Keeping Score: Warwick’s Jeff LaFrenier takes a hike

  • Warwick’s Jeff LaFrenier hiked the 2,194-mile Appalachian Trail in 2022. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Published: 12/16/2022 4:31:11 PM

Good morning!
The Appalachian Trail is 2,194 miles of white-blazed back country respite, but it’s one that takes planning and perseverance.

“It’s hard work,” said Jeff LaFrenier. “It’s not recreation like a lot of people think, but it’s a job. You’re wet, you smell, you’re not taking a shower. Your feet are wet every day from sweat, rain or mud, but you get trail hardened. You get used to it.”

A day-hiker with countless trips up Mt. Monadnock, the 61-year-old Warwick resident’s long journey began March 16 on Springer Mountain in Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. Equipped with an ultralight tent, sleeping bag and backpack (total cost $1,600), LaFrenier embarked to Maine lugging 28 pounds of provisions including four days of food and a liter of water.

The trail was conceived in 1921 by a Harvard grad and landscape architect named Benton MacKaye who was born in Connecticut and died in nearby Shirley when he was 96. He used his connections in the federal government to kickstart the project, and it was completed in 1937 by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, up until 1970 fewer than one hundred had laid claim to hiking the entire trail. A 40-year-old Pennsylvanian named Earl Shaffer was the first to do it. He chronicled his 1947 odyssey in a book that was aptly titled “The Crazy One.”

Aided by technology and the knowledge that first aid help would be nearby, in the last half century almost 22,000 hikers have become “2,000 Milers” as they’re called. “After my first day there were over 40 people at the Hawk Mountain Shelter,” said LaFrenier. “We all worked hard. The camaraderie kept me going.”

First-timers quickly get tagged with trail names. “It’s from a gesture or something you said or did,” said LaFrenier. “No one uses their real name.”

That explanation is best described by a story in blueridgeoutdoors.com about a Californian who threw up after a long, hot first day of carrying 60 pounds of pack weight. “An older gentleman came by and checked if I was OK,” said the hiker. “When I ran into him again ten days later he walked right up and said, ‘Hey, Heat Wave, how’s it going?’ The name stuck.”

LaFrenier’s trail name was Mule. “I’m slow, I’m strong and I’m stubborn.” His trail acquaintances included RP, Ranger Randy, Willow, McLovern, Jetpack, Droplet, Suspenders, Sprite, BeeBop, Beef Jerky, Spider-Man, Not Dead Yet, Amazing Grace and Tater.

Burning Calories

Whether wending along old logging roads or tight-roping a narrow path, “It’s constant up-and-down through the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and the Shenandoah in Virginia. Pennsylvania is called Rocksylvania. Lots, lots, lots of rocks.

“Some hikers do big miles, like 20-plus a day. When I was feeling my best I’d be doing 16-18 miles. My senses, my sight and smell became accustomed to nature. It was really nice to unplug and make the journey.”

He didn’t see his first bear until he reached New York. “In a zoo,” he laughed. “I saw a lot of rattlesnakes in Virginia. It was spring and they’d be on the trail warming themselves.”

One morning he encountered a doe that had just given birth to a fawn struggling to get up off its knees. “I followed them for quite a ways. It’s my favorite memory.”

Occasionally he’d stay at a hostel for $30 but most nights he slept in his tent or at a shelter. If he was near a village he’d look for a pizza joint. “I lost 25 pounds and ate anything I could get my hands on. They call it hiker hunger, it just kicks in. Out there you want to eat fat, calories, carbs… In one sitting I’d eat an 18-inch pizza and a quart of vanilla ice cream.”

Stalled Progress

The record for getting from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin in Maine is 41 days, 7 hours and 39 minutes, set in 2018 by a Belgian named Karel Sabbe. An online photo shows him hugging the weathered brown marker atop Katahdin, which is Penobscot for Great Mountain.

LaFrenier had plenty of time to reach Katahdin before it closed, but although his HOKA Speedgoat shoes were providing soft cushioning, his right heel developed plantar fasciitis. “Pain was part of my journey starting in Georgia, how much I could handle.”

When it became impossible to step without being in agony he mapped out a strategy. “The Pennsylvania rocks had done me in. On July 5 at High Point (N.Y.) State Park I came off the trail in Port Jervis, went home and stayed off my feet for three weeks.”

He resumed on July 31 in Manchester, Vt. “There’s no ‘right’ way to do the trail as long as you hike the miles, and I needed to reach Katahdin before it closed.”

Now with his heel better he was able to handle the demanding 4,000-foot peaks through the White Mountains. “Up-and-and-down over 20 mountains. That was a mother,” he said.

In Maine he crossed the Bigelow Range down into a 33,000-acre preserve called The Wilderness. “I was hiking on roots, rocks, tip-toeing across narrow board bridges across bogs… There was a lot of rain and wind and cold, but when I came out on the old logging roads I was just ten miles south of Katahdin.”

Reaching Trail’s End

LaFrenier reached Katahdin on Sept. 25, posed for a photo and returned to New York for the final 315 miles of his journey across New York and into Connecticut. In Massachusetts the A.T. parallels the New York border through Berkshire County over Mt. Everett and Mt. Greylock into Vermont. The season was winding down and hikers were migrating south.

“The trail became lonely and quiet,” he said. “The last stretch became a mental game for me. The usual energy on trail was gone. I missed others to talk to and strategize with. There were a lot of nights when I was at camp alone. I didn’t have the camaraderie any more.”

On October 28, LaFrenier came out of the woods and into the same parking area off Rtes. 11 & 30 that he’d arrived at a month earlier. “I’d used the A.T. Handbook and the FarOut App to measure my distance, and I’d followed the white blazes the entire length of the trail. The A.T. is 2,194.3 miles, and my total was over by a few miles.”

During his long journey he kept an online journal that garnered over 116,000 views. In it he summarized: “My favorite hostel was the Maine Roadhouse. My favorite state was Virginia, absolute beauty. The hardest state was Maine. The hardest section was the White Mountains, where for two days I felt every injury and scar from my 61 years.

“I kept a strong mental focus, I’m most proud of that. I don’t know exactly what it cost and I don’t care. It paid for the experience of a lifetime.”

He thanked his friends for driving him to and from the trailheads. “The biggest thank you goes to my wife Judy and my boys Corey and Justin.”

He’s been home in Warwick for seven weeks, so now what are his plans? “Keep resting. It was a 2,194-mile walk, you know.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com


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