Augusta man nears end of Appalachian Trail journey

Augusta resident Troy Hodges adopted an alter ego after he left Mount Katahdin, Maine, in early July to hike the Appalachian Trail.

As is custom for thru-hikers, he gave himself and his dog trail names. He called the dog "White Blaze," after the white markers that mark the trail. He called himself "Follow" -- the guy who follows after her. Soon, he'll leave the trail names behind.

Ten weeks and 2,100 miles after he began, Hodges crossed the Georgia/North Carolina line, 68 miles from the trail's end..

"It's kind of bittersweet. You don't want certain things to end," said Hodges, 33. "It makes you realize there are a lot of good people in the world. They take you in and feed you a hot meal."

They included Bud, who drove Hodges 10 miles from the trail to Hiawassee, Ga., so he could resupply. And "Wonderland," "Boy Wonder" and "Yogi," three trail buddies whom odges runs into now and again. And friends from back home who mail care packages every few hundred miles filled with cookies, new earplugs for his iPod, and letters (he has kept and reread every one).

Back home, Hodges' girlfriend, Emily Sims, said there was never any doubt in her mind he would finish. He already climbed Africa's Kilimanjaro, which takes hikers from desert heat to frostbite in a few days.

"It sounded awful to me ... but he's a tough nut, so he could do it," Sims said.

She thought a bigger problem for her boyfriend, whom she calls "the goofy guy who's the life of the party, would be being alone for so long.

Hodges acknowledged that loneliness has been part of the challenge. Even though he crosses paths with fellow hikers, 90 percent of the time he has been on his own.

"I guess that's where Sashi (the dog's real name) comes into play," he said.

"We're out there, and this is what it's all about. The trail is for being one with the wilderness."

Sometimes wilderness is tough. One recent night, at North Carolina's Deep Gap shelter, Hodges woke to wind gusts of 55 mph. He left his hammock and crawled into Wonderland's one-man tent. Sashi followed.

"It was a good thing too, because by morning everything was covered with ice," he said. After waking, he found that chipmunks had eaten a couple of quarts of his and Sashi's food. Along with pain, the Appalachian Trail delivered some once-in-a-lifetime rewards.

Early one morning in Maine, just two weeks into the trip, Hodges saw a moose. About 10 feet tall and weighing more than 1,000 pounds, it ran straight toward man and dog, knocking down saplings along the way. It got within 10 feet of them before veering off.

"I found out later they have bad eyesight," Hodges said. "I didn't even take out my camera when it happened. If I had, I would have missed seeing it."