Dillion Sexton of Chilhowie is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for the second time.
He first hiked the trail in 2014 when he was 22 years old. Since that time, he has also hiked the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast, the Continental Divide Trail, and, most recently, the Florida Trail, which he hiked over the winter.
Sexton said he first became interested in hiking in his youth, hiking with his dad, Doug Sexton.
“I decided to thru-hike because I was ready to do something different, kind of reset,” he said.
Sexton does not really hike for the sense of accomplishment, at least not any more. He hikes because he enjoys the lifestyle. He will work for several months and save his money. Once he has the necessary funds, he quits his job and hits a trail.
“I normally just work until I have enough money and I go. I haven’t found a job yet that will hire me back and let me leave. I guess it’s kind of inconvenient for them. I work from four to eight months and then I’m gone for about eight months. I need $2,500 to $4,000 with what I spend getting home and stuff. I spent less the first time because I had less,” he said.
Sexton, who is now 27, acknowledges that eventually he will need to think about a career, but for now he is content with the life he is living. He is single and stays with his parents when not hiking. His responsibilities are minimal, and there are several trails he plans to hike.
“After I finish the AT, there are definitely other trails I want to do. I probably won’t ever do another trail on the East Coast. I will be more West Coast focused. There are trails in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah that I plan to hike. I enjoy it while I’m out there,” Sexton said.
He also has plans to hike trails outside the United States, including the French and Portuguese Camino de Santiago trails, which are based on an eighth-century religious pilgrimage.
When Sexton began his hike on the AT in March, he met fellow hiker Jera Music, who traveled to the United States from Slovenia to hike the AT. Music, who is 19, was able to provide insight on hiking the El Camino trails because she recently completed them. While in high school, Music backpacked across Europe. She also spent two months backpacking in India.
“She could tell me the pros and cons of hiking El Camino. It sounds very relaxed. There’s a town every six miles or a hostel. It’s flat and you walk to the Atlantic Sea. It’s short, 500 miles, and you can just take your time,” Sexton said.
“There’s a lot of good food and wine. You don’t carry a shelter or bed, anything like that. You sleep in hostels and can take a shower every day,” Music added.
When Sexton and Music stopped by the newspaper office last month, they had reached mile 500 and were trying to move faster and be frugal in their spending.
“We are pretty much at mile 500, and I think we’ve each spent about $1.10 per mile at this point. We’ve been pretty frugal and are moving faster. We’ve spent about 500 to 600 bucks. The AT is one of the cheaper trails. You can find people to split with and the areas that are relatively less expensive,” Sexton said.
He and Music are traveling faster than he did during his first experience on the trail. He took 190 days to hike the AT the first time, from March 30 until Oct. 10, which he said is very slow.
“I took more zeros than I needed. I was hiking with a group of buddies. We were just going into a town and having a good time,” he said, adding that a zero is a day off, a day with zero miles hiked.
He said most hikers spend 70 percent of their nights on the trail. The main gear needed to hike the AT includes a backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, a tent, dry sacks to keep things dry, trekking poles, a head lamp or flashlight, a small backpacking stove and pot, and other small items. Most AT hikers carry an average of three days of food, he said.
“I don’t cook any more. I stopped cooking towards the end of the CDT (Continental Divide Trail). In the morning I do oatmeal with instant coffee. I eat a lot of salty snacks, a lot of chips. Lunch is tuna in packets. Dinner is cold-soak rice. I put chips in it to give it texture. I take a Talenti jar and put rice in it about two hours before camp,” Sexton said.
Sexton and Music are averaging about 20 miles per day, hiking 10 to 12 hours per day from 8:30 a.m. until 7:30-8 p.m., with breaks and time spent stopping to look at things of interest along the way.
When Sexton hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2016, he spent 140 days on the trail hiking from Campo, California, to the Canadian border.
“It was very different from the AT, almost not comparable in any way other than that you are hiking. It was very dry and flat. The lowest grade on the AT goes up 218 feet per mile averaged out and the PCT is 118 feet per mile elevation gain. The PCT looked beautiful,” Sexton said, adding that he had so much fun his first time on the AT that he “just couldn’t help myself. It just seemed like the natural progression.”
In 2017, he traveled southbound on the Continental Divide Trail, starting in Glacier National Park at the Canadian border and walking to Crazy Cook, New Mexico, which borders Mexico.
The CDT took 128 days, and Sexton hiked 2,850 miles. He said the trail has several optimal routes. He took the shortest, most common route.
Last winter he hiked the Florida Trail from Big Cypress, finishing at Fort Pickens in Pensacola, taking about 70 days to walk the 1,104 miles.
“I decided to hike the AT for a second time for the social aspect, but now I’ve kind of found that’s my least favorite thing about this trail. There are just so many people on it. The AT is the easiest one to get to from my home and is a really carefree, easy trail to do. You’ve got a huge (weather) window from Jan. 1 to November,” Sexton said.
On the AT, Sexton said, “It is very common to see larger groups than you would on any other trail. You’ll see anywhere from five to 10 to 15 people hiking in a group that know each other. Jera and I are both trying to finish earlier, in August instead of September. Sometimes it helps to have someone. You can kind of motivate each other to get out of town faster, wake up earlier, push a few extra miles. There are definitely guys out there who are doing huge days by themselves, trying not to talk to anybody. I’ve done that and I would rather not again. When I hiked the Continental Divide, there was anywhere from 40 to 60 going southbound. I saw maybe a total of 11 or 12 hikers the whole trail. There were up to 140 going northbound. We’ve already seen more people than I care to think about on the AT.”
Sexton also finds the AT to be less scenic than the other trails he has hiked.
“On the western trails, you get a view every day out there. Here, a lot of days, you’re just going through the green tunnel and if you do get a view, it doesn’t look much different than what you’ve seen, just more green mountains,” he added.
Sexton does not hike because he likes the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a trail. He just prefers the lifestyle.
“I really like the lifestyle. I really like being out there. I like having half the year off to go hike. If there is any aspect of the accomplishment that I do like, I would say it’s more the day to day, just getting your miles and achieving what you want to achieve. I just really like the lifestyle of it more so than just finishing thru-hikes,” he said.
Sexton said he decided to hike the AT for a second time because he enjoyed it the first time he made the trip.
“It’s just nostalgic memories. I don’t regret it by any means. It’s just the same problems with it. The difficulties I had before are still there. With all the experience I’ve had hiking, you just can’t prepare for four or five days of rain and 80 degree temperatures and humidity. And now Lyme disease is so bad the further north in Virginia you get,” Sexton said.
Although he and other hikers share the trail with many bugs and wild animals, he said the only true threat on the AT is the deer tick and the threat of Lyme disease.
“There are tons of bugs, little black flies and mosquitoes. The further into summer you get, they go away. The ticks don’t really start until early to mid June. We’re about to get into that window. I’ve never seen a snake that’s presented any type of threat, and I’ve seen every poisonous snake that America has. The only animal that really poses a threat is a grizzly bear.
“I split a mom and a cub walking into Damascus. The cub was probably 25-30 pounds. He was little and fluffy. She just ran off and he ran down the other side. If that had been a grizzly, I probably wouldn’t have been here. I’ve seen coral snakes, Mojave green rattlesnakes, which has one of the most complex venoms period. They don’t do anything.
“The most danger on the trail comes from the deer tick with Lyme disease. If you don’t catch that there can be heart failure, respiratory failure. It messes with your joints. The only way you won’t find a tick is just by being really negligent in checking yourself. If I feel anything on my body, I always look. They have to stay attached 24 to 36 hours. You have so many days after the disease has been transferred to get vaccinated for it. It comes up in either a really big aggravated red rash or white rings. You know if you’ve got it,” Sexton said.
Sexton has the highest respect for nature and all of the trails he has hiked. He has one message for others who share the trails.
“Leave no trace. Take out what you take in. This is so very important,” he said.
Once he and Music complete the AT, he will most likely return to his Chilhowie home, work for a few months, and then answer the call of whatever adventure and trail beckons him next.