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In the Limelight with John Combs: Trail Hiker

photo by John A. Secoges, Secoges Photographics

When life unexpectedly presented John Combs the opportunity to take a journey he had been considering, he didn’t hesitate to pack his things and hit the trail, literally. Through the middle of 2016, the Wyomissing native walked all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail, through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, in 135 days and almost entirely alone. While hiking solo, the freelance product designer discovered that his determination on the trail could also be applied to starting his own business. He also learned that unleashing his inner Cookie Monster is a good thing.

Q: How long had you been thinking about the hike?

I was always interested in it; my older brother George and I did an Outward Bound trip in North Carolina when I was 14. He did another trip to Wyoming when he was 15, so I was inspired by him. I hadn’t hiked in a long time, but it was on my mind for two or three years – on my bucket list. I didn’t plan that long though; I started about two months before I left.

Q: Why did you do it when you did?

I was working on a seasonal basis for the Food Network, in a behind-the-scenes position, and we were told the job would end in March [2016]. I started thinking about what I wanted to do when the work was over. I started reading people’s hiking stories online, especially a guy who had hiked the whole trail in 100 days.

Q: Did you set a goal like that for yourself?

The average time is five to six months, so his time was impressive, but I realized this was a one-time thing for me, so I wanted to take my time and enjoy it. My plan was to have no plan. I learned to seize the moment; I didn’t overthink it. I decided to hike hard, to push and challenge myself, but I didn’t stress. 

Q: And what did you enjoy?

Nature. The scenery is just breathtakingly beautiful. Some people like to travel abroad, but we have such beauty here. I also had a lot of time for self-reflection, which was nice, but you can have too much of that [laughs], so I listened to a lot of podcasts too. Another very cool aspect was meeting people on the trail, and everyone was eager to talk and get to know one another.

Q: So planning the journey didn’t take long?

Not for me. I bought a backpack about a month before I left. I didn’t even tell my parents I was going until the week before. I had done research, bought the things I needed. Then I flew to Atlanta and took a shuttle – they have them for AT hikers – to the trail head at Spring Mountain. That drop-off is a reality check; the shuttle drives away and you understand that this is happening [laughs].

Q: Now that the journey is over, what sticks with you and makes you smile?

Well, cookies. My friends know me as a Cookie Monster, and on the hike I was eating as much as I could and still lost 25 pounds. Cookies are easy to carry, so I ate a lot of them. A lot. I had a count going on my social media accounts and I ate 1,300 cookies during the hike [laughs]. But the absolute best was the last 60 miles. George, my brother and initial inspiration, met me in Maine and we finished it together. I learned I prefer to share an experience. It is the best memory.

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