When the Appalachian Trail beckoned, Bill Ristow answered.  In the end, after more than 2,000 miles and a summer of hiking, the Sycamore alum discovered something important – that taking the time for himself really mattered.
Ristow, talking about how he chose to hike on the historic trail, says, “At the time, I was just kind of trying to figure out what kind of job, out of a series of unappealing jobs, I wanted to do. I thought to myself, ‘Wait a minute. I've been working a little bit, but I'm not by any means tied to this job. I have time. What if I went for a month or two months or the whole thing?’”
Bill would join his younger brother, Sam, who had already planned to hike the trail, taking a semester off from college to do it. Both brothers were Boy Scouts, so they weren’t afraid of tackling something as outdoorsy and difficult as hiking a trail. “It's something that I always kind of wanted to do with one of my friends,” Bill says. “It's something I'd heard of through Boy Scouts years ago. I always loved backpacking. Then my brother was going to do it, and I hadn't really thought of doing it at this point in my life.” With a sibling already committed, Bill decided to go and is glad he did. From March 28 to September 30, 2017, he was a part of a community of hikers who spent their days walking the trail.
He thinks his Sycamore background certainly played a part in his ability to overcome adversities, both on the trail and as he has grown into his adult life. “Intelligence doesn't really count for anything without hard work and dedication,” he says. “I think developing good habits, especially good study habits, is really key. Get it done in a structured way rather than saying, ‘I'm sorry, I got this. I'll finish this in ten minutes.’ I think it's one that I have worked to develop since I left Sycamore but wish I had started working to develop much earlier.”
A 2016 Haverford College graduate who majored in History, Bill had plenty of time to think and meet new friends as he traversed the trail that spans fourteen states, along the crests and valleys of the Appalachian Mountain Range. While more than 3 million people visit the trail every year, just over 3,000 people attempt to “thru-hike” the entire footpath in a single year.
Completed in 1937, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is a unit of the National Park System and is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world. The trail goes from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine.
“Walking the trail was something so far outside of anything I've really done before or since,” Ristow says. “I've been hiking with the Boy Scouts, but nothing like this.” On his summer-long excursion along the trail, Bill walked with his brother for part of the trip and connected with new trail friends on the rest of the route. “Sam and I were together until mid-April, but he was really doing his own hike,” Bill says. “He started around March 1. To be clear, the Appalachian Trail hike was his idea initially.”
People from across the globe are drawn to the trail for a variety of reasons, such as reconnecting with nature, escaping the stress of city life, meeting new people, deepening old friendships, or experiencing a simpler life. “I ended up deciding that it was probably the best time in my life to do a trip this long, and I'm very glad that I did,” Bill says. “I think probably it is the best thing I’ve ever done. I would hike alone most days, but I would meet up with friends almost every night and camp together. I’m still in touch with most of them.”
As he reflects on the trip, he also reflects on lessons learned at Sycamore. “The lesson I took from Sycamore for high school and college is just really liking coming to school is important, even though I wasn't always a fan of the homework and was not always as appreciative of the teachers as I should have been.”
“I realized that the kids I met at Sycamore are as bright and as engaged as literally anybody my age I've met since then,” Ristow says about his peers at Sycamore. “I think people don't realize just how nice it is to be around people who are as excited about learning as you are. If there's one thing I could say to every Sycamore student out there it's, ‘Yes, you're smart and you should be thankful for that and you should work with that.’ I ran cross country at Haverford and think sports, and especially cross country, can teach kids a lot about sort of the direct correlation between hard work and success. You are literally only as good as your training, and you have to take a very personal investment in your training and racing.”
Bill, who is spending the summer in Vancouver, British Columbia before heading back to school to get a Master’s Degree in Social Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University, realizes now how lucky he was to have been at Sycamore. ”It really was a fun environment to learn in, and that made me like coming to school. Tremont was fun and going to the Florida Keys and snorkeling was really cool. Those were things I wouldn't have done on my own. It was very cool to get the opportunity to do it through Sycamore.”
  • The Appalachian Trail is usually thru-hiked south to north (Georgia to Maine) rather than vice versa. Hikers typically begin in March or April and finish in late summer or early to late fall of that year.
  • A thru-hike generally requires five to seven months, although some have done it in three months, and several trail runners have completed the trail in less time.
  • Part of hiker subculture includes making colorful entries in logbooks at trail shelters, signed using pseudonyms called "trail names."
  • The Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail form what is known as the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking in the United States.
  • On October 26, 2017, Dale "Grey Beard" Sanders became the oldest person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail at age 82.
  • In some parts of the trail in Maine, even the strongest hikers may only average one mile per hour with places where hikers must hold on to tree limbs and roots to climb or descend, which is especially hazardous in wet weather.
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