By John Potter

A Love Through Time

When my family lived in Alexandria, Virginia, we often spent weekends in Shenandoah National Park (SNP). These trips were mostly to the (no longer existing) Elkwallow Lean-To – about a half-mile down the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) from the Elkwallow Wayside and picnic area. It always took several trips from the parking lot to the shelter to get all of our gear moved in.

John with his father and sister in Shenandoah National Park in 1955.

One weekend, a Boy Scout troop on a backpacking trip stopped at the Elkwallow spring for lunch. With everything they needed on their backs, they could walk as far as they wanted to and camp wherever they liked. I was hooked! But I was also small, and there wasn’t much kid-sized gear for sale in those days, so my dad made some scaled-down gear, modeled on the adult versions. I used this “custom” (we didn’t call it “homemade”) gear on a few overnight A.T. section hikes in SNP before I turned eleven and could (finally!) join the Boy Scouts.

John with his sister Carrie in August 1965.

And at my very first Boy Scout meeting, the Scoutmaster made a stunning announcement: an A.T. 50-miler that summer! The Scoutmaster also announced that the trip was open only to Scouts of First Class rank and above. I was crushed as I wasn’t even a Tenderfoot yet. But the next day, my dad came home from work with a chart that laid out all of the requirements to get to First Class rank on a timeline that ended before the 50-miler was scheduled. That summer I went with my troop, and we backpacked from Thornton Gap/Panorama to Browns Gap in the SNP.

My family later moved to Atlanta, and my new Scout troop was also camping-centric. My buddies and I lobbied to go to different sections of the A.T. in Georgia so we could cover that entire Trail section.

John with his wife Frances in 2011.

Though life (marriage, jobs, moving, grad school, and kids) slowed my Trail progress for a few years, I ended up meeting a guy named “Beast Master” at work. He had just completed the A.T. in Georgia as his 50th birthday goal and he was looking for a hiking buddy. We decided where we would go on the A.T. that we hadn’t been before.

It was more about seeing something new than about any kind of actual plan to complete the entire Trail. We hiked from the GA/NC state line into Virginia together. By then, we’d added another buddy named “Lefty,” who continued with me when that first buddy got distracted by other life interests. Lefty and I alternated between TN/VA/WV/MD/PA sections that he hadn’t done to get him caught up with me and then we started on middle sections in PA/NJ/NY that neither of us had done. Before we got “too old” for the Mahoosics and the Whites, we started working southbound from ME/NH/VT. Though the section we did together in May 2017 (NY/CT/MA) was my last, Lefty still had one more section (MA/VT) to go. He completed his 2,000-miler in September 2017.