‘Gang’ tackles trail; 4 guys, 17 years and 2,185 miles

They tossed the idea around, much as they tossed lines into Apalachicola Bay on annual fishing trips. Wouldn’t it be cool, the men agreed, if they took a hike?

A long hike — say, 2,185 miles?

On a September morning in 1997 the quartet started hiking the Appalachian Trail, the path traversing the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine. For 17 years, they’ve made the trip in one- and two-week increments annually, starting each time from where they stopped the year before.

When they began, Andy McClung and Michael Voynich, his buddy since high school, were 47. Dennis Burkhalter and Frank Winn were 42. One had a child in diapers and the rest had youngsters in school. The metro Atlanta residents all had wives who were skeptical their men would make it.

Now, McClung is 64 and Voynich soon will be. Burkhalter and Winn are 59. That kid in diapers is a sophomore at UGA.

Their wives?

On or about Aug. 20, the wives will join their men in Maine, where the hike finally ends atop Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the East Coast’s most challenging woodland walk. The four, who alternately call themselves the “Over The Hill Gang,” “Four Old Guys From Georgia” or the “Georgia Boys,” will eat lobster and look back at time well-spent.

In a cellphone conversation late last week from Monson, Maine, the four sounded pretty pleased with themselves.

“This has made us great friends,” said Winn, a Cedartown native and lawyer who grew up with Burkhalter. “I think we’d all agree that we’re really close.”

“It’s taught me that I can do without a lot of the amenities,” added Burkhalter, a conductor for Norfolk Southern.

It’s also taught them the value of a soft bed, a warm shower, a roof. In their travels, the men slept on hard earth, bathed in cold rivers and weathered the elements in tents. They walked through six, maybe seven, hurricanes.

As they walked, the states unspooled like answers in a geography exam: Georgia,/North Carolina/Tennessee/Virginia/West Virginia/Maryland/Pennsylvania/New Jersey/New York/Connecticut/Massachusetts/Vermont/New Hampshire/Maine (Fourteen states, if you’re counting.).

Theirs was a journey measured in rising altitude. Springer Mountain, the Fannin County peak where the four began their hike, is 3,780 feet above sea level. Mount Katahdin is nearly 2,000 feet taller.

A big deal? Yes … and, well, no. It depends on your perspective, said Voynich, a retired Coca-Cola accounting executive.

“The woods in Maine look like the woods in Georgia,” Voynich said. “It’s roots and rocks, and watching where you step.”

‘Quite a feat’

The Appalachian Trail began taking shape in the 1920s as regional hiking groups linked their trails. The federal Civilian Conservation Corps took over the job in the 1930s, and, in 1937, the government declared it complete.

Since then, nearly 14,000 hikers have trekked from end to the other, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit association formed 80 years ago to help oversee and protect the trail. Those hikers are an elite group: only one of four makes it all the way. Most — 80 percent — do it in one trek that takes several months.

The fact that four started it and stuck together the whole way is really noteworthy,” conservancy spokesman Javier Folgar said.

They began their trip not knowing what to expect. After that first day of steady hiking in the woods, 17 years ago, the four nursed sore muscles, wiggled tired toes.

“We were in fairly good shape,” said Voynich, “but it still surprised us.”

The path led up, then down, then up, then up some more, down a bit, then up, ever up, up. On their 1997 leg, they covered 69 miles in a week. The four agreed to pick up the path a year later.

They did, heading into North Carolina, where the mountains shoulder the sun aside until midday. As they walked, their lives got simpler.

“It’s where you put your feet, where you’ll sleep,” said McClung, an investment adviser. “It’s about getting on the trail and getting something to eat and then making a home to sleep that night.”

Hot Springs, N.C.; Damascus, Va.; Boiling Springs, Pa.: they measured their yearly progress by towns along they way. The quartet always tried to find time for something off the trail, too. In 2007, they visited Gettysburg. Two years ago, they caught a Red Sox game in Boston.

Their trip also is measured in memories. Huffing along in Virginia, they suddenly found themselves sharing the path with a black bear that shimmied down a tree. “He was every bit as startled about us as we were about him,” said Burkhalter. Neither bear nor hikers stuck around to get acquainted.

In Massachusetts, the four came across a woman and her dog. They were lost, wandering in the woods, and the hikers walked her down to safety.

The hardest part of the trip? The White Mountains of New Hampshire, with peaks as steep as they are rocky. “I tell you what,” said Winn, “those yankees who live around there, they’re tough as hell.”

Well, the Georgia Boys are pretty tough, too. Now, with their journey’s end imminent, they’re looking toward — what? Sedentary summers when cheering for the Braves is only way they’ll raise their heart rates?

Hardly. The hikers are eyeing Glacier National Park in Montana for their next stroll.

The gang may not be over the hill just yet.

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