•the top of a snowy mountain in northern Georgia, an odyssey came to an end.
Nathan Sonderman sat at the peak of Springer Mountain, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Cigar in his mouth, bottle of sparkling wine in his hand, and his father sitting next to him, it was a time of celebration.
Sonderman had just spent more than six months hiking the 2,189-mile trail. He worked through five pairs of hiking shoes, took more than 5 million steps and climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest nine times.
As the moment overwhelmed him, he captured his thoughts on his Instagram account.
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“Tears of joy and sadness fill my eyes as I drink sparkling grape juice and smoke a celebratory cigar with my father, lit with two matches that I’ve carried the entire trail,” he wrote. “I don’t know what the future holds in store for me, but this I do know is only the gateway for many more adventures to come.”
Sonderman completed his journey Jan. 22, meeting up with his father, Andy Sonderman, for the final miles of the famed trail. The Greenwood resident traveled from Maine to Georgia, enduring fierce thunderstorms, blizzard conditions and a lack of supplies.
He forded rivers when bridges were out along the trail, and made a lean-to shelter when he didn’t have his tent.
But he also notched life experiences that he otherwise would never have, from cliff jumping in Pennsylvania to riding wild horses in Virginia.
He dropped into New York City during the visit of Pope Francis and photographed the papal procession moving through the street. Among the other hikers, hostel owners and shelter operators, he made lifelong friends all united by their love of the trail.
“I don’t know many other experiences that can be like that,” Sonderman said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.”
Days away from finishing his trek, Sonderman reached the culmination of an adventure that started 10 years prior.
He had made it to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Finding an observation tower that rose 54 feet over the mountain, he climbed to the top and looked out.
The day was icy but crisp, and Sonderman was able to see for miles as the mountain peaks were draped in low-laying clouds.
It was at the same spot as a 9-year-old boy that Sonderman had climbed the tower and first thought about hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“We went up there one of the days on our vacation. It was a totally foggy and you couldn’t see anything, so I started looking down into the trees. I saw a trail going through it, and asked my dad what it was,” Sonderman said. “My dad told me it was the Appalachian Trail. That’s where I first learned about.”
Sonderman started planning his trip along the trail last year, as he approached graduation day at Roncalli High School. He had been interested in hiking the trail since his family took that trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.
His parents, Ann and Andy Sonderman, were resistant. But they listened to his plan to stay safe during the hike, how he’d pay for living along the trail and how it would be an experience he likely could never do again once he started college.
By taking a camera with him, he could amass an impressive portfolio of photographs to make him more competitive in college.
Finally, his parents agreed last spring.
Sonderman started his hike July 19 at the base of Katahdin, a 5,270-feet-high mountain in northern Maine.
His plan was to finish the trail in four or five months, arriving in Georgia in late November and December so he’d be back home for the holidays.
But weather, exhaustion and detours pushed back his finish until mid January.
The delay presented a problem in the form of increasingly bitter mountain weather of North Carolina and Tennessee as winter set in.
“I didn’t have the proper winter gear, since I was pretty close to the end and I didn’t want to buy all new gear. I thought that I could tough it out,” he said. “I did, but it had stipulations with it.”
Frostbite and hypothermia was a nightly problem for him. The sleet and freezing rain that fell soaked his clothes and his sleeping bag, chilling him to the core while he slept.
Icicles grew on his beard. Every morning, he had to start up his camp stove to thaw out his shoes.
“There were nights I’d wake up, and my hands and feet were purple,” he said. “My tent had a leak, and I probably would have been fine if everything wasn’t leaking in on me.”
Every day was an adventure.
He met countless friends in fellow hikers, shelter and hostel owners where he slept and other people drawn to the Appalachian Trail.
He met characters such as Bob Peoples, a legend on the trail who has earned a Chuck Norris-esque reputation for his feats of strength and generosity.
He helped maintain and repair portions of the trail in exchange for shelter or food.
“Everyone was really cool on the trail. These are some of the best people I’ve ever met,” he said.
One of his favorite daily rituals was watching the sun rise when he awoke and then the sunset at night. Being in the mountains offered spectacular views and colors on a daily basis.
“I would literally hike from sun up to sun down, so I was able to see them every day. It was a great way of living,” he said.
Traversing through some of America’s most wild country, it was only natural that Sonderman encountered unique wildlife on a daily basis.
He chased black bears from his campsite. He was charged by moose in Maine. He saw salamanders, bald eagles, beavers and deer.
About 150 miles from the end of the trail, Sonderman was even joined by an animal companion. He encountered another hiker coming from the south, with a brown hound in tow.
The hiker had found the dog wandering in the woods, and couldn’t take it any further. He asked if Sonderman would take the dog, and he did, naming it Smoky in honor of the mountains he was found at.
Over time, Sonderman took on the look of a grizzled mountain man. His beard grew out to obscure his face, while his legs hardened from hiking 15 miles daily.
He shrunk out of every pair of pants he brought with him.
On his final day of hiking, his father planned to meet up with him to share the experience with him. Though snowy and sleeting weather made it difficult for the two to join up, they finally rendezvoused for the culmination of the trail.
“It was amazing getting to the end,” Sonderman said. “I was sad and happy at the same time. I cried at the end. This had been my life for six months.”
Sonderman, his dad and Smoky the dog made the trip back to Greenwood in late January.
He is living with his parents for the coming months, and his plan is to get a job to earn money and save for college. Starting in the fall, he hopes to start at either Ball State University, the University of Indianapolis or IUPUI.
Though he’s not sure what he’ll be studying, he wants to do something involving photography.
Sonderman knows he’ll never be able to recreate the experience he went through. But he will always carry the lessons that he learned along the trail with him.
When something went wrong, such as his tent broke or one trail was closed, he learned how to improvise and not panic. He used his curiosity to explore rock faces, search out wild animals and meet people who changed his entire trail experience.
Most importantly, when he was tired, freezing, lonely and hurting, he focused on his goal and persevered.
“The first couple of days, I didn’t know if I was going to keep this up. Finally, I had to tell myself that I was not going to say I was attempting to hike the trail, I would say I’m doing it,” he said. “That mentality kept me going.”
2,189.5: Miles hiked by Nathan Sonderman on the Appalachian Trail
188: Days spent on the trail, from July 19 to Jan. 22.
More than 5 million: Steps Sonderman took along the way.
14: States traversed on the Appalachian Trail
515,000: Feet in elevation hiked by Sonderman
Parents: Ann and Andy Sonderman
School: 2015 graduate of Roncalli High School