Introduction to a CDT Thru-hike: Prep and Training

Gecko’s Overlook on Dante’s Trail in the Purgatory Creek Natural Area, San Marcos, Texas.

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” – Francis of Assisi

My name is Billy Mitchell and I will be leaving my hometown of San Marcos, Texas to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in the last week of March 2021. On the trail I will be answering to the trail name: Gecko. I served in the United States Army from 1989 to 1992 as a Light Infantry Dragon-gunner in the 10th Mountain Division, so I am no stranger to ‘humping it‘ through desert, jungle and mountains. I’m just out of practice!

During my service to country I got to hike in places such as Germany, Honduras, Panama, Death Valley California, Upstate New York, and Virginia in temperatures ranging from 100 F to -10 F. Most of the time my pack and gear weighed almost as much as I did (I was about 130 lb. at the time)! I found out firsthand about the debilitating heat of the desert, the soaking monsoons of the jungle, and the biting cold blizzards of the north.

In 1994 I began a college career using the veteran benefits I accrued through my years of service with the goal of attaining a B. S. in Geography with a minor in Sociology. I started at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, New York. I then transferred to Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. Most recently, I have been attending Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas and only need one more semester to graduate.

Now, almost 30 years later, I will venture back out into the elements (with a decidedly lighter pack!) to prove that the the disabilities I incurred from my military service (10% lower back and 10% tinnitus/ringing in the ears) and the decades of wear and tear on my body, mind, and soul have not limited my wanderlust and spirit of adventure. I have a mission to prove that a veteran with disabilities can thru-hike a long distance trail and that these trails can be a source of physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.

It’s been a few years now since I saw my very first YouTube thru-hike. I stumbled across the 2012 Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike of Joe Brewer, who is Backcountry Banter on YouTube, while watching permaculture videos. I immediately fell in love with the idea thru-hiking a long distance trail. I had heard about the Appalachian Trail before, but I had never considered hiking it. Since then, I’ve watched thru-hikes of Dixie (Homemade Wanderlust), Darwin on the Trail, EarlyRiser71, and dozens of other hikers. For the past 2 years, I have been preparing for my own thru-hike…and 2021 is my year!

I started my own hiking focused YouTube channel called ‘Gecko’s Trails‘ where I upload all of my training and gear videos. This will be the home of my thru-hiking vlog. I started various other social media profiles where I will also share my posts and pics. Of course, I couldn’t start these and not also start a Patreon account for my followers. I am hoping that during my time thru-hiking, I can form a family to share my experiences with and where I can share theirs as well.

My wife, Michelle, has been very supportive of my dream to get out on the trails. She is the person who gave me my trail name because I like to catch the geckos that live around our house. I am also slightly cold-natured after my experiences in the frozen north of New York and Michigan and I really like to bask in the sunlight.

Dante’s Trail, Purgatory Creek Natural Area, San Marcos, Texas

I knew that if I was to go on a thru-hike, I was going to have to train up. Luckily, there was a perfect place for that in San Marcos, Texas…Purgatory Creek Natural Area. Using the various trails within the park, a hiker can stitch together hikes of almost any length and terrain type…flat and level to hilly and rocky. This was good for me as a disabled veteran because I could tailor a hike to how I was feeling at the moment. First I started with 3-4 mile hikes, but now I do 10-15 mile hikes once or twice a week. It really helps that the trail head is only about 3 miles from my front door!

My hiking attire usually consists of my Merrill trail runners, workout shorts, a t-shirt, and a baseball hat. I bring along my Sierra Club daypack stocked with 3-4 750 ml bottles of water, various snacks and fruits, a hammock with straps, a hoodie, bug spray, and a headlamp.

My gear is coming together slowly but surely. Since my base budget for this thru-hike is, in essence, my VA disability monthly check (about $70 per week), I have been having to get creative with obtaining gear. First, I participate in online survey websites that pay in Amazon and PayPal gift cards. I enter into gear sweepstakes and giveaways. I have also applied for sponsorships. I am not worried, though. I will have everything that I need in time to start my hike.

I am confident that when I start my thru-hike I will be as physically fit as I can possibly be. If I can hike 10 miles in 4 hours on a practice trail then I should not have a problem doing miles on the CDT. I do, at the moment, smoke about a pack of cigarettes a day. Beginning 7 days prior to starting the trail I plan on completing the first 7 day regimen of Chantix, so that when I start my hike, I am not bringing any cigarettes with me. Hopefully by the time I reach the San Juan Mountains my lungs will have healed enough that I won’t be affected by altitude sickness.

I have also been having problems with bursitis in my left shoulder. For the past 2 months I have been doing physical therapy to alleviate it and I will be taking some tools with me on the trail to keep it in check.

From watching the thru-hikes of others I realize that a thru-hike is not only a physical challenge but a mental and emotional one as well. To that end, I have been keeping a list of things that I feel could be challenging for me.

I have a suffocation phobia which, since the COVID-19 pandemic started, has kept me from being able to wear a facemask. I know that I will have to wear one while in towns, hotels, and hostels though. I have been trying to wear a mask for a few hours every day for the last few weeks…slowly trying to best my fear.

I am also arachnophobic. Sadly, there is no help for that accept to endure any chance encounters that I may have with my creepy eight-legged friends. Oddly enough, scorpions and snakes don’t both me.

I am also hoping that there will be other people hiking near me that I can camp with because of a slight fear of encountering wild animal in the dark. I had a scary encounter with a pack of coyotes a few years ago. I’ll make sure to tell that story again on my YouTube channel once I get out on the trail!

Other than that, I know that just being out on the trail will come with fears all it’s own. Some of these include making sure that I have enough food and water to make it to the next resupply, making sure that I have enough money while out on the trail to get everything that I need (my base budget is $70 per week), dealing with the repetitive schedule and solitude of the trail, and dealing with any injuries or illnesses that may occur on the trail.

It is my hope that this thru-hike will not only make me physically stronger but mentally stronger as well!

I continue to march ever closer to my start date of March 27, 2021. I am extremely excited…and scared to death at the same time. That’s what makes the prospect of thru-hiking so appealing though! I think it’s going to kind of be like dying…and then being reborn! I’m leaving my old self behind and becoming a better person…someone more confident, brave, and compassionate (I hope!).

So, for all of you other Army Infantry veterans out there, I will leave off with a saying you will probably remember: “Follow me!!!”

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