One year ago, I looked in the mirror and wasn’t quite sure who was looking back at me. I was struggling with my confidence in every way and felt lost. I decided that in a few short months I would thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, which spans over 14 states from Georgia to Maine, lasting over 2,000 miles.
On the surface, I had told those around me I was ready, but inside I believed I was setting myself up to fail.
I’m certainly not one to brag about my athletic abilities and in no way called myself a mountain man. I had sustained a significant back injury while playing high school football at Hilliard Davidson and currently was the heaviest I had ever weighed in my life. My experience as a hiker could be compared to that of a Cub Scout, and as far as facing the elements of the outdoors I was scared shitless of bears. The only thing I had going for me was being an artist willing to push myself to places I had never been before.
In 2012, I graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design where I obtained a BFA in filmmaking. I don’t think I’m alone here, but after college I pretty much thought I was going to take over Hollywood and be a feature film director by the ripe age of 23. After a weeklong visit to Los Angeles, I realized that was pretty much the opposite of what was about to happen. As an artist, I always thought of my camera as my paintbrush, but after graduating I realized my canvas was quickly shrinking and my dream was traveling further and further away.
One month before my hike, I still wasn’t sure what kind of project I should shoot along the trail. I was already stepping completely out of my comfort zone by going forward with the hike, so I figured why not shake it up even more. I sold both of my DSLR cameras and opted for a few old film cameras that I had absolutely no idea how to use. So many had photographed the trail before me and done it quite well. I wasn’t interested in doing it better—I just wanted to do it different. Shooting film is a humbling and intimate experience and ended being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My first three rolls of film came out completely blank, and I was sweating bullets as I watched YouTube videos, trying to learn as much as possible before I left.
Fast forward to late August, I stood in front of a sign that read ‘2,000 Mile Marker.’ It was a long time coming, and the sense of accomplishment I felt was well deserved, but I still had just under 200 miles to go—a distance not to be taken lightly. As my hike neared the end I began to reflect on all that had changed. At that point I felt like an 80-year-old man, but one in the best shape of his life.
In those six months, I had lost 50 pounds, worn out three pairs of shoes, my skin had turned into a leathery mosaic of mosquito bites, and I smelled of a certain odor not appropriate to describe in this article. After battling mysterious rashes, chasing bears away (still scared shitless) from stealing my food in New Jersey, and walking through consecutive days of nonstop rain—all became just part of life on the trail.
I learned to accept a lot of things for what they were and nothing more. However, at the same time, I found this sense of purpose and connected with the place I feared most.
When I started hiking, I was in search of who I am as an artist. The Appalachian Trail was the perfect place to push my photography to another level and find exactly what I was looking for. It meant a lot to me that I was able to surround myself with my work on a daily basis, and I quickly became inspired by the trail and people around me.
The first few weeks seemed like a blur, and after the first two days, I had already hiked further than I had in my entire life, with only 2,160 miles left to go. I remember the first time I sent a few rolls of film home to be developed and scanned, I wanted to make sure the images were turning out the way I imagined. While waiting out a snowstorm, I was sitting at this little desk at a motel in Gatlinburg using a computer still running Windows 98, eager to see some of my photographs for the first time. When I saw the first image pop up on the screen, that was when I knew I was in the right place doing the right project.
In the 196 days it took me to thru-hike the trail, I shot over 4,000 pictures with my film cameras.
I am currently working on producing my first photographic tabletop book which shows the grittiness of the trail through my perspective. It was really special to see the images for the first time, I wasn’t sure which pictures would shape the story I’m going to tell, but after having all of the film developed, it’s clear to me now. I think it is important as an artist to be confident in yourself before you can be confident in the work you produce, at least for me. As the hike continued I became somewhat fearless as I saw my photography evolve right before my eyes. I let my emotions affect how I was capturing images, which in turn allowed me to capture the trail in a really organic way.
Even though I’m still scared of some things (spiders), I’m not afraid of a lot of things I once was. I’m certainly not scared of hiking in women’s neon colored running shorts or being surrounded by bears in the middle of the night, but most of all I’m not afraid of the person I see in the mirror.
Now looking forward, I see my canvas is as big as ever, as I go from one trail to the next. In early May I’ll will be headed out West as I tackle the Pacific Crest Trail. For me, I see it as going back to work, and I can’t wait to find new things that inspire me. I know I won’t always be able to hike and when I can’t I’ll have to find new ways to push myself and my work, but for now I’ll enjoy the trail ahead. •
For more of Reichard’s work and documentation of his time on the trail, visit nickclicks.com.