For 256 days, Ryan Vaughn and Seth Urich walked.
On April 13, the two Athens locals completed the Appalachian Trail — a journey that began on July 31, 2012 and took them eight and a half months.
Vaughn and Urich, both recent college graduates, decided to attempt the daunting feat after one of their friends invited them to hike the trail’s Georgia section.
“We were talking about doing the Georgia section of the trail, and somehow, that evolved to doing the whole thing. I think we were just at a place in our lives that we could just take off and do this,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn, 24, graduated from the University of Georgia in December 2010 with degrees in philosophy and religious studies.
“We were both attracted to this idea of doing something completely different,” he said. “You could take the same amount of money and have a nice vacation down by the beach, but this is something not a lot of people do. We had a chance, a kind of gap in our lives between college and work, where we could do it, and we decided to take a shot.”
Most people who hike the trail start in Georgia and head north. Vaughn and Urich did the opposite — they were southbounders. Only 330 people attempted their route last year, with 71 succeeding.
The hikers, who hiked through Hurricane Sandy and winter in the North, had a scary run-in with weather in Tennessee. They hit a bad storm just as they got to the top of a mountain.
“The wind came in sideways, and it started hailing. We were both soaked, our rain gear was just overpowered by the amount of water, and it was so cold. We end up going four miles in this storm to get to shelter,” Vaughn said.
Storms on the trail can be fatal. A 50-year-old hiker, Richard Lemarr, died of hypothermia this year in the Smoky Mountains.
Before he left, Seth’s mom had warned him of the dangers of the trail.
“When Seth called that night, that was the first time that we could actually hear the fear in his voice that something really bad could have happened, that they could have been blown off that mountain or been struck by lightning,” Deborah Urich, Seth’s mom, said.
Being on the trail can help put things into perspective.
“When you run out of water, and you have to hike 12 miles without water, you start thinking about the importance of water,” Vaughn said. “The problems are much more simplistic, but more important.”
Hiking sometimes more than 20 miles a day, both of them lost weight on the trip: Ryan lost 50 pounds and Seth shed more than 100 pounds.
“It hasn’t sunk in that it’s an accomplishment, and it’s not even me trying to sound humble, but it’s just that we were out there for so long, I am just happy to be sleeping in a bed and have sheets at night and be able to go to a sink and get water and not having to pump water from a stream,” Seth said.
Both of the hikers agree, nothing can prepare you for the AT.
“You can talk about putting on a pack and hiking 20 miles a day over a mountain, but until you actually do it and experience that, you can’t understand,” Vaughn said.
Their mothers were worried about the boys when they first told her their plans.
“I looked over at him [Seth’s dad], and he said, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen to him?’ And I said, ‘Well, he could die,’ and he said, ‘Well, that could happen if he was crossing the street,’” Deborah said.
Despite their worry for his safety, Urich’s parents voiced their support of his adventure.
“If he’s going to die, I would rather it be when he was doing something he really wanted to do, and this was something he really wanted to do,” Seth’s dad, Bob, said.
Vaughn’s mom, Bonnie, can see how much this has changed her son.
“They both have grown and matured so much, and it was just a wonderful experience for both of them,” she said. “They did something that a lot of people wished they would have done when they were younger, and I’m glad they did it. They know they can push through anything.”
Vaughn and Urich have been friends since they were 4 years old. Neither one of the men had any backpacking experience before the trip.
“If you would have asked me two years ago if I would have ever hiked the AT, I would have laughed in your face,” Seth said.
Seth, who is 25, graduated from the University of North Georgia with a degree in applied environmental spatial analysis.
“One thing I knew was it was going to be miserable for the first month. I knew that,” he said. “Basically I was going to be uncomfortable, out of my comfort zone, tired, sore, hungry every single day for like a month. You have to go in kind of with a pessimistic view. You kind of have to go in like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be horrible,” so then when you have really good days, they are amazing.”
Along the way, they tested equipment for Backpacker Magazine and met a filmmaker who was hiking the trail and making a documentary, “Flip Flop Flippin’ 2,” about the people he met along the way.
Both the guys were given trail names during their time in the woods. Seth was Biggie Smalls, and Ryan was U-Haul.
“We were both given our names. I got mine because I was rapping. We were going into town. It was the first time we were going to hitch in Maine, and I was really happy, and I was running down the trail. I was singing Notorious B.I.G. or something. Singing Biggie Smalls,” Seth said.
Just like Seth’s, Ryan’s trail nickname was given to him by a fellow hiker, an observation that stuck.
“[Ryan] actually got his around the same day. I hurt my back on the Hundred Mile Wilderness. I slipped on a mountain and messed up my back pretty good, so he had to carry some of my gear. His pack looked ridiculous because it was so full. His pack was massive. Like, I’m talking about like twice the size of my backpack — looks wise. I don’t know if it actually carried twice as much weight but it looked like it was twice as big as mine. That’s how he got his name,” Seth said.
Social boundaries break down on the trail.
“It’s the biggest variety of people. You can’t judge people out on the trail because everyone is scruffy, you haven’t showered, you have beards, girls don’t shave their legs, everyone just is rugged, but you have no idea. We met plenty of doctors and people who just finished law school and people who have very promising futures, but they are all on the trail,” Seth said.
Out of all of the people they met on the trail, a few stood out. Seth met his girlfriend while hiking the hills of Vermont.
The intense conditions brought all of the hikers together.
“Every age group, every kind of person, we were all connected by the idea that we wanted to do this. It’s the only thing that really connects everyone out there,” Ryan said.
This trip sparked a passion in Ryan and Seth, and they both want to continue to hike in the future. But for now, both enjoy being home.
“I think they were the right combination to hike the trail together. Seth has a little fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants and serendipity kind of attitude, and Ryan is very practical and logical and plans things out, and I think they kind of balanced each other out quite well,” Deborah said.
When they finally made it to Springer Mountain, the final part of their incredible journey, their families met them to hike the last mile together.
Ryan and Seth were finally home — 2,180 miles later.