By Sue Botos
Even though Bob Grau was not an experienced hiker, when he saw the segment about the Appalachian Trail during the October 2009 Ken Burns television documentary about national parks, he knew he had to make the 2,182-mile trek.
“I said, ‘I’m going to do that,’ and my wife thought I was crazy, but it became a passion. I would wake up at night thinking about it,” Grau, 68, a retired professor of business administration at Cuyahoga Community College, told an audience recently at the Rocky River Public Library.
Three weeks before setting out on the journey, a fortune cookie message that read “A new voyage will fill your life with untold memories” seemed to confirm for Grau his destiny to walk the trail, which spans 14 states from Georgia to Maine and rumbles over 270 mountains. “It’s like climbing Mount Everest 89 times,” noted Grau.
The Berea resident began his journey on March 22, 2011, at the trail’s southernmost point, and took until September to reach Maine, hiking up to 13 hours a day. “I was one of the fortunate 24 percent to make it,” said Grau of the 414 hikers who completed the trek last year, out of 1,400 who started.
Grau said he spent half of the hike by himself, and half traveling with fellow hikers sporting trail names like Swamp Dog, Pilgrim, Dead Man and Bear Bait. Grau’s own trail moniker, Buckeye Flash, referred to his home state, and alma mater Kent State University.
Aside from seeing beautiful vistas in real time, and the challenge of finishing the trail, Grau said the hike was a good way to lose weight, stating that he went from 163 to 143 pounds. However, the 53-pound pack he began with seemed to grow heavier. “I bought my equipment twice,” recalled Grau, who replaced his 5-pound, two-person tent with a lightweight model that could be picked up with one hand. He also shipped home excess clothing and towels. “You use the same one to wipe off your face and your tent,” he noted.
Grau spent most nights in his tent, but was able to take advantage of shelters and hostels, often run by fellow hikers, which offered varying degrees of amenities, such as transportation to stores for supplies. He even spent 10 nights in a motel. Not considered cheating, Grau said it was just nice to experience air conditioning and watch TV for a while. At Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Grau’s family visited him.
He also spoke of “Trail Magic.” “This is unexpected hospitality from strangers. They would give you cold drinks, chips, or sometimes they’d set out a full picnic. The hiking community is very, very supportive. They always ask, ‘What can I do for you?’ They feel bad for those who drop out.”
Grau experienced that concern first-hand when he slipped on some rocks and broke his ankle in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. “I called an orthopedic surgeon I met 10 days earlier,” recalled Grau, who was advised that he could keep hiking with the aid of an air cast. A fellow hiker, traveling in the opposite direction, went out of his way to get the cast, while another brought Grau food from a nearby hostel.
Counting calories was not a priority, according to Grau, who said hikers can burn 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day. Peanut butter, bagels, flatbread and cheese were his staples, along with instant potatoes. Edibles were stored in Kevlar bags, which even bears could not bite through.
Grau said the terrain of the trail ranged from smooth, to pine needles, to wooden boards, to piles of rock. His pictures showed such features as “The Guillotine,” a rock wedged between a narrow passage, and the 18-inch-wide “Lemon Squeezer.” “Maine had the most spectacular beauty,” he recalled, adding that part of the trail included a boat ride across the Kennebunk River.
Future hikes have been put on hold while Grau works on a book journaling his adventure, although he said he is planning a trip to the Smoky Mountains next year. He said proceeds from the sale of his book will benefit Journey of Hope, which provides financial assistance to cancer patients and their families.