Cover Story: Trail Mix

Jeff 'Wrongfoot' Alt's journey had rats, mosquitoes and naked people, too

Sep 7, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Jeff Alt (left) with his brother Aaron.

Jeff Alt hiked the Appalachian Trail, taking 147 days for a 2,160-mile expedition dedicated to his brother, Aaron. He didn't have a million-dollar prize at the end of his journey. But his story, captured in A Walk for Sunshine, rewarded him with a treasure chest of survival lessons.

Alt, originally from Toledo and a graduate of Miami University, began his walk in March 1998 on Springer Mountain, Ga., after seven months of preparation and fund-raising. The proceeds from his hike would benefit the Sunshine Home, where Aaron has lived for more than a decade. Aaron was born with cerebral palsy and mental retardation. Alt, who studied speech pathology, was inspired to raise money for his brother and the other residents of Sunshine.

Unfortunately, Alt found himself on the wrong foot within the first 16 miles of his journey because of switched boot insoles. "Wrongfoot" became his trail name and proved appropriate as blisters, calcium deposits and lost toenails plagued him. Alt looks back at the problems with laughter.

"I don't think I jinxed myself," he says regarding his predictive trail name. "It has a story behind it, like a call sign truckers use or the name of a boat."

Beginning in Georgia in the final winter months also meant dealing with extremely cold temperatures. "I saw more hikers quit because of the weather," he recalls. "I walked through 15 days of drizzle and sleet and 30 days where it was below freezing." Although he admits the weather has a strong impact on the way hikers think about things — sunny is an emotional booster, whereas rainy is a downer — the only time Alt thought about quitting was when he believed he sprained his ankle. "A mere 10 to 15 percent of the hikers — roughly 200 to 300 — actually make it each year. Most hikers drop off in the first 500 miles," according to A Walk for Sunshine.

Alt was physically and mentally prepared for his hike. His family, friends and especially Aaron (through the staff at Sunshine) sent supplies and inspirational notes; published newsletters for sponsors and supported a Web site. Some, including his friend and future wife Beth, met him on the trail. He says, "It takes more mentally to go the distance than it does physically. ... I celebrated the small triumphs and set little goals along the way. I put horse blinders on and just got there. A hiker's mind is very simple — food, shelter and sleep."

And Alt ate a lot of food, roughly three times an adult portion, because hikers can burn more calories than a marathon runner. His only encounter with rats was in shelters where they try to retrieve the food in hikers' packs. The mosquitoes were more than a nuisance.

"Those little bastards," Alt says, obviously with itchy and painful memories.

Thru-hikers, section hikers and day hikers also shared the trail with Alt and, although his trip was solo, sometimes he had company. He jokes about the TV phenom Survivor. "The difference between my journey and that show was, instead of voting them (annoying people) off, I would just hike north." Naked Hiker Day intersected with Alt's time on the trail, but he was glad he hadn't stripped down to his birthday suit when he encountered a scouting troop on that particular day.

Alt misses some of the solitude the journey offered. "(You are) able to let your mind free flow," he says. "It was good to walk away from commercialism and come back to realize that you really don't have a large impact."

But Alt's expedition did have an impact. Since his original expedition, approximately $40,000 has been raised for Sunshine. He is amazed at what people learn from his story — importance of family and friends, humanity and so on — Alt lumps it all under the title "trail medicine."

"I'm still realizing how (the hike) has changed me," he says. "I did realize what's important to me — family and mountains." Alt plans to hike the trail again and also hopes to do the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from California to Canada. Alt also thinks he will publish again, although he is unsure of the topic. But he guarantees adventure, humor and inspiration. For his motivation, he simply shares his dream with others. For his inspiration, he looks no farther than Aaron.

"He has pulled my family together," Alt says. "If you look at who is more of a survivor, him or I, I would say him." ©