Hiking Appalachian Trail life-changing experience

YORK — The wind blew so hard it knocked him to the ground.

The rain pelted his face to the point “I had serious brain freeze. It felt like I was drinking a Slurpee for 20 minutes straight.”

The cold was so intense he couldn’t open his hands.

All Lance Ness could do was keep hiking up that Virginia mountainside on the Appalachian Trail, cursing himself for undertaking this supposed trip of a lifetime.

The Windsor Township man had already hiked 500 miles, and his shins and knees were throbbing. His clothes were glued to his body. He had no gloves.

No cell phone service, either.

As he climbed Mount Rogers last month, storm winds gusted to 80 mph, sounding like a train barreling toward him. The rain sliced at him sideways.

Even the log cabin shelter he shared with a few hikers swayed and creaked and threatened to lift off into the sky. During the night, a couple of renegade mice carried their hats from one end of the room to the other and scurried across their faces.

He didn’t think he could take anymore.

And then, just hours later, he not only felt saved but rejuvenated — often the reward for patience and persistence for those attempting to hike all 2,181 miles of the trail in one six-month journey from Georgia to Maine.

The next day, the wind and rain backed off. Ness photographed herds of wild ponies before catching a ride into the nearest town where he found a warm room to bunk for the night.

“It was a whole game-changer,” he said. “The trail talks to you. You’ve got to be tested.”

His negative thoughts faded away. He reveled in how far he had come in five weeks carrying everything he needed in a 12-pound pack. He knew by the end of May he would be half-finished and around family and friends again, less than an hour from home.

He was gaining confidence and felt demons dissipating. He was beginning to figure out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

That’s why he was willing to walk through sideways rain in the first place.

Months before, he reached the point where he could no longer handle his sedentary, six-figure sales job in Houston.

So he sold his dream Toyota FJ Cruiser.

He packed up his kayak, his bed, his clothes and his two pit bulls and returned to York County.

Ness contemplated the next steps in his life while sleeping on his parents’ couch and driving a $400 Isuzu Trooper with no backseat.

At 31, he didn’t want from his life what he once thought he did. He had been driving 36,000 miles a year for his sales and marketing job, returning home only on weekends to hang out with his former girlfriend and his dogs.

“It was weird to be in a city of two million people and feel almost absolutely alone. I had zero friends and was working all the time.

“My whole life lacked passion. There’s too much to life to spend that much time working.”

He found peace and promise in hiking with his dogs, and he ramped up his time outdoors after returning to York County. If he was ever to walk the entire Appalachian Trail, it was now.

Like most, his mother, Dawn Ness, said she understands her son’s motives — but could never fathom such a thing for herself.

“Lance loves being out there and seeing things people normally don’t see,” she said.

“I think he’s finally getting in tune with who he is. He seemed like a lost soul there for a while. Now, he’s doing something he enjoys and he has time to think and challenge himself and just to be himself. There’s nothing in the world to care about. No ‘9-to-5, this is what your life should be.’ People tell you that ‘You need to get a job, get married, get a home, you need to have this, you need to have that.’

“In reality, he’s doing what he wants to do.”

He’s been hiking since the middle of March and is still sporting the same neon green hat he wore to start the journey. (His trail name is “Backwards Hat”).

He’s one of more than 3,700 hikers trying to traverse the trail each year in one long walk from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Khatadin in Maine. Roughly 20 to 25 percent will actually finish before the early October snows make it impossible.

Though the Appalachian Trail was never built for this, people have been walking its entirety in one grand push ever since York High grad Earl Shaffer made the first documented journey in 1948.

It has become a place to lose or find yourself, a trek shrouded mostly in woods but never too far from towns.