A North Wilkesboro man, Kenneth (Ken) Souther, recently thru-hiked the roughly 2,910 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.

Souther, a U.S. Army veteran and product of North Wilkes High School, is 51 years old, considerably more mature than the typical AT thru-hiker, whose average age is the mid-30s, according to surveys taken of AT hikers.

The avid hiker and backpacker started his five-and-a-half month journey in Georgia on March 19 and finished it on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine on Sept. 7. He called it the best five months of his life.

As if the massive elevation gains weren’t enough of a challenge, Souther contracted Lyme disease in June and took an antibiotic for five days to combat it while still doing some moderate hiking.

According to most sources, only about one-quarter of people who start thru-hiking the AT with intentions of completing the entire trail actually finish it.

This interview with Souther — whose trail name was Olga — was conducted last week and has been edited for length.

Q: How did this quest to conquer the Appalachian Trail begin?

A: When I was 17, in 1987, I suggested to my cousin we should hike the AT when we graduate. I graduated in 1988, forgot all about hiking and instead joined the Army. Ended up getting married, having kids, moving, and so forth, yet once in a while during those years I would recall that idea of hiking the AT.

In 2014, while living in Colorado Springs, I recalled those plans again and decided to do it. Maybe it was because my life was changing. I was divorcing my wife of 23 years, my kids were grown, and I was getting ready to leave the military.

I got some backpacking gear and started hiking trails in Colorado; just overnighters here and there, trying to figure out what gear works and what does not. When I retired out of the Army in February 2017, I moved back to Wilkes.

From that point on, I prepared and saved. In May 2020 I left my job at Louisiana-Pacific; I got rid of everything I owned to what would fit in my car. Then I moved in with my mom and waited until March 19, 2021, to begin my thru-hike. I was 51. It only took me 34 years to fulfill my dream from 1987.

Q: Why did you decide hike the Appalachian Trail?

A: That is difficult to explain. All I know is, I had to. There was no option for me. That is how it felt.

My age is not a factor. I am very fortunate to not have any medical issues. Before hiking — and it is still something I enjoy a lot — I ran trails. The trails most people hike — I run them. I find road runs, or what I call flat runs, monotonous. With trail running, you keep your mind engaged, always looking where your next step needs to be.

Also, I have found Vipassana meditation (or, insight meditation) beneficial for mental fortitude, and so forth, and became a student of that in 2016.

Q: What were some of your most memorable experiences during your thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail?

A: I cannot say there is a single event or even events that stand out. The hike is a personal experience, at the end, for some folks, it rewires your mind—in a good way. On the hike, there is no religion, no politics, no social class, no one cares what you look like, and strangers are instant friends. The bonds you form are deep yet sad, because we all know it ends and we go back to the world again.

The AT is an analogy of life. You start out wide eyed, naïve—as it goes on, you become comfortable with it, some days are hard, people come and go, some you see again, some you don’t, others become part of your trail family (tramily). And Katahdin is death.

You leave that world when you make that trudge down off Katahdin, you leave your life and those you cherish behind. The thru-hike is a love that few folks will ever know outside the trail.

Q: How did it feel to finally summit Katahdin?

A: I am not as impressed with the accomplishment as other people might be. I find the people most impressed with it know nothing or very little about backpacking.

Anyone can do a thru-hike. The biggest obstacle is getting over the fear of actually starting it, on day one. Once that is conquered, you just set your resolve—and say you will not quit no matter what—and walk.

Q: What are your hiking plans and goals moving forward?

A: From January until June I will be residing at a meditation center in Jesup, Georgia. When I leave there, I will start the Continental Divide Trail (3,028 miles between the U.S. border with Chihuahua, Mexico, and the border with Alberta, Canada).

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