Freeport man to hike Appalachian Trail

February 28, 2012 at 10:15 AM

FREEPORT — When Matt Mason, 23, was a young boy he got into an argument with a friend about whether there was a hiking trail longer than 100 miles. Mason said at the time, he didn’t believe it, but he later learned the 2,184 mile long Appalachian Trail was the “trail of all trails.” Mason said he never gave up thoughts about hiking this trail.

An outdoor lover, Mason, a 2007 graduate of Freeport High School, stayed active with YMCA programs, hiking the outdoors while volunteering at various camps. He is a December 2011 graduate of Western Illinois University with a degree in Recreation Parks and Tourism Management. While receiving his degree was a monumental feat in his young life, something else loomed ahead. Mason also had thoughts of being one of nearly 2,000 hikers who attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail each year.

“I grew up hiking at Oakdale Nature Preserve and the Apple Canyon State Park, and fell in love with hiking the outdoors,” Mason said. “Once I realized that the A.T. (Appalachian Trail) was the trail of all trails, I just had to try.”

The average time it takes a hiker to do the Appalachian Trail is four to six months. Less than 20 percent of the hikers actually make the trail that runs from the north in Maine to the south in Georgia. Mason plans to spend his Leap Year date by starting the trail in Springer Mountain, Georgia. He hopes to make it to Mount Katahdin, Maine by the middle of July.

Mason has been training for the hike for months. Weather permitting, he can be found hiking Krape Park with a 30-pound backpack. By the time he hits the trail in 10 days, he hopes his backpack weighs no more than 25 pounds. Every ounce counts, so much so that he has cut useless tags and cords from his backpack to help. He even cut the tag off the cap he wears.

“Luckily, we have not had a normal winter here this year, so I have been able to be outdoors more,” he said. “I have been practicing my pack and it doesn’t go into my backpack until it is weighed, I even cut the end off my toothbrush to make it lighter.”

Mason knows the odds are against him to make it to the end of the Appalachian Trail. He has read all the books, looked at the maps and blogged with a few experts. He said the best advice is following the motto, which is, “Hike Your Own Hike.”

“I am excited and I don’t think it will hit me until I’m in Springer Mountain and have my boots with Georgia mud on them.”

Mason will take a bus to Georgia to meet the start of the trail. There will be no fancy send off for this man, except a short hike with his grandmother, Louise Johnson, who plans to drive north from Florida to hike a short way with her grandson.

“My grandmother will live a bit of her own dream by hiking with me,” he said.

Mason plans to follow the advice of experts and hike no more than 10 miles each day for the first month. He doesn’t want to burn out. He said with each step he will get closer to Maine.

“After the first month, I will pick up the pace and average 17 to 20 miles a day,” he said.

The Appalachian Trail is one of the most famous hiking trails in the world. The trail is protected along more than 99 percent of its course by federal or state ownership.

Mason is also doing this walk for charity by walking for the Chicago Fire Foundation, the charity for the soccer team Chicago Fire. He will carry the flag in his backpack.

He has the support of his family, which includes father Doug Mason of New York and Anne Mason of Freeport. He will carry a cell phone to call his girlfriend and mother each night. He also plans to journal daily and blog his trip when he gets to civilization along the trail.

“My goal is to make the entire trail, but it will be one day at a time,” Mason said. “Experts tell me the hike is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental.”