By Trea Lavery
LOWELL — On July 7, Liam Henderson’s mother, Marlies, waved goodbye to her son at the top of Mount Katahdin in Northeast Piscataquis, Maine.
It would be almost four months to the day when Marlies would reunite with Liam at Amicalola Falls in Dawsonville, Ga., where he completed his journey along the Appalachian Trail.
Liam Henderson said he first learned about the intrepid hikers who travel the 2,200-mile trail when he was a kid and tackled a small portion of it with his mother and they encountered some through-hikers. Henderson said that as a youth, he was awestruck by these mystical, bearded men, and decided that one day he would do the same thing.
“You get broken down into a more simple way of life. A lot of your focus is on things that really are essential to being alive,” Henderson said of the trip. “It definitely teaches you a lot about being grateful.”
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, approximately 21,500 people have completed the trail, which goes through 14 states, since it was finished in the 1930s. Completion of the trail can be as a through-hiker, meaning that it is completed from end to end, or in sections.
A little over 1,000 people are reported to have completed the trail in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic led the conservancy to discourage hikers from walking the trail in 2020.
While it’s more common for hikers to begin in Georgia at Mount Springer and travel northbound, many, like Henderson, choose the more difficult route, starting in Maine.
Henderson, a graduate of Billerica Memorial High School who obtained a degree in civil engineering at UMass Lowell this year, decided that the summer after his graduation would be the perfect time to complete the Appalachian Trail.
While he started out on his own, Henderson met a group of fellow through-hikers within a few days who he hiked with for the first 100 miles or so. During this time, like other Appalachian Trail hikers, he earned a trail nickname: on the trail, he was known as “Mud Lantern.”
He explained that one of the hikers in his group was slower than the rest, so Henderson would leave notes for him in the sand to encourage him until he got to their camp each night.
“When he got into camp late after dark, I would get water for him, and he said, ‘You’re a light in the dark,’” Henderson said.
The “Mud” portion came a few days later from a discussion of astrological signs. Unsure of what his own sign was, Henderson joked that he was a “mud sign,” and the nickname was born.
Henderson said that one of the parts of his journey that stuck out the most was the tight-knit culture among hikers and their supporters, known as “trail angels.”
“You’ll meet total strangers willing to feed you,” he said. “People will leave goodies in a cooler. They’ll leave sodas or sometimes snacks, or it can be as simple as a water cache where there’s not many water sources. That’s called trail magic.”
The angels would keep in touch with each other, he said, to track each hiker by trail name, ensuring that even the lone hikers arriving in Georgia near the end of the season get a little help along the way.
Henderson said he was surprised to find he was very comfortable out in the woods, and not usually afraid, despite a handful of black bear sightings. The most difficult part, instead, was the isolation. Through many of the states in the middle of the track, he was solo, only seeing a handful of people crossing his path each day.
Around the halfway point, feeling homesick, he called home to speak with his mom and his girlfriend for encouragement. Then, he called another hiker, a military veteran, he had met earlier on for guidance.
“He gave me some advice on how to handle homesickness: be present where you are and focus on what you came out to do,” Henderson said. “Remember that the people at home don’t want to think about you missing them. They want to think about you being out there enjoying the trail.”
Henderson arrived home on Nov. 6, and said the first thing he did was shave off the beard he had grown over the four months he was gone. He has been reacclimating to civilization, meeting up with friends and telling them about his trip.
On Nov. 15, he starts a new job as a water resources engineer at Kleinfelder Inc. in Boston, a job he accepted before he even departed from Mount Katahdin. He said that his soon-to-be coworkers have been very supportive of his trip, and he often sent back updates on where he was on the trail.
“It’s been quite a significant switch from waking up and walking every day and getting back into everything,” Henderson said. “It’s been good so far.”