Q & A: Russ Anderson

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Russ Anderson at the southern terminus of the A.T.

On his quest to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, Russ Anderson of Linville, N.C., has endured hypothermic conditions, Army rangers with machine guns, and bears that know how to get food bags out of trees. Not bad for a 71-year-old retiree who’d never spent a night on the A.T. before deciding to hike it from end to end.

How much of the A.T. have you hiked so far? I’m 178.5 miles in. I started in Springer, made it to the Nantahala Gorge, then skipped the Smokies and hiked into Damascus. This summer, I hope to start in Damascus and head north, then come back to do the Smokies in the winter.

Is it as tough as everyone says? It’s like six or seven hours of extreme manual labor. Even if you’re 25 years old, it’s difficult. Those first days in Georgia were tough. Foggy, drizzling rain, cold, hail, sleet, freezing winds. Once I arrived at a shelter, I stripped off my rain gear and got into my sleeping bag. It took two hours to get warm again. But it’s worth it. The trail itself, the people I’ve met…it’s worth it.

What does your wife think about you thru-hiking the A.T.? She doesn’t like it. A person my age is supposed to be the leader of a family. I’m not supposed to disappear for six months. In a sense, I feel like I’m cheating the people in my lives. My wife and I are empty nesters, so she’s alone when I’m out there hiking. Even my friends think I’m crazy. They say I’m going to get eaten by a bear or fall off a cliff.

What made you decide to undertake this hike? I’m a retired naval officer. My life has been filled with unusual adventure. I just need more of that. Only 11 people over 70 have ever thru-hiked the A.T. And none of them had tried hiking it for the first time over 70. So that got me interested.

What’s been your most memorable moment on the trail so far? My second night out, I was sleeping in a shelter with 10 other people. All of a sudden, I hear a big explosion. Then machine gun fire. Then I hear yelling and shouting. None of us knew what was going on. Everybody was wicked scared, thinking the Russians were coming or something. Turns out, we were in the middle of an Army Ranger training exercise. We sat there for two hours while things blew up all around us.

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