Deep in the mountains of Virginia, along a trail few ever complete, Elliot Clavino came face to face with death.
“I had just come into the Shenandoah when this bear charged at me,” said Clavino, 37, of Calhoun, who recently finished hiking the Appalachian Trail. “He gave me this big growl and came within 5-feet of me. I thought I was dead. I thought it was over.
“But I did what I was supposed to do. I yelled, ‘Whoa bear,’ started barking and yelling, using my hiking sticks to make me look bigger. The bear finally went about its business.”
It was just another day on the trail for Clavino, who began his trek on April 7 from Springer Mountain and finished Sept. 6 at Mount Katahdin, Maine.
It would be inaccurate to say that Clavino took to the trail on a whim, but it was simply curiosity and the desire for a challenge that put the novice backpacker to the ultimate test.
“My in-laws tried it a couple of years ago but they came off for personal reasons,” said Clavino, a native of Jacksonville, Ala., who has been living in Calhoun since 2007.
“While they were getting ready for it, I got interested and started wondering what they were doing out there.”
Of course, hiking the Appalachian Trail takes a little more than just desire and a backpack.
After sufficiently researching what he would need to know to make the trek, Clavino still had to find the time to “thru-hike” the entire 2,180 mile trail.
He considered hiking it a bit of a time, but that didn’t settle in his mind. It was all or nothing.
It’s also not cheap to hike the trail.
Clavino estimated that he spent roughly $4,000 on the trip on everything from supplies to blackberry ice cream at a little restaurant off the trail.
It might have been out of reach until the company he was working for closed and he chose a severance package rather than relocating.
He would not miss his opportunity.
Twists and turns
In the first entry of his travel journal written just days before he took to the trail, Clavino wrote:
“I’m ready to get started, (can) hardly wait. I think that my father-in-law has decided to take this challenge with me... he’ll make a great hiking partner.”
On the Appalachian Trail, things don’t always work out as planned.
Early in the trip, Clavino’s father-in-law hurt his knee and had to abandon the hike.
Clavino pressed on and soon realized he had both the mental toughness and the physical ability it took to navigate the trail alone.
“I think you have to be mentally prepared or you are not going to finish the trail,” he said. “Then you have to enjoy it. If you’re not mentally ready and you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to make it or you will have a torturous time out there.”
Fortunately, the trail is full of hostels, campsites and other stopping points where Clavino was able to find aid, supplies and the companionship of fellow hikers.
The son of a Puerto Rican father and a Vietnamese mother, Clavino said he has an appreciation for people from all walks of life and he made lasting friendships along the trail.
He hiked much of the trail with a man from Canada who eventually had to give up the hike after hurting his knee in a fall.
“Falls are going to happen,” Clavino said. “I had some pretty good falls, but I was blessed that I didn’t get hurt.”
In his journal dated Aug. 28, 2012, Clavino wrote:
“I slipped on a wet rock and had a pretty hard fall. Left knee is swollen! I hope it’s OK. Will find out tomorrow how bad it is...”
Falls weren’t the only potential dangers on the trail.
In addition to the bear, Clavino came up on a copperhead snake in the midst of swallowing its dinner — a field mouse. And there was the rattlesnake he almost stepped on, coiled up against a rock.
As strange as it might sound, some of his biggest foes were chipmunks, which he described as “aggressive” in his Aug. 30 journal entry.
But his biggest nemesis was the pesky mosquito, he said.
“In Massachusetts they were horrible,” he said. “You could hear them buzzing outside the tent, like they were just waiting for me to get up.”
Weather was also a pitfall on the journey for Clavino.
In his journal dated Aug. 21, 2012, he wrote:
“Woke up to the sound of rain. Rained until 8:30 a.m. Packed up all my gear and hung my tent in the shelter while I ate breakfast hoping it would dry out a little.”
Whether it rained or hailed or snowed, Clavino had to keep moving.
“The elements are going to be there,” he said. “If you sit waiting for it to quit raining, you’re not going to make it to Katahdin before the park closes (due to bad weather in winter).
“You have to be prepared, which is something I think I did a good job on. I had good cold gear and rain gear. It rains, snows, sleets; you get gusts of wind; you just have to hike through it.”
Getting up and pushing on was the biggest part of the process, he said.
“Every day I would wake up, pack up, eat breakfast and get on the trail around 7 (a.m.) to get my miles in. If you don’t get the miles in, you won’t make Katahdin before the park closes.”
Clavino hiked 20 or more miles a day, he said, as each leg of the hike became a little more challenging.
He took breaks hourly and consumed an excess of 6,000 calories a day, though he still lost close to 20 pounds during the course of the hike, he said.
“Rationing is probably something that will get you off the trail pretty quick,” he said. “You don’t want to ration. You want to eat as much as you can on the trail and when you run out you look for the nearest supply.
“You end up losing a lot of weight and muscle and if you’re not careful, your pack is going to weigh more than you do,” he added.
Enjoying the journey
At his home Wednesday, Clavino was asked to recall his favorite memory from the hike.
“It’s like trying to pick out your favorite view from a mountain, you know,” he said.
There was one he especially remembers.
He wrote about it on Aug. 31 at a place called Crawford Pond in Maine:
“This is the place in (Maine) that I’ve pictured in my head before I even started the trail. I knew (Maine) would be gorgeous and I always imagined hiking down from the trail to a amazing clear lake in the middle of nowhere and here I am camping at the place pictured in my head...WOW!! UNBELIEVABLE!!”
Towards the end, Clavino had grown so used to the trail that his body seemed to be in tune with it, he said.
The crags and roots weren’t slowing him down anymore and, in fact, he had to scale back on his miles so he wouldn’t arrive too early.
His wife, Amanda, had made plans for him to end the trip of Sept. 7 and fly back home. He spent several days not hiking at all during the final stretch.
On Thursday, Sept. 6, Clavino wrote in his final journal entry that he was so excited to reach the summit of Katahdin — the ceremonial end point of the hike — that he very nearly sprinted to the top.
He wrote: “As soon as I (reached the top), I gave a big “YEEHAW” and the hikers that were there just kind of looked at me. I didn’t give a hoot. I was pumped and felt like I was standing on top of the world!”
Almost two weeks later, he still has the rush he felt after completing the journey of his life.
“It’s a big lift just knowing I could get it done,” he said. “Out of all the people that try only a few hundred each year do it.”
To read more of Clavino’s journal entries, visit: www.trailjournals.com and type Hot Shot in the search bar.