Liam Henderson ’21 Hiked the Appalachian Trail in 120 Days — and Emerged a Different Person

Liam Henderson '21 on the trail

By Sarah Corbett

Liam Henderson’s gear was all wrong.

Flimsy Converse sneakers, a 40-pound pack, and an unwieldy acoustic guitar — these are not the typical accoutrements of a serious trekker setting out to traverse the longest hiking-only footpath on Earth. 

But that was where and how Henderson found himself on July 7, at the start of the Appalachian Trail on Mount Katahdin in Maine, the most rugged portion of the 2,193-mile journey.         

Henderson was far beyond sweating the small stuff. In fact, it was a triumph that he showed up on Maine’s highest peak at all.  

ONLY ABOUT A QUARTER of people who attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail succeed. Most who do have trained extensively beforehand, preparing their bodies and their minds for the grueling and often solitary trek.

Liam Henderson had done none of that. After a tragedy turned his life upside down eight months prior, he’d stopped taking care of himself — chain-smoking and barely eating. He was a wreck.    

On Nov. 1, 2020, the UMass Lowell senior had lost a friend and classmate to suicide. Before she died, she left a box outside Henderson’s apartment door, with a note and some personal effects, including her mobile phone. He didn’t find it in time. 

From all accounts, the civil engineering major had been a shining light on campus from the day he left his hometown of Billerica, Massachusetts, and moved to Lowell as a freshman in the fall of 2017. 

“He is just an exceptional person,” says Assoc. Teaching Prof. Ed Hajduk ’95, ’99, ’06, associate chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. “He does great academically — but he also has the kind of energy that boosts the morale of everyone around him.” 

But six months before he was slated to graduate, Henderson found himself spiraling. 

“There was already the challenge of being virtual, but then this happened, and it was this whole other emotional onslaught,” he says. “It was a struggle. I went numb for a while.”

HENDERSON AND HIS CLASSMATES had worked hard just to make it to senior year. 

“I was really impressed with the engineering college, and how everyone handled it when we went to all-virtual classes,” he says. “The students put in so much extra effort to keep each other in the loop. And it wasn’t just about the grades — we wanted to learn. It was like, ‘OK, I know this kind of sucks, this situation is pretty bad, but let's just get the most out of it education-wise.’ It was a very comforting display of humanity to see students sacrificing time and effort to help each other just for the sake of helping.” 

Henderson says he was motivated, in part, by wanting to be prepared when he entered the workforce. Halfway through his final year, he had been offered a job as a water resource engineer by a fellow River Hawk, Dennis Doherty ’80, senior principal professional at Kleinfelder in New Hampshire.  

Back in his student days, Doherty helped start a student chapter of the North American Society for Trenchless Technology (NASTT). (Trenchless — or “no dig” — technology is centered around installing or replacing underground utilities with minimal excavation and surface disruption. It is a fast growing, $40 billion a year industry.)

Fast forward 40 years, and Henderson was president of the NASTT student chapter.  

 “It’s a real full-circle moment,” says Doherty, who met Henderson at an industry conference. The university sends a handful of students to the NASTT national and regional conferences every year, led by faculty advisor Raj Gondle

“Liam clearly stood out. He’s very outgoing, smart and a great communicator. I could see him talking easily to clients,” Doherty says.

Gondle, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has served as a mentor to Henderson since the latter’s first year. He is not surprised that Henderson had job offers well before he graduated.      

“Liam contributed so much to the university,” he says, pointing to Henderson’s leadership in both NASTT and the American Society of Civil Engineers, and also to his “willingness to jump in and help recruit new students” at Admissions events, like open houses. 

Henderson says he was excited about the job opportunity with Kleinfelder, but after his friend died, it was hard to keep moving. The pain was compounded when a close cousin died in a car accident in February — "another huge blow,” he says.  

“I knew I had to keep going to graduate, and I knew I had to process this thing, so I shoved it away in my mind. I sort of was a reduced version of myself. It was like, ‘OK, I’m at a lower operating level. I’ll just do the calculations that I need to do. I’ll get my work done. And then when I get to the mountain, I can open all this up.’”  

BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, Henderson spent a fair amount of time in the gym. In fact, he was in the Rec Center locker room when he struck up a conversation with Hajduk — who plays squash there many mornings — about his plans to one day hike the Appalachian Trail. 

“My mom was really big into hiking and when I was younger, we would go on hikes and stay in the huts up in the White Mountains,” Henderson says. “And there was this one time when I was still in elementary school, and we were doing a three-day hike, from Galehead Hut to Zealand Falls Hut. And these thru-hikers passed us. They were in short shorts, and their packs were all worn, and they walked so fast. I remember being really impressed by that. From then on, it was something I wanted to do. I told myself I’d do it after I graduated from college.”

He told Hajduk that story, “and he was so pumped about it,” Henderson says. “He knows a lot about the AT — and is especially familiar with the New Hampshire section. So he said, ‘All right, if you go out there, I’m going to bring you trail magic.’”   

Trail magic is an act of goodwill that “trail angels” offer to hikers to give them a boost along their journeys, often in the form of food and drink. Before Henderson got to the point of needing magic trailside, he needed some to get to the finish line at UML and get his degree. 

His engineering professors rallied to pull him through, checking in regularly to give him encouragement. “Their enthusiasm fed me,” Henderson says. Doherty helped, too. Henderson says that when he asked if he could delay his work start until November, “Dennis was so cool about it; he understood.”  

And so in May, he put on his mortar board, gown and face mask and walked across the stage at the Tsongas Center, where the Class of 2021 had as normal a Commencement as was possible in a global pandemic. Henderson earned a Dean’s Medal that day — and then went home to get ready for four straight months of walking. 

IN EARLY JULY, Henderson quit smoking cold turkey and set off for Maine. 

For the better part of a year, he had struggled just to put one foot in front of the other. Once he got to Mount Katahdin’s Baxter Peak, he had no other choice.    

“The first few days, the people I was hiking with thought I was going to die, because I had all this stupid gear, and I didn't look like I was in any kind of shape,” he says. “I did less than 10 miles a day for the first week.”  

The trail trained him.

“It took about 100 miles to get some good hiker legs. I think it helps to start up in Maine, because you have the tough mountains right in the beginning and that really whips you into shape quick,” he says. 

It also helped, he says, that early on, he met up with a group of other hikers in similar states.  

“It was a lot of good people with good attitudes. And a lot of us had brought something to the trail to process. So we were all very much in the mindset of helping each other, and talking through whatever we were going through. It was a very nice, peaceful beginning,” he says.   

 In New Hampshire, he got his first substantial dose of trail magic — from some Lowell-based angels. 

Professors Gondle and Hajduk met Henderson — who by then had been given the trail name “Mud Lantern” — and his new hiking buddy “Torpedo” in Crawford Notch State Park in early August. 

“We took him into North Conway to shower and stock up at the store, grilled him and his buddy steaks at a park on Route 302, then dropped them off back on the AT,” Hajduk says. “Raj also delivered several items to Liam from his mom and brought back some stuff to his mom from New Hampshire.” 

Liam Henderson '21 from behind on the Appalachian Trail
By the time he hit Vermont, Henderson was hiking closer to 20 miles a day. (Sadly, his guitar couldn’t keep up. “The humidity undid all the glue,” he says. “And on my last day in Vermont, it hit a snag that was hanging across the trail, and it snapped the neck of it. I tried to fix it, but it was in vain.”)

HENDERSON SAYS it’s easy to spot the thru-hikers in any town along the trail.

“You can tell by what we eat,” he explains. “I’d get a burger and eat it with two slices of pizza stuff inside it, and then grab food people have left on tables.”

Getting enough calories is a challenge on such a trip. Henderson’s mother, Marlies, made sure he was fed — even when she was several states away.   

“Every 150 miles or so, she mailed out a package — food, socks, whatever I needed at the time — to a town along the trail,” he says. “It was extremely helpful.”

But the towns provided more than just edible sustenance, he says — namely, contact with other people, which he craved especially in the middle of the journey, when he was often traveling solo.  

“I would see maybe two or three people a day, and they’d be walking in the opposite direction, so it's just a quick hi-bye, and then you're on your own again. And then the camps would be empty. Shelters would be empty. And that was really hard. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone,” he says. “I really considered quitting.”

He wrote in his journal every day, and reached out via text to the hikers he had met in Maine, many of whom were ex-military members (and most of whom he had long since passed on the trail). He texted them for advice on staying positive.

“They had a lot of suggestions to help with processing,” he says. “I mean, it's extremely tragic what happened, but they had a lot of good advice for how to put things in perspective and to heal from it and move on. Not forget it, but get through it. So, that was really helpful. Those guys were pretty sweet.”

He kept moving, and as his head got clearer — “when you’re walking alone all day, you're forced to confront things; you can’t dodge or hide from it” — his pace picked up. By West Virginia, he was racking up about a marathon a day.     

THERE'S A SAYING among hikers that “the trail provides,” and Henderson is a believer.

“It makes you question divine order and stuff like that, because it seems like things just happen,” he says. “It happened so many times, but one example was early on. I had a pair of underwear that didn't really dry super fast. And then I had an athletic pair of underwear. And so I was thinking, ‘I wish I had another pair of these Under Armour underwear.’ And the next day, I see a pair hanging off of a branch in a tree. No lie — the exact pair that I needed. And so I brought them into the town and washed them.

“It's just wild stuff — magic happens on the trail.” 

 As Henderson moved through Virginia, into Tennessee, North Carolina and finally Georgia, he leapfrogged some of his earliest trail companions. “It’s funny I ended up ahead of them,” he says. “But we’re all still in touch — it was such a good family. A good tramly. That's what we call a trail family, a tramly.” 

He finished the Appalachian Trail on Nov. 4, almost exactly a year after his friend had died. On Nov. 15, he started his job at Kleinfelder.

“The hike was everything — and it was also nothing I could have expected,” he says. “Mentally, I knew if I didn't do something to process it or face it, I'd be screwed. The trip was unbelievably good for that in many, many ways.  

“I guess you could say the trail provided.”