Let the GA-MEs Begin: Hiking the Appalachian Trail

By Melanie Mandell

As a tribute to Colorado College alumnus Ritt Kellogg ’90, a skilled outdoorsman who tragically died in an avalanche, the Kellogg family established the Ritt Kellogg Memorial Fund in 1993. Each year, this fund provides students the means to carry out incredible backcountry trips in the U.S. and Canada for 12 days or more. Through a rigorous application process, students may propose virtually any trip they can dream of — from rock climbing in the Cirque of the Unclimbables in northeastern Canada to sea kayaking off the coast of Alaska.
Last spring, while we were reading syllabi and cracking open fresh notebooks in the beginning of Block 7, Bradley Bollag-Miller ’21 and Zach Benevento-Zahner ’21 were setting out to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. Completing 2,192 miles in 142 days is no small feat: it can only be accomplished with planning, and, of course, money. In order to fund such a massive expedition, the two applied for both Ritt Kellogg and Venture Grants. With no company outside of each other and the smattering of bears along the way, the two bonded over endless hiking and pasta dinners.
Melanie Mandell: What inspired the trip?
Zach Benevento-Zahner: I was inspired to do this trip because I had grown up near the trail and wondered if I could really actually hike it. Additionally, it was a really needed pause in between the first two and the last two years of school.
Bradley Bollag-Miller: During [our] sophomore year, Zach and I had talked about trying to do a Ritt Grant, but we weren’t exactly sure what we wanted to do. Around the same time, I was a bit frustrated being at school and not feeling completely fulfilled. We were talking about doing other shorter hikes and then jokingly suggested the AT. After that was said, it just felt like a really great time in life to attempt to do it – having a little break in the middle of college to reflect on what I am studying and am passionate about, while also talking advantage of CC’s grant opportunities.
MM: How did you decide to apply for both a Ritt Kellogg and a Venture Grant?
BBM: The conception of the idea to do the AT was based in a Ritt Grant. For me, I wondered a lot beforehand what the hike might be like to do as a queer person, given that I already knew how outdoor recreation is overbearingly hypermasculine and heteronormative. My research idea for my Venture Grant came naturally in wondering about this, and I hoped to be able to collect narratives from other queer hikers that I met along the way to share how experiencing the outdoors can, in fact, be shaped by one’s queerness, as well as be a form of empowerment.
ZBZ: We decided to apply for both grants because we thought that our trip would fit with both of those grants’ purposes. Additionally, due to length of the trip, we thought that it would be really helpful to have an appropriate budget for the trip.
MM: What was the most challenging aspect? The most rewarding?
ZBZ: The most challenging aspect for me was finding the will to keep hiking after doing it every day. I felt really rewarded by just how in shape my body became as we hiked.
BBM: Figuring out how to be with Zach at all times for such a long period of time was both the most challenging and rewarding. We had a significant amount of fighting and bickering, which was really brutal to work through. However, we became really good at communicating with each other which — by the end — made for a really powerful experience.
MM: What was your personal highlight from the trip?
BBM: I really loved hiking through New England because I am from Massachusetts. Hiking through the White Mountains was incredibly beautiful, and I had never been there before, so it was also exciting to see. I also loved being able to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted in whatever quantity I wanted — and feel entirely guilt free.
ZBZ: I loved the White Mountains in New Hampshire. They were beautiful and kind of felt like being in Colorado, but with a lot more water.
MM: Did you see any notable wildlife?
ZBZ: There were a few big snakes laying across the trail which was kind of scary to [encounter].
BBM: We saw a good number of black bears in Shenandoah National Park, but besides that, nothing too exciting.
MM: What was the best camp meal?
BBM: We made really delicious ramen with a bunch of stir-fried veggies and fried eggs. The best meals were definitely right after we resupplied so we could bring with us fresh veggies and fruit, and basically anything that didn’t have too much packaging.
ZBZ: At the beginning of the hike, our meals were much better than the end. By the end of the trip we were just eating plain ramen or Knorr’s pasta sides. In the beginning, we had delicious hash browns, eggs, and peppers for breakfast sometimes.
MM: Do you have any funny stories or camping mishaps?
BBM: We once accidentally set up camp in a shit field in the Smokies. We only found out because when we went to bed, we heard other hikers complaining that there was nowhere private for them to poop because we were apparently right where people usually go…
MM: Do you have any advice for those applying for a Ritt Kellogg Expedition?
ZBZ: I think when applying for Ritt it is so helpful to work with the Ritt coordinator to make sure the grant fits what they want.
BBM: Not particularly, except that if you choose to do a backpacking trip, Ritt money can go a really, really long way. If you feel up for it, using Ritt Grants to do a longer hike is definitely a once in a lifetime chance.
MM: If you could do it again, what would you do differently?
ZBZ: If I could do it again, I would love to have more time to do the hike because we had to really keep going and stay on a tight schedule. However, it’s this weird feeling of wanting to finish because we had been hiking for so long, but also wanting more time to take it slower and not feel like we had to hike as much each day.
BBM: I would probably have done the PCT. I’m glad I did the AT, but the PCT seems less rigorous on the body, much more scenic, with less people.

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