McNicholas High School grad finds magic, grit along Appalachian Trail

Will Babb, 19, hiked trail from start to finish
Posted at 6:49 AM, Feb 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-23 10:46:52-05

CINCINNATI -- When 19-year-old William Babb approached the top of Maine's Mount Katahdin -- the end of his more than four-month trek through 14 states on the Appalachian Trail -- he was surprised he wasn't feeling more emotional. It wasn't until he touched the wood sign marking the end of the trail that the tears began to flow.

Babb's 139-day journey hiking the 2,189-mile trail began a few days after graduating from McNicholas High School last May. Inspired by his uncle who had once hiked the trail, Babb had long dreamed of tackling "the A.T." from its beginning to its end.

Will Babb stands on a rock overlook at McAfee's Knob, Virginia, along the Appalachian Trail. Babb deferred college for a year to hike the trail. Photo provided

An Eagle Scout and avid outdoorsman, Babb decided to defer college for one year so that he could make his dream a reality. Babb's parents drove him to the start of the trail on Springer Mountain in Georgia, hiked with him for the day and then left him on the trail before they headed back to their home in Milford.

There were some rough days on the trail, and Babb admitted he considered quitting almost every day. On those rough days, he pushed himself forward by imagining the top of the next summit and the view of the world below.

Although the varied terrain of the trail often included grassy hills and rocky mountains while hiking through extreme heat or pouring rain, Babb said the physical challenge was secondary.

"It's a much greater mental challenge than a physical challenge. It's tough to keep going," Babb said. "You can't look at the big picture. You have to think, ‘It's 80 miles to the next town,' or (imagine it) as a series of three- to five-day hikes."

Babb's mother, Betsy, said her husband often joked on the phone with their son that they would drop everything to drive down and pick him up anytime he was ready to come home.

"At one point, Will said, ‘Stop asking me that because I am afraid of what I will say. If I ask you to come get me, don't do it,'" she said.

Babb's parents met him at a few points along the trail -- and for the final 5 miles in Maine in October -- to visit with him and hike part of the trail. Betsy Babb said the visits were good for her son's morale as well as hers.

Thousands of people hike the trail annually, so Babb was able to meet other hikers from all over the country and the world, many of whom he would hike with for weeks or months. He still keeps in touch with several hikers he befriended on the trail. Babb did spend a few weeks hiking primarily on his own, and those were the hardest, he said.

Will Babb takes a break to drink in the scenery at Muskrat Creek Shelter in North Carolina. Photo provided

"Through hikers," those that are hiking the entire trail from start to finish, often go by a trail nickname. Babb was christened with the moniker "leapfrog" by a hiker he repeatedly met and passed as he waited for his parents to catch up on the first day out on the trail in Georgia.

Although many hikers leave the trail due to injury, Babb escaped the lengthy trek with nothing more than a few blisters that appeared during nearly a week of constant rain in Virginia and soaked everything he had with him.

He had a few encounters with black bears, which "mostly just ran away," Babb said. He almost stepped on a few rattlesnakes, too. But the most nerve-racking moment was when he was stuck at the top of a mountain during a thunderstorm.

Babb hiked the trail in four-and-a-half months -- most hikers do it in five to seven months -- and only took seven days off peppered throughout the trip. Those days were spent resting at a hostel in the towns flanking the trail, grocery shopping to restock the supply he carried in his backpack, doing laundry and showering, Babb said.

The communities near the trail are friendly to the many hikers who pass through their towns. Babb said there is "trail magic" along the way, when townspeople offer up unsolicited help to the hikers. There will often be jugs of water left near the trail in areas without a water source. One man let Babb and his friends stay with him for four nights in Maine, driving the hikers to the trail each morning and picking them up at night, so they could hike for a few days without their gear.

Most of the trail gets cell service, but Babb mostly kept his phone out of sight. He wasn't wild about his father's request to text his location every day as a safety precaution, but he obliged, turning his phone on just for those few moments to text a message. When he reached a town, he would call a family member to check in.

Babb liked being disconnected from the world, he said. He didn't follow the news and he wasn't bothered by updates on social media; he was "immersed in the experience and the surroundings."

"On the trail, there's a sense of freedom. You rely on yourself," Babb said. "There's no timeline; you just worry about sunrise and sunset."

Once Babb reached the end of his journey in Maine and returned home to Milford, he had to readjust to being out of the wilderness that had been his home for so long. At first, he said, it was strange to ride in a car speeding down the highway at 60 mph and he felt a bit overwhelmed at crowded parties, but he did eventually readjust.

Babb knows the experience hiking the Appalachian Trail had a lasting impact. He used to think of himself as shy with groups of people he didn't know, but not anymore.

Will Babb stands at Abol Bridge in Millinocket, Maine, at the end of his journey hiking the Appalachian Trail. Mount Katahdin can be seen in the background. Photo provided

"I am not even sure yet all the ways that this changed me," Babb said. "But I have a better picture of what I am capable of."

Babb plans to attend Ohio State University this fall and study environmental engineering. He's not sure what his future career will be -- but he hopes to spend it outdoors.