CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — Hiking the Appalachian Trail, the famed 2,200-mile path from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, has a way of concentrating, one might even say purifying, the mind. Chris Bennett, a professional photographer from Maine, has a certain insight into that process. Since 2006 he has been photographing and interviewing thru-hikers—the people hiking the full length of the AT—as they come through Maine. By the time he talks with them, they’ve trekked some 2,000 miles.
“A lot of folks are pretty tired and they can’t wait for it to end,” Bennett told me as we sat and waited for hikers to cross a logging road outside of Carrabassett Valley. “But they’re happy they’ve done it and a lot of them say, ‘It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’”
All those months on the trail, with thousands of steps a day under a canopy of trees, leave a lot of time for thinking. It’s a rare person who’s not changed by the experience. “A lot of people have mentioned how they realize they can live with less as they’re sleeping on the floor of a shelter with everything they own on their back for six months,” Bennett says. “They go home realizing they don’t need this 3,000 square foot home or something like that.”
When the hikers come off the trail, Bennett offers them a cold drink and makes small talk. If they don’t mind, he’ll snap some pictures of them, ask a few questions, and send them on their way. The whole encounter might last ten minutes. “They’ve got 200 miles to walk [to Katahdin],” Bennett notes. “I don’t want to take a half-hour of their time.”
Nearly all the thru-hikers get the same questions: What made you want to hike the Appalachian Trail? How have you changed? What comes next? By pairing their answers with evocative photos, Bennett provides a glimpse into life on a road less taken. “Everybody—everybody—has an interesting story to tell,” Bennett says. “And I’m just trying to get that out.”
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