On the trail they called him “Sojo,” short for Sojourner. On February 21, 2016, retired attorney Soren West stepped onto the packed earth of the Appalachian Trail; his temporary stay in the wilderness would last eight months and six days.
The AT runs roughly 2,190 miles through 14 states, starting northbound from Springer Mountain, GA to its terminus on Katahdin in Maine. At the age of 75, Soren—with his golden retriever Theo—hiked the whole thing. In that year, he was the oldest to hike the trail in its entirety. (The following year, Dale “Grey Beard” Sanders became the oldest person ever to thru-hike at age 82.) Theo was eight years old at the time.
“At first he liked to pretend he was protective,” says Soren about Theo, mentioning his companion who now naps in the foyer of their West End home facing Buchanan Park. “There’s no bite behind the bark. A month in he didn’t bark anymore; he knew what was going on.”
Soren fell in love with hiking at the age of twelve when he completed a 67-mile section of the AT along the Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The five-day hike stuck with him his whole life.
“It took me six years to get ready,” he says, recalling how he calculated the miles he would need to trek each day to make it to the terminus before winter set in; trained by hiking smaller trails around the northeast; and tested equipment, including footwear. “There’s an awful lot to plan and learn.”
The AT Conservancy warns that in addition to logistics, physical and mental preparations are important factors for a successful thru-hike. Some hikers plan out each stop, mailing ahead provisions to strategic towns along the trail. Soren planned to meet each stop as it came; there he would replenish his stocks from local grocers and spend zero days—days of nonhiking— off the trail.
“I was very fortunate to have a dog with me,” says Soren about his constant companion. “I didn’t suffer the kind of mental fatigue some do. But I did have times when I wondered if my body was going to let me finish.”
Approximately 3,000 people start a thru-hike each year, most travelling south to north from “start to finish.” Only one in four complete their goal. Soren came close to being one of the three in that statistic, but he had two things going for him: a “litter mate” and a guaranteed desire to complete the hike.
Virginia was exhausting, but he had devised a plan to rest, regroup, and return to the trail, which he did. Pennsylvania, nicknamed “the graveyard of paws and boots,” is the least favored state of the trail due to its craggy rock formations; here, a boot change proved to be an error and his feet suffered for 1,000 miles. In New Hampshire he made it back to Franconia Ridge.
“This place was the genesis of the whole thing,” says Soren, and when he got to that point in 2016, he was joined by his son Christopher and grandsons Thomas and Isaac. “We came to this spot and the weather was amazing. The clouds were sweeping in and sweeping out. Something in me came uncorked and I howled back at that wind as loud as I possibly could.”
After New Hampshire he struggled to go more than nine miles each day. He pushed himself to break double digits but tripped, slammed his face on a root, and dislodged his tooth; he couldn’t close his mouth. Luckily, he found a dentist in the next town who popped the tooth back in place. That tumble, combined with injuries from an earlier fall when he tripped over some old barbed wire, damaged his rotator cuff.
“When I got to Maine I was running on fumes. I couldn’t use my right arm very much,” says Soren. “When I got to Munson, Maine, which is the last town before you finish, my shoulder was hot and sore.”
He spent three days in the hospital. The recommended surgery to clean out an infection would have ended his hike. Spying a favorable weather forecast from the hospital bed, he decided to push on. It was October and time was running out. Days were getting shorter and colder.
“Katahdin is 13 feet short of a mile high. That’s a fitting end to a thru-hike,” says Soren, who, after summiting the terminal peak, went back to finish the Hundred-Mile Wilderness—the wildest section of the Appalachian Trail—he missed while in the hospital. “It was an amazing adventure that changed my life.”