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Retired state trooper takes on Appalachian Trail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gary Kerastury didn't expect to hike the 2,180-mile long Appalachian Trail alone.

He wasn't even the one who planned the trip in the first place.

The retired West Virginia State Police trooper has already made it nearly 2,000 miles since March 17, though, walking through snow on some mountaintops and enduring one of the warmest summers ever recorded while carrying about 45 pounds on his back.

Last weekend, Kerastury took a break from his trek and spent the night in a hotel room near the trail in North Woodstock, N.H.

"The rains fell with high wind and it got pretty cold up there," he said in a telephone conversation about his decision to come down from a mountain and spend the night in a bed.

While trying to get rested at the $70 hotel room, Kerastury sounded tired as he thought about the time he has remaining in the wilderness.

"Finding a hotel is going to be something difficult from here on in," he said, "because I don't think I go through any more towns."

Kerastury, 57, of Eleanor, retired from the State Police in 2000. He quit his job at a mattress store to prepare to hike the trail, which spans 14 states.

About two years ago, a friend spoke of a lifelong dream to make the trek -- something Kerastury had never really thought about doing.

Kerastury and his friend started preparing in January. They had decided there was no better time to become "true hikers" than this year, the 75th anniversary of the trail.

"I watched a couple of videotapes the other guy provided and I jogged three miles a day every other day from January to March," Kerastury said. "I was fairly prepared to go."

Equipped with a three-person tent for extra room and the "A.T. Guide" (the Appalachian Trail handbook), Kerastury and his friend started their hike at the beginning of the trail in Georgia.

"It was rough. I realized there really was nothing I could've done to prepare for the trip," Kerastury said, reflecting on the first few days climbing Springer Mountain.

While Kerastury was trying to come to grips with grueling 17-mile-a-day walks, his friend had a change of heart.

"I just said, 'Mark, if you could hang on until the first town up here . . . we could have a better sense of what's going on,'" Kerastury said.

"He said, 'No, I'm going to leave right now.' So he went three days and just decided to hang it up, and I decided, well, I'm going to keep going."

Only one out of every four people who attempt to hike the trail all the way through successfully complete the journey, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's website.

After his friend left, Kerastury traded in his three-person tent for "Big Agnes," a lighter tent made for one person.

"At night, I've had things snorting around outside my tent," he said. "So you're on edge, wondering what's going on and what it is."

Six months later, the soggy pages of the "A.T. Guide" book are barely holding together. Kerastury has lost about 20 pounds and the usually clean-shaven former state trooper has a full white beard.

Despite several encounters with bears -- one of which he barked at like a dog to scare it away -- and huge snakes, Kerastury has walked the trail unscathed.

Well, for the most part.

He did nearly break his nose in Pennsylvania -- which he calls "the rock state."

"I was just going along, had my hands behind my back holding my pack, tripped and went down and hit my face on a rock," he said. "I was bleeding a good bit, but I stuck toilet paper in my nose.

"I kept walking and met two other guys who doctored me up a bit. No one had any water to brush the blood off and see how deep the wounds were."

Eventually, Kerastury ran into a man who had water and was able to wash the blood off his face and see the injury.

"He told me I should see a doctor about the deepest wound above my eye, but I wasn't close to a town and I didn't really want to go anyway, so I didn't," he said. "I had scabs for about three weeks after, and now I've got small scars on top of my nose and above my left eye."

"I worry about him," Barbara Kerastury said of her husband earlier this month.

Although she's not doing any actual hiking, she's a big part of the trip -- sending him packages, visiting him three times and updating a blog about her husband's journey.

"I fix a box of food and mail it to him about every week to 10 days," Barbara Kerastury said. "There are places that hold the packages until they are picked up, usually a hotel and mostly he stays there if his package is there.

"Sometimes, we can see that there is a Walmart close, so he shops there and I won't have to send food."

Gary Kerastury can estimate where he'll be so his wife will know where to send a package.

"He told me not to send any more Fig Newtons," she said with a laugh.

Even with all the majestic scenery and care packages from his wife, Gary Kerastury said the trip has sometimes become monotonous.

"I've thought of it as a job at times. You're doing the same thing every evening - you get ready, cook something, go to bed, wake up, you might eat, you might not, you pack up your bag and move from A to B. That becomes like a job," he said. "You're doing the same thing day after day and that becomes mundane, especially in rainy or muddy weather."

While walking, he'll think about his future. He wants to find another job, maybe at a Lowe's or Home Depot, some kind of home-improvement store. He thinks about his wife, who is keeping up the house and doing yard work. He also wonders how he'll get back to Eleanor at the end of the whole thing.

"I think I'll take a bus back to Portland, Maine, and catch a train from there to Charleston," he said. "I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about how I'm going to handle it.

"I guess that's getting the cart before the horse, because I probably had 1,500 miles to go when I first started thinking about how I'd get home."

His wife expects him home Oct. 1.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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