Originally published in Reporter on January 11, 2008. Original magazine PDF available.“It all started in Georgia,” remarks Film and Animation Professor Skip Battaglia as he dreamily skims over the map pasted on the door to his office. To Battaglia, this map serves as a sort of proud personal certificate of completion for his arduous 2178 mile-long journey down the Appalachian Trail. As his finger searches for Georgia’s Springer Mountain, he begins to tell me about what would eventually amount to seven months worth of hiking (solo, no less), a journey that began almost a year ago today on March 22.
A committed Boy Scout as a youth, the idea of hiking always appealed to Battaglia. “I wanted to do it since I was 14. I thought, ‘Boy, that’d be a cool thing to do’… I liked camping, and I’ve always liked just going out. It’s inexpensive, peaceful, athletic, and beautiful.”
Now, at 59 years old, the desire to hike clearly still remains. But it’s not just about the hiking and camping: “It’s also about the psychological duration,” remarks Battaglia, undoubtedly referring to the stress of leaving one’s entire life (and family) behind. “You spend a lot of time talking to yourself. You go through all your internal dialog— all those arguments you have with yourself about why you can do this and why you can’t—your hopes and your fears, and then you just finish them. And you have nothing else to think about. It’s really funny. You’re kind of empty. And then the question is, how do you connect with something else to think about?”
The answer seemed to come in conversations with some of the other 419 hikers he would occasionally bump into along the trail. All 419 had decided to hike at the same time with the same destination in mind: the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Over a cozy campfire, he would ask of them, “What basic belief do you have that organizes your life that you think science will never be able to prove?” Assuring them that their answers would be well thought-out and meaningful, Battaglia would insist that they provide him with an answer the next time they ran into each other. As one can imagine, the resulting campfire conversations would be nothing short of interesting. “We had wild ideas. Someone would say something and I’d sit around and think about pulsing neutrons and whether talent could be scientifically proven,” recalls Battaglia.
Of course, not every evening centered around a cozy campfire discussion. Early on in the journey (within the first 200 miles), while hiking through North Carolina, there was a terrible snowstorm that resulted in the death of one of his fellow hikers. Battaglia contracted bacterial pneumonia. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to finish,” recalls Battaglia, a despondent look in his eyes. To make matters worse, Battaglia was soon afterwords diagnosed with Lyme disease in Pennsylvania. Needless to say, simultaneously combating pneumonia and Lyme disease put a temporary hold on the journey and lagged the entire operation by three weeks. “I finished last,” chuckles Battaglia.
Along the way, Battaglia wrote constantly, resulting in three short stories, many journal entries, and considerations about writing a novel on the journey, all the while documenting the adventure with a countless number of photographs. About once a week, Battaglia would have to veer off the trail to collect another week’s worth of food, take a shower, and drink a couple of beers. “You’re basically homeless. You’d go to a restaurant and the waitress would say, ‘You want that to-go, don’t you?’, trying to get you out of the place,” laughs Battaglia.
Keeping in suit with this grungy homeless perception, Battaglia and other hikers would take to “yogi”ing any person who asked them questions about hiking. The term originates from the name of a popular cartoon character, Yogi Bear, whose general antics included stealing picnic baskets from campers in the fictional Jellystone Park. “In other words, ‘They asked me the same 20 questions, I counted the 20 questions, and then I asked them for something,” like food or booze. The goal of that was to ‘yogi’ somebody,” as Battaglia describes it, which is apparently common hiking slang.
As far as beer went, Battaglia would tend to turn to the very haven of cheap pitchers: bowling alleys. “There was a guy on the trail who really liked bowling. We’d always go there and have a couple of cheap beers. I’d have a 140 game and he’d have a 210 game, of course,” grins Battaglia.By October 15, Battaglia had managed to walk all the way to Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, which signified an almost alarming halt. Fourteen days later, Battaglia had managed to complete his journey, ending at North Adams, Massachusetts.
To this day, Battaglia misses the trail. “The best part of it was the fact that every day was different. Every day was different. Every day was beautiful. Even the tough, wet, cold days—I mean, it was just beautiful.”
The experience certainly taught Battaglia a greater sense of acceptance. “Before I left, I was very bitter about the government and people here. I even considered moving to Mexico.” However, due to the immense generosity of those he ran into and befriended on the trail, he has since changed his mind. “There’s just a lot of jerks in Washington messing up,” notes Battaglia, “I see my bitterness as really unfounded. Don’t be bitter, it just comes back on you.” Now, lounging in his unfamiliar office chair, Battaglia gazes out of the window and says, “It’s a beautiful day. You should go outside,” a longing look in his eyes backed by a map full of memories.