Tanner Fellow Ryan Schlosser ’21 dispatches from the Appalachian Trail
Last March, Ryan Schlosser ’21 found himself in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, conflicted about whether to head northbound as planned or call off his 1,990-mile trek of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Less than a month into his meticulously planned through-hike on the historic trail, the federal government had declared the COVID-19 pandemic a national emergency, and Schlosser had a big decision to make.
“Things started to shut down, schools were closing, and it was that panic period where nobody knew what was happening or how far things were going to go,” says Schlosser. “Having been on the trail for about 2 1/2 weeks, I had already invested a lot of time into it.”
Months of planning, 18 days of hiking, and about 200 miles had already been spent on the hike. Schlosser’s academic commitment to St. Lawrence University supported by the University’s Tanner Fellowship was also in jeopardy of being incomplete. In order to assess his next steps, Schlosser, a native of Allegany, New York, partnered remotely with his mom to decide on his next move together.
“We looked at what was known about COVID, what wasn’t known, and how to continue safely within the CDC’s guidelines,” Schlosser explains. “We came to the conclusion that it was possible for me to stay on the trail, for that moment.
“It wasn’t a permanent decision because nobody knew how bad things were going to get,” remembers Schlosser, explaining that every couple of weeks he and his mother would re-evaluate the conditions in order to make an informed decision about moving forward.
“The coronavirus, constantly changing guidelines from different states, and constantly changing laws and regulations were certainly a logistical mess,” says Schlosser. “I think being able to work through all of that built a lot of skill and a lot of confidence.”
Although he remained on trail, a large number of through-hikers chose to end their journeys, while would-be hikers delayed their trips entirely. As a result, the rest of Schlosser’s trek was unusually quiet.
“It was a pretty terrifying but also a unique experience to be walking through the woods while the rest of the world was shutting down,” Schlosser says. “Looking back at it now, part of what makes it wonderful is just knowing that it’s never going to happen again.”
Voices on the Trail
Although Schlosser confesses that he wasn’t much of a hiker before coming to St. Lawrence, it was almost predestined that he’d one day find his way to the A.T.
“My parents were either going to hike the Appalachian Trail or have kids,” Schlosser says in “Walking and Talking,” the podcast he recorded from the trail as part of his Tanner Fellowship commitment. “Luckily for me, the latter occurred.”
The Tanner Fellowship, which aims to empower students to pursue unconventional educational opportunities and make a creative mark on their community, helped to fund Schlosser’s semester-long travels. For Schlosser, it was an alternative to a semester abroad, and the proposal to record a 14-episode podcast chronicling his own experiences and capturing the stories of fellow hikers was a central part of his fellowship research.
Schlosser logged everything from elation and wonder to frustration and fatigue, while footsteps crunched and wind or water rushed in the background. He talks about terrain, footwear preferences, food, towns he encounters off the trail, and the tedium of watching his miles to Mt. Katahdin—the northernmost point on the A.T.—slowly tick away. He speaks to and about people introduced with the names they earn on the trail—Lefty, Bad Mash, Shotgun, and Beehive. And, after gaining a reputation as a record keeper, Schlosser earned his own trail moniker, Yearbook.
“Doing the interviews gave me a really cool opportunity to get close to people a lot faster than I normally would,” says Schlosser. “It just made me aware that everybody out on the trail has a story.” One interviewee hiked for sobriety. Another promised his wife he’d build them a home upon his return. Several, like Schlosser, were fulfilling a quest to through-hike that was dreamed of long ago.
“It’s really exciting that everyone is trying to accomplish the same task... but the way they got there is so different,” says Schlosser. “There are so many different routes that lead people to want to through-hike, and getting to hear people’s stories made me super aware of that.”
After five months of checking in with his mom and re-evaluating safety procedures, Schlosser crossed the border to Maine and summited Mount Katahdin on August 7, 2020. He traced 1,990 miles during a worldwide pandemic, chronicling his experience in a podcast that now acts as a unique time capsule for the unprecedented events of 2020.
Schlosser is completing his junior year this fall as an environmental economics major with creative writing and outdoor studies minors and says that his through-hike expanded his skill set in unexpected ways.
“In the past, I think I might have blindly turned away from signs that maybe something couldn’t happen,” says Schlosser. “Every year, hikers face the hard logistics of through-hiking the A.T., but this was not a normal year. It made me realize that if I really want to make something happen, and I put in the work, I now have the confidence to do it.” n
The Tanner Fellowship was created by the friends and family of the late Tanner Cornwell to honor his extraordinary life.