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Illig conquers three of America’s longest trails

MIDDLEBURY — “The hardest thing about through-hiking the Appalachian Trail is getting to the start.”
So begins “Trail Ways, Path Wise,” the first book in John Illig’s Triple Crown Trilogy, and so began his talk last Thursday to around 70 people gathered in the auditorium of Middlebury Union High School.
The talk was part of the Green Mountain Club’s James P. Taylor Outdoor Adventure series, and it was the Bread Loaf section’s annual contribution to the 18-year-old lecture series — last year the speaker was Dan Brown, owner of the Swift House Inn.
Illig, 45, lives in Cornwall and has been coaching squash at Middlebury College for three years. He presented a detailed and often humorous slideshow of his three trips, in 1993, 1999 and 2005. The first was on the Appalachian Trail, which runs around 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine; the second on the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,650 miles from California to Oregon; and the third was on the Continental Divide Trail, which runs for 3,100 miles from New Mexico to Montana.
The slideshow was at once an overview of Illig’s time on the trails and a primer for those interested in through-hiking one of the trails — that is, hiking from one destination to another, often over many days or months (as opposed to day-hiking, which often begins and ends in the same place). And though Illig referenced the books throughout the slideshow, he emphasized that the books were very different to him — there is a reason that he chose not to include photographs in any of the books.
“For me, (the books were) a very literary endeavor,” he said.
The books pull in philosophical thought and, of course, meditations on life, since hiking invites that sort of thought. But above all, they are about the journey.
“I didn’t intend to hike this trail,” said Illig, pulling up a numbered map of the northeast United States. Number one was Rochester, N.Y., where Illig grew up. Two was the Adirondacks, where he went to summer camp as a young boy and developed a love of mountains. Three was Maine, where he coached at Colby College and first heard of the Appalachian Trail.
“In Maine, everyone talks about the Appalachian Trail. When you move there, you have to sign a paper saying you’ll talk about it at least once a day,” he said.
So after a couple of years he decided to hike the trail, and to do it alone. He showed up alone at the trailhead in Georgia, unsure of what to expect. On his back he carried a 75-pound pack containing books, an Abdominizer sit-up machine and snowshoes, among other things. Within a week, he had sent much of it home from the first supply stop on the trail.
After four months and a battle with Lyme disease in New Hampshire, Illig arrived at Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, with a book to write and a developing interest in the other two trails he had heard about from other hikers.
The other two trails are not nearly so well-known — Illig cited statistics for the three trails. Each year, he said, about 2,000 people set out on the Appalachian Trail, but 90 percent drop out at some point on the journey. Only 200 finish each year.
By contrast, 200 people set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail each year, and 25 set out to hike the Continental Divide Trail. Each of these longer trails boasts a much higher retention rate: most of those who start those two trails finish them.
But compelled as Illig was to overcome the challenges, he didn’t stop — even when, partway through the Pacific Crest Trail, his newlywed wife got sick and had to fly home to the East Coast. And after each trip, he forged on ahead to write the books — the second and third of which are called “Pacific Dream” and “Man in the Middle” — mostly from memory with the help of the occasional note that he’d made en route.
“If I remembered what shelter I stayed at and who was there, the whole day comes back,” he said.
Each book took him around three years to write — the most recent, “Man in the Middle,” was published in 2009. The trilogy is published by Elderberry Press, a small company based in Oregon. Illig says that this trilogy is unique: Though there are many who have done all three trails, no one has written a separate account of all three trails.
So with the trilogy written and done with, Illig isn’t looking for any more trails to hike. The last slide in his presentation returned to his original map, with the number two circled. He pointed to the Adirondacks.
“I can see them out my window,” he said. “So there’s no next. That’s really where I want to be.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]

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