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Long-Distance Companion

At 75, Soren West fulfilled a childhood dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail with help from his dog

It was 2016 when Soren West palmed his 9-year-old grandson’s shoulder and gazed out from the 5,250-foot peak of New Hampshire’s Mount Lafayette into a momentarily spotlit expanse in the 800,000-acre White National Forest. His long white beard and hair, cultivated over 1,850 northbound miles of Appalachian Trail thru-hiking, whipped in the howling, misty wind as clouds tumbled through the now blue, now angry sky like strips of gnarled cotton. West’s typically mild-mannered 8-year-old golden retriever, Theo, began to bark. 

“And something came uncorked in me,” laughs West. “I let out this wild … howl. Suddenly every molecule of my being cried back at Mother Nature. It was joyous. A moment of perfect being.”

Looking back, the 83-year-old calls the incident a full-circle epiphany: The conviction to thru-hike the A.T, came to him at age 12 on a summer camp trek to that very spot. 

“Of course, life intervened and it took me many years to return to that dream,” says West. “But, for whatever reason, I never let it go. It stuck in the back of my mind.”

He earned a law degree from Yale University; settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; founded an eponymous firm; pursued a successful career as a trial attorney. West married and had five “wonderful, talented children” who went on to pursue their own successes and start families. Life was good. Thoughts of a 2,200-mile quest on America’s most iconic trail had all but vanished.  

“Then, in 1996, I was standing in the living room, and it struck me like a giant whale crashing through the ocean’s surface,” says West. “‘You have to hike the A.T. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to finish at Katahdin on your 65th birthday?’”

Theo in Hot Springs, N.C. All photos courtesy of west

2006 came and it didn’t happen. 

“I was busy with work and being a granddad, so I kept finding reasons to put it off,” says West. He’d have to refer so many clients. Why not wait until he closed the firm, then use the hike to transition into retirement?

West’s adult children chimed in around 2010. 

“They started joking, like, ‘Dad keeps talking about this thing, but if he doesn’t start soon, he’ll be the first to hike the A.T. in a wheelchair,’” says West. “And I took their warning to heart.” 

He bought a copy of David Miller’s guidebook, AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, researched gear and sought advice from trekkers who’d completed the route later in life. West also started training with golden retriever Theo, who was then about 2. They eased in with four-mile walks on hilly local roadways. Out-and-backs to nearby summits progressed to overnights and long weekenders in all kinds of weather conditions, including snow and freezing rain. Then the two took on Vermont’s 272-mile Long Trail. 

“My wife would tease me and say Theo and I were from the same litter,” says West. “We were inseparable from the get-go. So, it wasn’t a matter of whether he was coming with me, but how to make it possible.” 

The Long Trail brought valuable lessons. 

“We set out south from the Canadian border and the terrain was rougher than I’d anticipated,” says West. The two hiked from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. and, unable to find a good spot to pitch the tent, slept in the open on a rocky hillside. The next day was so brutal, “I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ We spent two nights at the first motel we came to.”

The pause restored West’s conviction. Adapting a less ambitious, shelter-to-shelter strategy would let him ditch his tent, tarp, and other gear to cut about 15 pounds of weight. Meanwhile, Theo tackled the miles admirably. A phone consultation with their vet brought special saddlebags that West could pack with 10-15 pounds of dog food and water.

“At that point, the most serious hiking I’d done was five nights in the White Mountains as a teenager,” he says. Research was one thing, being on trail quite another. Still, West considered the trip a success as, “it helped me understand what we were up against and overcome a fairly big learning curve.” 

West shuttered his law firm in late 2015 and set out with Theo from Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park for the A.T.’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain on February 21. The first 500 miles went smoothly aside from a pesky deep heel bruise that refused to heal. West hiked six days a week and spent the off-day at a hotel, inn, or hostel. He felt great and averaged about 15 miles a day. A prior knee injury and related major surgery, combined with his age, enabled him to have Theo certified as a service dog. That meant that, with the proper vaccinations, Theo could travel in otherwise restricted areas like Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He not only crushed the trail miles, he was a perfect ambassador of doggy etiquette.

West and Theo on Humpback Mountain.

“I wasn’t worried about other hikers, but how he’d react to animals like deer or bear,” says West. But even encounters with the latter brought little more than perked ears and nervous glances toward his master. “I was a very proud dad, to say the least.”   

The problems began when West switched to summer boots in Marion, Virginia. The heel condition promptly worsened—and was diagnosed as plantar fasciitis—and he developed interdigital blisters that plagued him for the next 1,000 miles. A series of falls led to a torn rotator cuff, dislocated tooth and a sudden, frightening doctor’s visit in Maine. 

His shoulder was swollen and needed aspiration. The alarmed doctor removed 45ccs of fluid and immediately hospitalized West due to high risk of blood infection. West spent four days on an antibiotic drip, watching the weather and wondering if he would heal in time to finish before impending snowstorms closed the northern terminus at Baxter State Park. A flurry of surreptitious phone consultations with doctor friends brought a cautioned release. 

West caught a ride to Katahdin and summited on October 13, just days before snows closed Baxter for the winter. He then returned to the 100 Mile Wilderness and, with Theo by his side, completed the A.T. eight days later. 

Looking back, West says the quest probably would’ve failed but for two things. First and foremost was the now-deceased Theo. 

“I can say with absolute certainty that I would not have made it without him,” says West. “Theo was the best hiking buddy a guy could ask for. He pulled me through so many tough moments. He lifted my spirits whenever I was feeling down.” 

Second was a sense of purpose. 

“Had I gone in with the attitude that I’d ‘try’ to finish, I probably would have given up very early on,” says West. “But for me, this wasn’t optional — it was a calling that had haunted me for most of my life; it was something I had to do to feel fulfilled. That sense of purpose and urgency is what got me through. And it was absolutely worth all the pain, hardship, and suffering to get there.” 

Interested in learning more about Soren and Theo’s journey? Check out the former’s recently released book, Northbound With Theo: A Man and His Dog Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail at Ages 75 and 8, which features more than 200 photos from their trip.  

Cover photo: Hiking partners on Mount Washington.

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