In 2012, just three months after losing his father and three years after taking up backpacking, Charlottean Matt Howard hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. In doing so, he raised $8,000 for research into the disease that took his dad.
On Friday, July 1, he'll begin another harrowing hiking trip to raise money for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, this time on the other side of the country. Howard will attempt to hike all 2,659 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Unlike the thousands who began the trail months ago, he'll be heading southbound, starting in the icy slopes of the Cascades and working his way down to the Mexican coast.
Creative Loafing caught up with Howard in the days leading up to his journey to talk about what lies ahead and the cause that keeps him climbing.
Creative Loafing: Why did you hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2012?
I just got into backpacking in 2009 or so. I was researching and finding trails. I came across the AT and was like, 'Holy shit, you can walk from Georgia to Maine?' That blew me away. I was fascinated by that idea. I started planning it in the summer of 2011. My dad had already been diagnosed with multiple myeloma [a cancer of the blood that weakens bones from the inside] at that point. Later on that year and over Christmas we took some time together and worked out that if I'm doing this huge thing, why not raise money for something? That was a big part of my motivation while hiking that time. He passed away Jan. 12, 2012. Then April 5 is when I started walking. It meant a lot to me knowing that he knew that I was doing this for him.
- On the Appalachian Trail in 2012.
What did that first hike mean for you coming so soon after your loss?
One of my big motivators was to set up a Facebook group [now titled Pacific Crest Trail 4 Multiple Myeloma]. I have a couple hundred people on there that I don't even know who they are. A good amount of them are patients or families of patients. You get these messages from strangers who say, 'I love what you're doing. Thank you so much. We admire you and appreciate you.' That meant a lot to me.
The AT was a huge adventure, but it was also a great healing process to deal with the loss. It's been four years and, getting back out there, I think it's going to bring back some of those feelings and emotions but I think that's a good thing to remember someone like that. I'll have time to really think in that sense.
What are some things you're readying yourself for on this trip that you haven't experienced?
The snow. I've done some snow hiking in North Carolina, but the mountains on the PCT are a lot bigger and a lot steeper. I have an ice ax. I've never used an ice ax before and I'm going to learn while I'm out there. It's so you don't slide off the mountain. There are steep slopes that will be covered with snow, if you do fall you have to be able to slow yourself down, it's called a self-arrest.
The isolation, too. It's not nearly as populated out there as the AT. Just being so far away in the middle of nowhere when having those challenges makes me a little anxious.
Definitely something that's totally different from the AT, especially starting up in the north, is navigation. The area is totally different. The eastern seaboard is way more populated than the middle of Oregon or Washington. The trails are less traveled. In the snow areas, we're going to be some of the first people walking across the trail in that section. There's not necessarily a beaten path that blazes all the way down it. It will be easy to get off track here and there.
You're also purposefully isolating yourself by going southbound, setting out with a dozen people as opposed to thousands. Why is that?
When I did the AT, that's the way I did it. I went with a big group of people, which was a great experience. The people being out there is definitely a big part of it as well, but this time I wanted to have more solitude, to get away from a lot of that stuff too.
If you hike with other people, you're all set on making sure everybody's happy. If you want to walk 15 miles but your buddy wants to walk 10, then you have to compromise and all that. But being out there on my own, it's all up to me. If I feel good and I'm having a great day, I can keep going. If my leg hurts I can stop and not feel guilty for holding someone else back.
What are some things you learned on the AT that you'll take with you on this trail?
The big part is the mental part; having that experience of already hiking a long trail like that is invaluable. The physical part will come — my legs — I'll start off slow and I'll build up and I'll be fine. But just knowing that it is a long trail, and you don't have to finish it in a week, just being able to take your time and have that knowledge makes me feel more comfortable out there.