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Appalachian Dreaming
Montana Senior News, April/May 2014
When Charles “Chuck” Bissonnette decides to embark on an adventure, he thinks in long-distance terms. For Chuck, that means traversing major chunks of the continent on an intimate foot-powered level. In 1978, he bicycled from his Lakeside, Montana home to New England. Then in 2012, he trekked 2,018 miles along the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Georgia to Maine. Chuck had hoped to complete the entire 14-state trail that year but when Mother Nature ceased cooperating his hiking clock ceased ticking.

“I was in a remote mountainous area getting snow and ice. It was slippery and treacherous. Although I was upset about stopping, I knew it was the better part of wisdom because I had taken such a beating on the worst part of the trail,” recalls Chuck. “My boots were wet and my feet totally soaked, really cold. That night, I was so tired I forgot to put the boots in my sleeping bag with me. The temperature dropped to 20 degrees and my boots froze. To thaw them out, I had to pour boiling water into them and then hike five miles over a mountain in wet boots.”

Those two days were so tough, he almost cried—though it is hard to say whether the tears would have been shed out of pain or frustration at having to abandon his quest. Undaunted by the delay, this self-described “trail purist” traveled East again the following summer and walked every remaining inch of the famed footpath to complete the last 162 miles.

 “I’ve had a lifelong desire to hike the AT but my interest was really spurred on the bike trip. It seemed like a good adventure in a part of the country I’d not explored much,” remembers Chuck, who kept noticing AT signs while pedaling through New Hampshire. He dreamed about returning, however, it took 34 years before he could undertake the odyssey with an open calendar and months of careful planning behind him.

That first year, he hiked from February into October using the trail name of “Woodchuck.” The second year he slowed the pace to enjoy walking in Maine’s summer sunshine while nearing his goal. Along the way, he met other “through hikers” with monikers like “Firepit,” “Flapjack,” and “Rebound.” He savored ridge-top vistas from the Great Smoky Mountains. He camped with bears. He had the time of his life. In fact, it was such a transforming experience, Chuck bought a farmhouse in Damascus, Virginia to convert into a seasonal hostel where he could provide welcoming quarters for other trail hounds.

While loneliness may be an issue for some hikers, it was not for Chuck. A man comfortable companioning with his own thoughts, he relished the solitude of the trail with its not-to-be-missed opportunities to hear wind-rustled leaves, rock-tickled streams, and eagles swooping overhead.
“It’s nice to have company but I spent a lot of time alone. In North Carolina, I went two days without meeting anyone. Some nights, I was the only person in a shelter. But even when you are alone you aren’t lonely,” explains Chuck. “You’re too busy with the basics of hiking, cooking, and sleeping.Trail life doesn’t revolve around anything else.”
A typical day for him began at dawn when he would breakfast on oatmeal and cocoa before shouldering his 30-pound pack and heading into the morning with his two best friends—his map and guidebook. Any time he could cover five miles early in the day was considered a bonus.

“Morning is the nicest part of the day to hike, everything is fresh and beautiful. You get a good start on the day, too,” adds Chuck, “especially if the weather turns hot or closes in on you.”

 He would snack frequently on granola bars; stop for a peanut-butter-sandwich lunch; then resume trekking solo or with a fellow hiker moving at the same pace. As evening approached Chuck would debate between sleeping in a shelter or pitching his tent nearby. On the plus side, shelters offered a refuge from the elements along with company and conversation. On the minus side, they also included a loud symphony of snoring.

After chowing down on a freeze-dried dinner, he would replenish his water supply; check his itinerary for the next day’s journey; then collapse into sleep.
“Hikers’ midnight is 8 o’clock. Most of the guys are pretty much out by then. Even the youngsters are early to bed by 9,” says Chuck, a baby boomer who saw few trail sojourners of his generation. “But before going to sleep you want an idea of where you plan to hike the next day while remembering to be flexible. Since shelters are 10 to 15 miles apart, you need to keep that in mind, especially if it starts to rain. It’s hard to set up a tent in rain.”

Of all the traits required to hike the AT, Chuck rates preparedness high but patience higher.

“You have to prepare yourself mentally and physically to do something like this. Above all, though, you have to be patient with yourself, others, and the trail. Occasionally, I had to set goals of several yards at a time rather than miles and break the route into pieces. I had to stay in the now. Some hikers reach a mental point where they loose patience and they can’t do it anymore. Don’t ever think one mile is insignificant,” says Chuck. “Every step is necessary.”

To learn more about the AT, visit For Woodchuck Hostel information, email or call 406-407-1272.