Stories from the Trail

Michael Galyean: Why I Hike

Michael Galyean summiting Katahdin in Maine, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

In responding to the call for personal experiences of what drives us to spend time on the Appalachian Trail, I must put the title into the past tense, as I am 22 years past the completion of my nine-year section hike of the Trail. I am now, at 78 and walking on a rebuilt knee, well past my long-distance hiking days.

In 1969, I was stationed at Quantico Marine Corps Base going through the final days of training as a Marine Corps officer. One of my best friends and classmate was 2nd Lt. Pete Gray, a graduate of UVA and Virginia native. Pete was very familiar with the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Quantico and organized a weekend camping trip for three of us and our dates to a meadow he knew about on top of a beautiful mountain, with views to both East and West from the top. The A.T. ran right through the meadow and we spent most of the weekend traversing the Trail in both directions.

Tragically, Pete did not return from Vietnam. After being a campus leader at UVA, a class leader of our USMC officers’ class and a “Recon” Marine, Pete was severely injured in a repelling accident in Danang and died in Japan from his injuries.

It was my quest to complete a hike of the A.T. in memory of my good friend who had introduced me to the Trail in 1969. I began my section hike in 1991, and as a teacher, was restricted to my summers off to do my hiking. Despite one knee surgery and multiple difficulties, I finished the 2,000+ mile journey on July 19, 1999, 29 years to the day after Pete died in Vietnam. Once I decided to do my hike of the A.T. in his memory, nothing would keep me from completing a journey that I knew he would have loved to do, if fate had given him the chance.

Except for my 13 months in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer, my A.T. hike, over the course of nine years, was an experience that surpasses anything before or after. With every beautiful vista, memories of Pete would be at the front of my mind, and with every excruciating climb memories of Pete would be what made me pick up my pace and make it to the top of another mountain. Thank you, Pete, for putting in me the spark for such an incredible journey.