ALTON — Danne Zerow is a well-known customer at Senior Services Plus’ School House Grill.
Zerow has been seen on a daily basis enjoying breakfast, a cup of coffee and mingling with his friends. In March 2015, he went missing from his daily routine to accomplish something that not many would suspect of the retiree.
After retiring in 2011, Zerow starting making plans to cross an item off his bucket list. For more than 30 years, Zerow had aimed to complete the Appalachian Trail hike, a 2,189.2-mile goal.
Experienced hikers say the trail is one of the most difficult hikes in the world, and it is the second-longest continuously marked footpath in the world. The total elevation gain of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times.
Since January 2014, the ambitious Godfrey resident has been a member of the Senior Services Plus Wellness Center. In July 2014, Zerow made the decision that he would complete the Appalachian Trail hike solo.
On March 23, with a backpack full of supplies and a good pair of hiking boots, Zerow approached the start of the trail at Springer Mountain, Ga.
“My brother-in-law carried my bag for the first 9/10 of a mile, then he handed it to me and said ‘Try to last at least two weeks because I have a busy schedule and won’t be able to come back to get you,” Zerow said, chuckling. “Then he told me I was crazy and left.”
Prior to retirement, Zerow had worked at Laclede Steel as a scrap inspector and Granite City Steel as a yard master. No stranger to hard work, he trained for 14 months, one hour each day, with an exercise regimen of 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of weight training. Prior to the race, Zerow weighed about 215 pounds, and through weight training had gained 15 pounds of muscle.
Neel’s Gap, which is about 31.7 miles from the starting point at Springer Mountain, is the first official stopping point along the trail. A majority of inexperienced hikers quit and commemorate their stop by tossing their hiking boots up into a nearby tree. Some of the boots belong to those who began their hike from the north and finish at Neel’s Gap.
Zerow was not going to quit along the trail without a good reason. A broken toe, losing eight toe nails, and the occasional bear or snake sighting wouldn’t stop him on his trek to the northernmost point, what is known as Katahdin in Maine.
“It has been said that there is no way to train for the trail, whether physically or mentally,” Zerow said. “You just have to get out there and do it.”
Along his 2,189.2-mile journey, the 62-year-old met several individuals who quickly became friends with the same shared goal. International hikers from Australia, Austria, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belgium, Canada, Chile, The Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, North Ireland, Norway, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Wales have reported completing the trail.
It’s estimated that 2-3 million visitors hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail each year. Most enjoy day hikes and short backpacking trips, but each year a small fraction of those hikers complete the entire trail.
“Every hiker creates a hiking name,” Zerow said. “Along the trail I was known as ‘Trudge.’ Even though I hiked alone, I was never without company or someone to talk to.”
Zerow recalled several acquaintances, many of whom he was able to learn from along the way, whether it was from a conversation, or a note left behind warning of a situation ahead. There are some hikers who begin in Georgia and head north, known as “Nobos,” and then more experienced hikers begin in Maine and head south, known as “Sobos.”
“Some hikers you pass over and over again, and some you run into just once,” he said. “You seem to hike with others who keep the same pace as you. You might spend just an hour with someone or you could hike with them for weeks, staying at the same camps or hostels.”
Armed with trekking poles and a handbook on the Appalachian Trail, Zerow was able to find supplies along his journey. Water, hostels, camping shelters, general stores, shuttle services to town, and even places to do laundry are clearly marked — although many resources are a few miles off the trail.
“Hostels are basically homes, many a few miles away from the trail, that families will rent out to hikers,” he said. “For $25-$40 you can spend the night, for $5 you can take a hot shower or for another $5 you can do your laundry.”
During the beginning of his adventure, Zerow experienced bitter winter weather. As he continued into the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, spring began and the weather began to warm up. With spring came more rain, which meant Trudge was literally trudging through some of the muddiest parts of the trail.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Virtually every part of the Appalachian Trail has the potential to receive snowfall through early April. Mountains in the South, especially those above 5,000 feet, can receive snowfall — sometimes deep — well into April. The highest peaks in Tennessee, North Carolina and southwest Virginia receive an average of close to 100 inches of snowfall per year. In Maine and New Hampshire, snow can linger until June.
“Along the trail you will meet groups of people that are known as Trail Angels,” he said. “Most of the time, they are church groups that will set up a camp specifically to feed through hikers with hot dogs, chips, bottled water, snacks and even beer. I think I ate with Trail Angels for about a full month of meals.”
Zerow also described Trail Magic, which is when a person will leave a cooler of supplies along the trail with fresh fruit, bottled water and fresh supplies.
At the Grayson Highlands in Virginia, Zerow saw wild horses and longhorn cattle roaming around in green rolling pastures.
“The horses were very small in size, and they come up to you and try to lick the salt off of your arms,” he said. “There are signs everywhere telling you not to feed the horses.”
Harper’s Ferry, which is located at the most eastern point of West Virginia, was one of the most memorable stops for Zerow. A very historical area, the town was established in 1800. It is situated on the Potomac and Shenandoah River on the border of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. The town is located on a low-lying flood plain created by the two rivers surrounded by hills. Harpers Ferry is best known during the Civil War; it was a battlefield between Union and Confederate soldiers and the venue for John Brown’s raid on the Armory in 1859.
Often, Zerow had the opportunity to make phone calls back home and update his friends and family on his whereabouts and how the hike was going.
“Around the halfway point — around 1,000 miles into the hike in Gardners, Pennsylvania, they have what is called the Half-Gallon Challenge, where hikers can get a small souvenir wooden spoon for eating a half-gallon of ice cream.”
Needless to say, Zerow continued on his way without the creamy dessert in his belly. As part of hiker’s tradition, Zerow left his mark along the trail and commemorated every major milestone by writing out mile markers in sticks or rocks, from 100 to 2,000 miles.
“You learn a lot from the other hikers, especially those that are long-distance or marathon runners,” he said. “They will help you learn quickly that you have to eat constantly, about every hour eat 300 to 500 calories, and stay hydrated. If you don’t your body can shut down within minutes and you are done for.”
Foods high in calories and low in water weight, such as Snickers bars and Ramen Noodles, are popular with backpackers, who can burn up to 6,000 calories a day, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Since the 1930s, only 15,524 individuals have completed the entire hike, becoming what is known as 2,000-milers. The number of through-hikers in their 60s is fewer than 500, and only about 25 people age 70 and older have completed through-hikes.
Most through-hikers start their trips in March or the first half April at Springer Mountain in Georgia and finish at Katahdin in September, an average of six months.
Zerow began his journey on March 23, 2015, and completed the hike in only five months, reaching Katahdin on Aug. 19, 2015.
“When I finished the hike, I felt pretty exhausted but so proud to have accomplished a goal that I had set for myself,” Zerow said. “After finishing the hike, I had lost about 50 pounds.”
Zerow claimed that some of the most difficult sections of the trail were the 150-mile stretch of Pennsylvania that is mainly rock. He also recalled the White Mountains in New Hampshire, as well as the 150 miles of Maine that the trail became roots and mud.
“In Maine, there is what is known as the 100-mile wilderness stretch,” he said. “They say to prepare for about 10 days worth of supplies because there is nowhere to pick up new supplies for a full 100 miles. That is where we had to rely on a food drop, where someone off the trail will leave you supplies along your route.”
After almost five months of hiking, Zerow is looking forward to getting his upper body muscles back in shape. Needless to say, 62-year-old Zerow will be sharing countless memories and future plans with his friends over coffee and breakfast.
With the rest of his retirement ahead of him, there has already been talk about hiking in Alberta, Canada on the Banff Trail or one of the most popular trails in the world, the Camino de Santiago or Way of Saint James Trail in Spain.
“Now that I know I can do something like this, there is not a whole lot that can stop me,” he added. “It’s a lot rougher than you may think — about 10 times harder than you can even imagine. What I’ll remember most about my experience are the people I met along the way. Their determination made it an eye-opening experience and it changed the way I think about people. The trail will change you, and I believe it changed me for the better.”