Get hitched, then go hike

By on October 25, 2017

Appalachian Trail brings young couple close

Last March, Brady and Jessica Graham decided to take a very long walk together.

The Lititz couple and Warwick High School graduates set off to hike the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia and heading north to finish their mission at Mount Katahdin in Maine.

When they reached their final destination in early October, Jessica had tears in her eyes. They were tears of happiness, with the realization that they had reached their goal. She was also sad because the mission was complete. They had done it.

“It was a bittersweet moment when we got to the top of Mount Katahdin. We were excited and then it was, now what?” says Jessica.

After nearly seven months, they and others who had reached the end of their more than 2,000-mile sojourn cheered with excitement. Then they went out for a lobster dinner with all the trimmings.

They certainly deserved it.

For Jessica, 27, a 2009 Warwick High School graduate, hiking the Appalachian Trail had been a lifelong dream. The daughter of Mike and Joan McCracken, Jessica always loved the outdoors. Her father often talked about the trail and she was aware that is passed through Pennsylvania to the north.

Brady Graham, 27, who graduated from Warwick in 2008, is the son of Mona and David Graham. He grew up in Iowa, moving to Lititz when he was in middle school. He wasn’t familiar with the Appalachian Trail, but shared Jessica’s fondness for hiking and the outdoors.

The two were friends in high school, then Brady headed to Liberty University in Virginia, where he earned his degree in Biblical Studies. Jessica ended up at Liberty as well, where she majored in nursing. The two began dating, and in March 2013 they were married.

Jessica worked as a nurse at St. Joseph Medical Center in Reading. Brady worked at Camp Conquest in Denver, and at a Manheim manufacturing company. They rented an apartment in Lititz and lived as content newlyweds.

Then there was the lure of the Appalachian Trail. Jessica had shared her dream with Brady and he liked the idea. They found themselves talking about it more and more. They could hike it in sections or they could hike the entire trail.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the trail was never intended to be hiked the whole way,” says Jessica. “Most people just hike portions of it.”

Winding from Georgia to North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, it finally finishes in Maine. Some hike south-to-north, some take the reverse approach.

“Timing is everything,” says Brady, noting that most people do the northbound trail in the spring in order to avoid the extreme cold and snow of Maine and the other New England states.

When they got a ride to Georgia with Brady’s parents in March, it was right in the middle of the biggest snowstorm of the year. Georgia was a little better, though they set off with snowflakes falling.

Through the weeks and months to follow, they hiked up hills and mountains, across streams, through dense brush, through thunderstorms, in the rain, in sleet, in hail, in the wind and in the cold. They saw all sorts of wildlife, from bears to deer to rattlesnakes. It turned out that their biggest threat was simply falling as they hiked.

“You would step on a root or a rock, and down you went. We were always falling,” says Jessica, adding that being tired at times contributed to their frequent stumbles … with no injuries.

The Grahams had carefully budgeted and planned their journey. There were many towns along the way, and they stopped for meals, and about once a week a warm hotel or hostel bed. A shower was always a treat. The rest of the time, they camped and cooked over a fire. Their favorite meal was packaged mac & cheese with Spam.

They each wore out three pairs of hiking boots and everything they needed had to be carried in backpacks. They only had two outfits, two pants and two shirts, one to sleep in and one for hiking. When the weather warmed up, they were able to ditch their jackets on their way through Pennsylvania. The only break they took was a quick side trip to attend Brady’s brother’s wedding in August.

Then they were back on the trail.

They often walked without talking, just taking in the sights along the way. A few friends jokingly commented that hiking for more than 27 weeks and a total of 192 days might put a strain on any marriage. It was quite the opposite.

“I think it made us even closer. We learned to rely on each other, and luckily we are both pretty easy-going and have the same goals,” says Jessica.

It wasn’t all solitude. They met many new friends and fellow hikers along the way. Everyone looked out for each other. They were able to communicate with their families almost every day by texting or calling. Jessica started an Instagram page to post pictures of the journey.

On the last day of their expedition, they took their last picture at the top of Mount Katahdin. They had done it. Now what?

Back home in Lititz, they are staying with Brady’s family as they look for new jobs, after taking breaks from working. Jessica is looking for a nursing job and Brady is checking his options. They are also planning to rent an apartment in the Lititz area, hopefully one with walking trails.

“Someday we might want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, or maybe New Zealand or Iceland,” says Jessica.

Brady adds, “It was a great experience and we’re so glad we did it.”

Laura Knowles is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the Record Express. She welcomes reader comments at lknowles21@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *