The Appalachian Trail is a tough, unforgiving teacher

Appalachian Trail

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is no small feat.

Step-by-step is often the description given by those who do the deed, all 2,200 miles of it and all at one time.


It’s called a thru-hike, and it’s five, maybe six months of nothing but another day, another week, and another bunch of uphill miles to face. If it sounds like an impossible undertaking it is just that for some but a doable dream for others.

And so we meet once again with Hiram resident Chuck Defer, who did the Appalachian Trail this summer, end to end in 169 days. Go ahead, do the math. Impressive isn’t it?

Now home, four pairs of boots later, and somehow missing the endless trail and the special friends he met along the way, Defer is home.

Loaded with stories

He’s loaded down with great memories but more than anything, his best memories are found in the scores of colorful stories he is anxious to share — like the bead story he tells with pride, wonderment, and hope.

The story is about the beads he wears daily and probably will for a long while. A listener can almost see the scene in Defer’s eyes as he re-lives the day.

If anything, Defer’s beads show us just how small our world is, even the woodsy world that laces the Appalachian Trail and attracts every sort of person.

Catching a ride

Chuck Defer holding his beads

It seems that Defer had an important and previously scheduled medical test on his note pad. A little digging led Defer to a phone contact whom he connected with and was offered a ride to the nearest hospital lab — nearest meaning a walk out to a road and a long ride to a distant medical facility.

A really generous fellow, a dedicated fan of the Appalachian Trail and a regular hiker himself, George Lightcap by name, not only delivered Defer to his test but waited for him and drove him back to the trail. Once there, he presented Defer with a set of beads, telling him to wear them faithfully and that if he did he would be safe on the trail. End of story? Hardly.

Two or three states later, Defer was greeted by a hiker who congratulated Defer on his necklace. “George Lightcap beads, indeed,” the person said as he admired Defer’s treasured gift.

And so it went as Defer paced further north. Again and again, his beads drew attention, admiration, and congratulations on his luck for spending time with an Appalachian Trail legend and more so of receiving the handcrafted gift.

Trail legend

It seems the George Lightcap is indeed a legend, known and revered not only for his wit, giving lifestyle, and shared knowledge but for his long-practiced gift of making and giving beads, sometimes hundreds for sure but more likely by the thousands each year.

Decades ago Lightcap, a born teacher, presented young students with beads for achievement and motivation to do even more. Later, then teaching at the college level, students would recognize his name and ask if they too could work harder for beads.

Lightcap describes himself as an old man with a car. He’s not that at all, said Defer. Lightcap is a person full of life, a desire to share the best of it, and willingness to serve it one set of beads at a time. Defer assures us that Lightcap has touched the masses and will live forever with the each who was touched.

Trail angels

Then there are the Appalachian Trail angels. Defer describes them without wings but like a support team that waits quietly behind the curtain.

Indeed, he said, Appalachian Trail angels are nothing short of cheering fans of those who dare to tread North America’s finest trail. Defer said that every so often, the Appalachian Trail crosses or at least bumps a road and at the that spot one might expect to be greeted by one or several Appalachian Trail angels who might offer fresh water, treats, and maybe a grilled burger.

Many angels, according to Defer, are thru-hikers or day hikers themselves, or maybe just good neighbors, but just their presence and encouragement is a treat in itself.

Of course, there are lots of quickies such as the half-way challenge. Yep, a thousand miles into a thru-hike sets a tiny village where a chilling half-gallon of frozen ice cream waits each and every walker who thinks they can down the whole thing without bowing out to a total brain freeze.

Defer said he had been forewarned to choose vanilla because it would go down easier than any stronger flavor. Darn good advice, he said.

Defer said that the fewer ounces one carries on his or her back is critical. On day one of his trek, he met a strapping young construction worker who was kick-starting his hike with a huge and heavy load of camping gear. The young hiker lasted just one day. Indeed, the Appalachian Trail is a tough, unforgiving teacher, Defer said.


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Mike Tontimonia has been writing weekly columns and magazine features about the outdoors for over 25 years, a career that continues to hold the same excitement for him as it did at the beginning. Mike is a retired educator, a licensed auctioneer and marketing consultant. He lives in Ravenna, Ohio and enjoys spending time at his Carroll County cabin. Mike has hunted and fished in several states and Canada from the Carolinas to Alaska and from Idaho to Delaware. His readers have often commented that the stories about his adventures are about as close to being there as possible. He is past president of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Mike is also very involved in his community as a school board member and a Rotarian.



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