Longest Dog Walk Ever: The Appalachian Trail

Pet Travel Thursday

Destination: The Appalachian Trail, Northeast United States Book: The Things You Find on the Appalachian Trail: A Memoir of Discovery, Endurance and a Lazy Dog (2010) by Kevin Runolfson

By Pamela Douglas Webster

Appalachian Trail Sign
Appalachian Trail Sign

In 2001, Kevin Runolfson took his dog for a walk. He finished it six months later, with his new girlfriend, after traveling more than 2100 miles through 14 states.

The Man

After leaving the Marine Corps and an unhappy marriage, Kevin Runolfson needed to clear his head. He decided to thru-hike (complete in one season) the Appalachian Trial with his newly-adopted dog, Rufus. The Things You Find on the Appalachian Trail: A Memoir of Discovery, Endurance and a Lazy Dog is based on Runolfson’s trail journal.

Despite the life changes that spurred his trip, Runolfson doesn’t use the memoir to discuss the minutiae of his failed relationship or to process life after the Marines. Rather, the book recounts day-to-day life on the trail. If I could use only one phrase to describe Runolfson’s tale, I’d say it had a very masculine energy. And that’s a good thing, and it’s what I most enjoyed about the book. Kevin Runolfson is a guy. A nice guy. And reading The Things You Find on the Appalachian Trailmade me feel like I was on a fishing trip with a favorite uncle or college buddy.

I was totally charmed by his awkward attempts to figure out if fellow-hiker Teresa was interested in more than friendship. And by his matter-of-fact view toward almost everything else, including his neurotic dog.

The Dog

The year-old, Shar-Pei/Lab mix kept Runolfson company and provided comic relief, if not occasional frustration. Rufus isn’t the star of a “noble dog and his boy” story. Runolfson calls him

a lazy bundle of fear wrapped in fur. …Rufus is afraid of bridges, fire, rain, thunder, lightning, and most wildlife. He also doesn’t like to walk when it’s too hot, too cold, too early, too late, daytime or nighttime. A rock would make a better hiking partner.

When describing Rufus, Runolfson’s writing is most vivid. His description of helping the dog over a fence crossing the trail in Virginia got me laughing. After climbing a slippery log ladder with Rufus in his arms, Runolfson has to get his dog and himself to a soft landing on the other side.

Lifting Rufus up to my chest, I slowly begin to lean over the fence, lowering my upper body down the other side. Once I’m bent over the fence it’s only a two-foot drop to the ground for Rufus, so I let him go. Good idea, bad execution. As soon as Rufus leaves my arms, I slip, and before I can raise my arms to catch myself, I’m up and over the fence, crashing headfirst into the wet, manure-enriched grass on the other side.

Rufus discovers his inner hero on the trail. He learns to cross bridges, walk through streams, and jump over fallen trees—three things he avoided when they set out. Unfortunately, the dog’s heart was stouter than his paws. After Rufus’s pads began to crack in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Runolfson arranged for a friend to pick up the injured dog. Rufus enjoyed all the comforts of home while Runolfson completed the trail.

The Trail

The Appalachian Trail is a fascinating juxtaposition between the wild and the developed. The trail is managed but not always civilized.

View from Springer Mountain in Georgia, Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail
View from Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain in Georgia

The Appalachian Trail passes through densely populated states. In places, it comes very close to major highways. For instance, in the Delaware Water Gap, the trail nearly kisses Federal Route 80, a prime route to the New York metro area. Access to the trail from major roads draws frequent day visitors.

Runolfson vividly describes the odd encounters between people whose only experience with the trail is driving up to a view (and don’t even know there is an Appalachian Trail, much less that they’re standing on it) and those who carry pieces of it all over their shoes, clothes, and pack. And yet Runolfson encounters poisonous copperhead snakes on the trail and even witnesses a wolf taking down a deer—uncommon sights on most East Coast hiking paths.

When I’ve been on the Appalachian Trail, the only wildlife I’ve encountered were ubiquitous chipmunks, glorious trillium, and an occasional thru-hiker. (Only someone who has never smelled a hiker on the trail for months would object to my use of the term “wildlife.”) But each step on the trail promises the possibility of something new.

Take a Hike

Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park
Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park

The Things You Find on the Appalachian Trail is not meant to be a travel guide. But it gives a fine flavor of hiking the trail with vivid descriptions of nature as well as the real challenges of replacing gear, finding food, and doing laundry.

Runolfson’s achievement is that he manages to keep his story interesting whether he’s slogging through the rain with his dog or begging for junk food Yogi Bear style from a picnicking family. If you’re curious about hiking the trail, whether for a few hours or a few months, you can find other inspiring memoirs along with trail guides and maps at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website. The Appalachian Trail is accessible to almost anyone wanting an adventure. But it still provides beauty and solitude. And a great place to walk your dog. Just ask Kevin Runolfson. And Rufus.

 Disclaimers: The publisher sent me a PDF of this book at my request. They also sent me a copy of the paperback which I am giving away at Something Wagging This Way Comes All the pictures here are from Flickr, and you can learn more about the photographers by clicking on each picture.  Links to Amazon provide a handy way for you to shop, and they are also affiliate links, meaning when shop at Amazon through these links, I earn a few cents. Thank you for your support.

10 thoughts on “Longest Dog Walk Ever: The Appalachian Trail

  1. Pamela,
    have you heard of the project to connect (as in encouraging hikers and official in sahred project) trails in Europe with the Appalachian Trail based of geology, geography, and such? the name of the project escapes me at the moment, but Scotland’s West Highland Way, where I have spent some time, was, I believe, one of the first to be part of the project. It run from just north of Glasgow to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis.

    and even though I’ve not (yet) done a through hike on the AT, I’ve spent time in the snow at both ends of it and in the middle… which maybe counts for something.

    thanks for the thoughtful review of this book.

  2. I’ve been looking for some books for my hubby for his Christmas presents. This sounds right up his alley. He loves a good dog book, and he fantasizes (total fantasy land!) about us doing some serious hiking trips – when all we’ve EVER done before is day hikes.

  3. It looks so beautiful. I don’t know much about that part of the world geographically, but this trail sounds quite the experience. I’m not the adventurous sort I’d like to be and am envious of anyone who can just stop what they are doing and go off alone into nature. Even more so if done with a dog. This book sounds like a way I can at least imagine what it would be like.

    1. It’s a beautiful and diverse trail. I’m sure you and Shiva would love it.

      I was wondering if Canada has similar national trails. The Appalachian Trial is one jewel in a Triple Crown, including the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide Trails. Fewer than 200 people have hiked all three.

      I understand Canada is working on a National Trail that will cross the country and encompass over 10,000 kilometers. Perhaps you need to add it to your bucket list?

  4. Isn’t it interesting that we’re both writing about the Appalachian region today? When I was in Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains last week, I heard that a handful of Appalachian Trail hikers got stranded in a cabin on the highest mountain around there. They had an early, heavy snow in the mountains. That might have been an adventure that neither the dog nor his human would not have been excited about!

        1. That’s true for many hikers. But the 2000 or so through-hikers doing the entire route at one time are inevitably going to hit show. Mostly likely, they’ll get it in the South when they start and in the North when they end.

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