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New Port Richey man finds peace, purpose along every mile of the Appalachian Trail

Tom McCarthy pauses to take in the breathtaking view in New Hampshire on his way to completing his epic hike this year.
Tom McCarthy pauses to take in the breathtaking view in New Hampshire on his way to completing his epic hike this year.
Published Oct. 27, 2012

NEW PORT RICHEY — Two years into his retirement, Tom McCarthy felt like he hadn't accomplished much.

At 62, he was standing at the end of a prosperous career as a business owner. There were family vacations and time with the grandchildren to look forward to. He lives in a comfortable house with his wife in New Port Richey. Still, something was missing.

Hiking was sometimes the answer. He'd put in a few excursions here and there. They seemed to quell the feeling. Maybe he'd try the Appalachian Trail, he figured. He'd give himself eight years of on-and-off hiking to do it.

Somewhere out in the rolling hills of oak and pine near Erwin, Tenn., about 250 miles up the trail, it hit him. McCarthy can't quite articulate the feeling.

He knows the hiking gave him an "inner peace." That there was a freedom to waking up in the morning, strapping his belongings to his back and marching off into the woods without an inkling of where he'd set up his next camp, he said. That this remote strip, 2,184 miles long and a few yards wide, is a world of transient souls, all equal, bound by the journey. He liked that. "There's just something about hiking long distance that's more spiritual," he said.

McCarthy was scheduled to get off the trail last year in Damascus, Va., but something made him decide to stay. He hiked 1,275 miles between April and September 2011. He finished the last 909 miles between May and September this year.

• • •

The adventure urge came early for McCarthy. As a kid growing up in Lake Shore, Md., and Ravenswood, W.Va., he spent most of his time outside playing hide-and-seek, building forts and climbing fences. The first purchase McCarthy made with his own money was a tent — the old kind with a canvas lining held up by wooden stakes — which he lugged into the woods to camp with his buddies.

He moved to St. Petersburg with his parents in his senior year of high school, then went back to West Virginia to attend Marshall University. After graduation, he returned to the Tampa Bay area with his first wife. He met his second wife, Marlene, now 63, working at a medical transcription service, which they went on to co-own.

McCarthy was never into serious trail hiking until Christmas 1996, when Marlene bought him his first hiking backpack. After that, "I just got eaten up by it," he said. "I wanted to hike as much as I could."

Some of his first excursions were in Starkey Park in New Port Richey and the Ocala National Forest, "but Florida's not a very good hiking place," he said. "To me, you need streams and mountains."

He pushed for harder, more scenic trails in the Rocky Mountains. When he and Marlene sold their business in 2009, he had time and money for something bigger. That's when he hatched the plan.

The Appalachian Trail, or AT if you're talking to a veteran of it, starts in Springer Mountain, Ga., and wanders north through 14 states to the northern terminus, Mount Katahdin, Maine. The AT draws a few kinds of people: day hikers, there to dip their toes in the journey; section hikers, who take the trail one stretch at a time, usually coming home between hiking stints to fulfill other obligations of daily life; and through hikers, the people who manage to carve out up to a half-year to hike the trail in a single sweep.

McCarthy would be a section hiker, taking the trail a few weeks, a few hundred miles, at a time, catching flights home to be a husband, a father, a grandfather.

McCarthy, now 63, is a thin man, tan, with ice-blue eyes and a short, white Hemingway beard. His folksy voice evokes images of log cabins and fall leaves, even over the phone. He's the kind of guy you could imagine hiking this trail.

Going for light weight and bare necessity, here's what he packed:

A fold-up mat to sit on after a day of hiking, water bladders he could unfold and fill in bodies of water along the way, a cleaning solution to make that water potable, a tiny propane burner, a sleeping bag and one-man tent, peanut butter for lunch, a dry sack with a change of clothes, an Amazon Kindle where he read John Grisham, Rachel Joyce and Thomas Payne before bed, and a topographic trail map and planner, written by a man known only by his trail name, AWOL.

Everyone gets trail names. It's tradition, a clear distinction from whomever a hiker might be in life off the trail and is another mark of the fraternal bond between them. Hikers choose their own or have one handed them along the way, McCarthy said. Being from Florida, he took "Flatlander."

He spent most nights in his tent, always looking forward to trail towns. Towns like Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Boiling Springs, Penn., and Lincoln, N.H., meant a shower, a bed, a beer and a hot meal. "It's not unusual to see a hiker eat a whole pizza by himself," McCarthy said.

Sometimes Marlene would meet him in trail towns where he'd appear at the edge of the woods, gaunt and unshaven — the look of a hiker. "He smelled so bad," she said, "but I didn't care."

McCarthy did several hundred miles of the trail alone, sometimes matching pace with another hiker, like his friend who is a dentist in Tennessee, nicknamed 2:30 for a corny pun on his occupation. McCarthy said he relearned a few things on the trail, too.

That old adage about books and their covers: He spent a few days alongside a young man just out of college. The man — McCarthy doesn't remember his name — appeared lost, like a naive youth, McCarthy said. He later found out the man had a job in Manhattan waiting for him when he finished the trail.

"You just can never tell who they might be or what they might be," he said.

His place in nature: He remembers one night on Unaka Mountain in North Carolina at the mercy of a passing storm. He watched lightning flashes illuminate his tent canopy and felt the wind rumble the whole thing. He said he was humbled witnessing the energy and power that nature can whip up out of nowhere.

And he learned that sometimes, even at lofty age, even in an unfamiliar town deep in the woods, memories can come up swift and powerful like a storm. McCarthy recalled walking into an old hardware store in Monson, Maine, where 14 people with guitars, fiddles, a mandolin and an accordion formed a hodgepodge band and played Jealous Heart by Jenny Lou Carson, one of his mother's favorite songs. The emotion overwhelmed him there in the small mountain town and still does.

The trail culminated in a 5-mile hike to the summit of Mount Katahdin on Sept. 26. Marlene took a trip up to Maine and waited for him at the base. McCarthy describes the final stretch as surreal, exciting and pride-instilling. He returned to his New Port Richey home Oct. 5 to a party of his three daughters, stepdaughter and seven grandchildren. They had shirts made that read, "My granddad hiked the AT, 2,184 miles."

And after two years of on-and-off hiking, losing 25 pounds and going through five pairs of boots, the accomplished feeling finally set in.

Alex Orlando can be reached at aorlando@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

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