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September 5, 2019

Warrenton native quickly embraces walk of a lifetime

Contributed Photos
Kyle Douty on Aug. 23 at the trail’s end in Maine, which he reached just more than six months after starting in Georgia.
He appeared to be trying to figure something out. That’s fairly typical of a thru-hiker on the trail. All of us go out there for a reason.
— Bob Wayboer, hiker from Maine
Kyle Edward Douty
• Age: 25

• Home: Warrenton

• Work: Sales, Cvent, Tysons, 2017-19

• Education: Bachelor’s degree, interpersonal communication, Christopher Newport University, 2016; Fauquier High School, 2012 (played football two years, lacrosse two years, and basketball four years, lettering in all three)

• Family: Father, Dale; mother, Sonia; four siblings.

• Hobbies: Following Washington sports teams, camping and St. James’ Episcopal Church youth group mission trips

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail

• Completed: 1937

• Where: Appalachian Mountains from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mt. Katahdin, Maine.

• Length: Approximately 2,200 miles

• Managed by: National Park Service, United States Forest Service and the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy

• States: 14

• Longest portion: Virginia with 550 miles

• Thru-hikes in 2017: 715 northbound and 133 southbound
By Kevin N. Mettinger
For Fauquier Now

Once the notion struck, “Young Gun” didn’t take long to make up his mind.

When Kyle Douty decided in June 2018 to hike the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, he remained uncertain of success. Just a year later, the 25-year-old Warrenton native had walked well past the halfway mark and headed toward the grand finish at Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

A 2012 Fauquier High School graduate and avid outdoorsman, Mr. Douty camps frequently in Shenandoah National Park. After earning a bachelor’s degree in interpersonal communication from Christopher Newport University in 2016, he soon settled into a sales job at Cvent, a software company specializing in event management. He rented a basement efficiency in Reston and joined the throngs of twentysomethings making their post-college livings in Northern Virginia, frequenting local bars on weekends and cheering Washington-area sports teams.

His spirit of adventure persisted, however. After celebrating his beloved Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup win last summer, he sought a new thrill – “type 2 fun,” he calls it.

“After [hockey season] ended . . . . I didn’t have anything to do all of a sudden,” Mr. Douty said during an interview in Warrenton last month. “[Taking up] backpacking was my way of being able to camp alone and not being bored out of my mind.”

Backpacking, by his definition, combines camping with hiking. After some weekend excursions in Shenandoah National Park, guided by park experts who tailored short hikes to his interests, Mr. Douty read online articles and watched YouTube videos about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Prior to that, he hadn’t considered the AT.

“I never envisioned myself doing it . . . because it just didn’t seem realistic . . . (I thought) super-athletes were the only qualified people who’d be able to do it.”

After less than two weeks of researching and mulling it over, he committed.

“Everything . . . exploded! All of my outdoorsman and camping passions and this new hobby rolled into the potential for it to be a lifestyle, along with the challenge of doing something that I first of all would never think I’d be able to do, where there’s wins and losses every day and common goals that you’re constantly striving for,” Mr. Douty said. “It all made complete sense. I had to do it.”

On February 22, he set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia, the southernmost point on the trail, as a NOBO (northbound hiker). He quickly earned a trail name – “Young Gun” – as most thru-hikers do, in part because of his youthful energy and reputation for being the first in a shelter to pack up and get back on the trail in the morning. Not thrilled with the “macho” handle, he grew to accept it.

Weather presented the biggest challenge at first. Starting several weeks before the typical mid-March setoff date, he eased into the trail with shorter conditioning day hikes of less than 10 miles and found himself up against a cold and particularly rainy February in Georgia. He faced soaked gear, a risk of hypothermia and inevitably some “zero days” – off the trail.

Mr. Douty persisted and found the reward of warmer spring days and many “trail angels” in the “trail towns” that provide respite for thru-hikers.

The textbook “trail angel” provides “trail magic,” such as snacks, drinks and rides to nearby towns. Some even host hikers in their homes, fixing big group meals and laundering clothes.

As Mr. Douty gathered momentum and experience, he upgraded his tent and replaced his Salomon shoes twice. He settled into an average of 12 miles a day but often hiked 14 to 20, with a single-day record of 25 miles.

Initially focused on hiking “home” to Virginia, Mr. Douty realized he had it within himself to complete the entire trail. He moved beyond Fauquier County and the friends and family who cheered his arrival in the foothills of the Piedmont.

On May 22, exactly three months after starting, he reached the “psychological” halfway point at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and soon thereafter the geographical halfway point in southern Pennsylvania.

Mr. Douty began to feel bored, anxious and alone. He found the rocky Pennsylvania terrain brutal and painful. Friends in the hiking community, trail angels and social media followers, including his family, helped pull him through the rough spots. By the time he reached “flat” and “easy” New Jersey, the hiker had regained his tenacity. He trekked north, treating himself to “zero days” in New York City and Boston.

He repeatedly crossed paths with fellow thru-hikers, seeing some as frequently as once a week. Others he encountered in Georgia and not again until New Hampshire. He met the Wander Women, a female trio in their 60s who have become social media celebrities. He even came across a hiker perched atop a rock and playing a full-size harp.

The trail, Mr. Douty said, is one big tight-knit community.

“So much about the trail is the people you meet . . . . All day long, you’re alone . . . when you’re hiking. But when you camp, you’re with other people. So it gives you at least an hour or two to wind down and be with other humans. When you’re out there in the middle of nowhere, people tend to be more friendly and easy-going. All hikers have are each other, so it’s . . . family-oriented.”

Bob Wayboer, a hiker Mr. Douty met along the trail, echoes that sentiment. Known as “Papa Bear,” the 61-year-old retired corporate auditor from Maine met “Young Gun” about 60 miles into the hike.

“He appeared to be trying to figure something out,” Mr. Wayboer said of his first impression. “That’s fairly typical of a thru-hiker on the trail. All of us go out there for a reason.”

Contrary to Mr. Douty’s spontaneity, “Papa Bear” had planned a thru-hike for nearly 50 years, since he got a taste of the AT as a Boy Scout in his native New Jersey. Unfortunately, a foot injury turned out to be serious enough for a doctor to pull him from the trail after 1,250 miles. He plans to return another year but continues to offer support to his 2019 “classmates.”

Other challenges included animals, vegetables and minerals. Mr. Douty faced aggressive bears; one “bluff charged” him to protect her cubs; another repeatedly harassed him in his tent for hours while he tried to sleep. The latter’s erratic behavior, he believes, later caused a temporary closure of a 10-mile stretch of the trail north of Roanoke and the animal was ultimately euthanized. He also encountered persistent swarms of mosquitoes and more than a few snakes – both venomous and non-venomous.

Although his calorie intake frequently exceeded the daily standard of 2,000 for a man of his size, 6-1 and 190 pounds, Mr. Douty struggled to match his consumption with the fuel he burned. Trail food fell short, and off-trail feasts came infrequently. After six months, he had lost nearly 30 pounds. To make matters worse, he suffered through two bouts of stomach distress that took him off the trail for two days and a week, respectively.

After the second incident, which occurred in Maine just prior to the “home stretch” portion of the trail known as the Hundred Mile Wilderness, Mr. Douty thought he might not go back. He had contracted giardia, an intestinal infection caused by contaminated water.

Undeterred, he travelled to Virginia for treatment, picked up some weight, got a fresh shave and a haircut before returning to the trail within a week. None of his trail friends recognized the freshened-up “Young Gun” when he returned. Determined to fulfill the well-known AT mantra “Hike Your Own Hike,” he completed his journey August 23, just one day past the six-month mark.

Mr. Douty credits the huge support of his family for contributing to his eventual success.

His father Dale Douty, a 60-year-old car wash owner, met him on the trail and hiked with him several times during the journey, bringing supplies to restock his son’s pack. After the bout with giardia brought him back to Virginia suddenly by train, his father drove him 15 hours back to Maine, staying nearby until the younger Douty reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin.

Mr. Douty’s mother Sonia, a 61-year old mortgage lender, didn’t realize what her son faced until she started researching the AT after he announced his plans. By the time she realized he would hike through to Maine, he was well on his way.

“I was in awe. Between the bear and the rattlesnakes and the cliffs and the elevation . . . that kid never stopped,” Mrs. Douty said by phone from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. “And I’m shocked. As a mom, I’m in awe.”

She confessed with a chuckle that her son taunted her a bit after she grew anxious about an Instagram photo of him standing on a precarious-looking rock outcropping. He responded with a follow-up picture in which he sits on the same rock ledge, dangling his legs, texting: “Hey mom! Do you like this one?”

Off the trail barely 24 hours, Mr. Douty on Aug. 24 spoke excitedly about hopping in his truck and heading south for an annual family vacation on the Outer Banks. He intends to return to work this month.

His six months on the AT will linger for a lifetime.

“If there’s something you really want to do, you have to do it. You can’t pick a convenient time,” Mr. Douty summarized. Now, “nobody can tell me that I can’t do something in life.”
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