Bergen Alumnus Hikes 2,190-Mile Appalachian Trail

Bergen Community College alumnus Michael Hesleleitner (’09) on the Appalachian Trail.

PARAMUS, N.J. – It’s estimated that fewer than 1,000 men and women from around the world successfully “thru-hike” the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail each year. Bergen Community College alumnus Michael Hesleitner (’09) recently climbed his way onto this year’s list of finishers.

Though Hesleitner, of North Bergen, began his trail odyssey in March, the path to completing it started long before that, first as a Cub Scout and eventually as an Eagle Scout. These experiences not only helped Hesleitner develop an affinity for the outdoors, but the fortitude to tackle lofty goals.

“I’ve always had this desire to ‘get back to nature,’” he said.

Seasoned in shorter hikes, Hesleitner began extending the length of his treks, prepping to tackle the Appalachian Trail. He would make his first attempt in 2016, but after hiking 500 miles developed a stress fracture in his foot and discontinued the march to Maine. Once healthy, Hesleitner began the trail again, but once again interrupted this journey – this time to head back to work as a stagehand and accumulate additional funds.

Preparing for the Appalachian Trail represents an exercise in persistence in and of itself. Hikers must not only train their bodies for the mental and physical trials associated with the trail, but must amass enough money to survive without drawing a salary while hiking for five-to-seven months.

Hesleitner once again started on the trail March 20 of this year, walking an average of 15-to-20 miles per day.

On the trail, hikers must endure challenges associated with wildlife, weather and terrain – relying on backpacks carrying little more than clothes, sleeping bags, a tent, clothes and food. (Heseleitner’s weighed 35 pounds – average among those on the trail). Many hikers now carry mobile phones for mapping and communication, but Hesleitner said service often drops out in the valleys and amidst the heavy woods. Hikers find refuge in towns along the trail, which passes through 14 states from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine, and create “trail families” with fellow backpackers making the trek. “Trail angels” carrying “trail magic” such as candy, soda or fruit also occasionally appear, acting as both helping hands and morale boosters, according to Hesleitner.

Ultimately, Hesleitner would hike through eight national forests, six national parks and numerous state parks, forests, and game lands on the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, enduring a wet spring, hot summer, a muddy Vermont and even a moose encounter – “they’re enormous and can be aggressive,” he said.

Hesleitner kept in touch via social media when possible, snapping photos and communicating his with parents and friends, who supported each of his journeys on the trail. Still, the Bergen theatre production graduate said hikers “lose knowledge of current events and basically everything else” while on the trail. “I didn’t miss anything though.”

The 32-year-old completed his journey October 5 – 200 days from when he began. More than three million people hike the trail each year and approximately 3,000 attempt to traverse the entire length – the equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times. About one quarter finish.

With the Appalachian Trail now a memory, Hesleitner has his eye on the future.

“I have my mind on new trails,” he said. “I want to put them on my list of accomplishments.”

The Appalachian Trail, a unit of the National Park System managed through public and private partnerships led by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, opened in 1937.

Based in Paramus, Bergen Community College (www.bergen.edu), a public two-year coeducational college, enrolls more than 14,000 students at locations in Paramus, the Philip Ciarco Jr. Learning Center in Hackensack and Bergen Community College at the Meadowlands in Lyndhurst. The College offers associate degree, certificate and continuing education programs in a variety of fields. More students graduate from Bergen than any other community college in the state.

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