year — realize the work involved in such an undertaking or the rewards it would offer upon accomplishment.

“That first day (April 1), I was hiking with a guy named Dan; he wanted to do 27 miles, and at that time I had never computed how far that was, especially on the trail,” Rivera said. “I said I could probably do that. We made it to 20 miles by 6 o’clock; he wanted to keep going, but I’m absolutely dead. I’m thinking there’s no way I can do this. …

“It’s hard to grasp in the beginning. You have to take it day by day. It’s not how long you take or your progress. That’s how I made it through.”

Morrill and Rivera both are gradually reintegrating into their respective homes. Both are either back to work or seeking a job. They both talk of needing to save some money. They still communicate regularly.

And they both can see themselves hitting the long, hard trail again someday. There are two other long-distance routes out there — the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail through five Rocky Mountain states and the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail in California, Oregon and Washington. The remaining jewels of a through-hiker’s triple crown, the CDT and PCT are both more remote than the AT and frequently achieve five-digit elevations.

After a five-month walk in the woods, however, the time has come to be still … or at least negotiate an acceptable truce with the stillness.

“It turned out to be so much more than just a hike,” Morrill said. “The people I met, the memories I’ve made, just everything I saw and did, it will just stick with me forever.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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