It has been said that life is about the journey and not the destination, and Fort Rucker retiree Robert Hagen knows the truth of that statement better than most.
Hagen, who turned 62 this year, recently completed a grueling 2,190 mile hike of the Appalachian Trail, which spans from Georgia to Maine. According to Hagen, the decision to hike the trail came more from curiosity than a lifelong desire to accomplish the task.
“About 15 or 20 years ago, I was riding motorcycles and ended up at Neels Gap in the middle of nowhere, and that’s the first time I ever stepped on the trail, and I thought ‘that’s neat, it goes all the way to Maine,’” Hagen said. “But there was a guy at work when I used to work at Knox Field who would go hiking the trail with a church group, and they would do parts of it a couple times a year, and he would talk about it for weeks when he came back. When I got ready to retire, I realized that even though I had lots of hobbies, none of them were very physical, and I didn’t want to turn into a couch potato.”
Hagen said that once he made the decision to hike, he began researching and preparing himself for the task, though no amount of preparation could truly get him ready for what he was about to face.
“I read a few books about it, watched YouTube video logs, and did research like that; then I bought gear and went out and did practice hikes in Conecuh Forest and local places like Henderson Park and Dale County Lake,” Hagen said. “I didn’t do any big conditioning; I thought it was just walking, but it’s not, because you’re going up and down mountains and very rugged terrain the entire time. I didn’t know what I was getting into; I like to walk and be outdoors, but I didn’t realize how challenging that trail would be.”
Hagen did his final preparation for the hike in the Talladega National Forest, where he spent six months testing his gear and making sure he was ready to tackle the Appalachians. His first day on the trail was April 12, 2017, beginning in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and finishing on Mount Katahdin in Maine. Hagen’s plan was to hike the back half of the trek first, then return to Harper’s Ferry and continue down to Georgia; however, an injury forced him to change his plans and take a hiatus from hiking altogether.
“I wanted to do it all in one year, because that’s called a thru-hike when you do it all in one year,” Hagen said. “But I hurt my foot before I got to Mount Katahdin, and it just didn’t go away. I wanted to hike down through Georgia, but about two days out from Harper’s Ferry I couldn’t walk anymore. I sat for about 8 months for doctors and physical therapists, and my foot never got back to 100 percent, but this year it was well enough for me to finish.”
Hagen returned to the trail March 31 and finished in the same spot he was forced to leave the trail last year. He said he found the hiking experience life-changing, though he has difficulty putting his experiences into words.
“It’s hard to explain,” Hagen said. “It’s a life changing experience; I don’t know how it’s changed me but I know I feel like I can’t sit still anymore. You walk anywhere from 8 to 12 hours a day; you’re climbing up 2,000 and 3,000-foot climbs and your body takes a whole lot of abuse but your mind doesn’t have a whole lot to do. I did a lot of thinking about what I could have done differently in life. I found out that I’m not quite the loner that I thought I was; I’ve always been kind of a loner, so I hiked the back half of the trail first, and when I got out there I found out that the people make the trail. There were really bad days where I absolutely didn’t want to take another step, but I’d meet someone or something would happen and the next morning I’d want to go again.”
One of Hagen’s biggest driving factors on the trail was his father, who was diagnosed with cancer two years prior.
“My father got cancer two years ago, and we talked about it and he said he wanted me to stay on the trail and finish,” Hagen said. “This year, a month and a half after I got on the trail, he was put in hospice, and I hiked the trail for him. I posted 2,000 pictures on social media so he could live through me. He passed the day I was on McCaffee Knob, which is the most photographed picture on the trail.”
Despite the difficulties he faced, Hagen values his time on the trail and encouraged others to experience it for themselves, though he emphasized the importance of preparedness.
“I want them to know the one thing that I can’t explain to them, and that’s that it’s hard – you can’t convey how hard it is until someone goes out there and experiences it,” Hagen said. “You do it day after day and walk in every kind of weather. Rain turns the trail into a little creek since the water has no place to go. It’s not what I envisioned it to be; I thought it would be a 2,000 mile walk, but the people who built the trail built it purposely to be difficult. Mentally making myself get up every day and walk was the biggest challenge; the weather will also make you want to quit when you’re wet and you’re walking down these boulders and you think you’re going to fall. Eighty percent of hiking is mental, 5 percent is gear, and 15 percent is physical. Every day you’ll want to quit, but tell yourself to keep going.”
Hagen said he’s exploring the possibility of hiking other trails, such as the Pacific Crest or the Continental Divide on the west coast. He’s also considering moving to the Appalachian Trail area and performing trail maintenance or helping other hikers along the way.
“Two months after I finished that’s all I can think about every day,” Hagen said. “I thought the purpose of the trail was to get from Point A to Point B, but the purpose of the trail is to hike and be out in nature. It’s an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”