It was two months after he'd finished college and Andrew Skurka decided to walk across the continent. He'd start in Cape Gaspe, Quebec, hump across the Appalachians, sleep outside in the Michigan winter, not bathe for two weeks in Montana, and end up in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, 339 days and 7,708 miles later. Well, of course, he would.
He'd changed at Duke, after all. He no longer wanted to start a business club, the way he had in high school. Nor was he intent on fulfilling his childhood dream of "owning Wall Street by the age of twenty-five." No, mostly Skurka just liked to be outdoors now: running for the cross-country team, hiking when he could. He even postponed his final semester to intern at a land conservancy in Raleigh, making sure that the outdoors would be around for a while longer.
After finishing his studies in December, Skurka moved to Boulder, Colorado, and was settling into a nice life there--good friends, a roof, a job that afforded him plenty of hiking time. But he'd read an article in Backpacker Magazine the year before about something called the Sea-to-Sea Route that connected hiking trails from one end of the continent to the other, and the thought of being the first person to take it on had been eating away at him ever since. So when it came down to it, the decision was easy, really. There was no epic reasoning, no grand spiritual yearning, just an abiding desire to do something he thought would be rewarding. If he could also persuade some people to appreciate the outdoors a little more along the way, then all the better.
And so on August 6, 2004, he started walking. He had lined up a couple of corporate sponsors and briefed his mom on what supplies to send to post offices along the way: razors, Balance Bars, toothpaste, stuff like that. Everything was set. Now, it was just him and the trails, which was what he'd wanted the whole time anyway. He thought about nothing in particular and saw parts of America people didn't know existed.
Plus, when he occasionally ventured back into civilization, Skurka would meet so many nice people--"not one bad apple the whole trip." There were the Snyders, who heard about what he was doing through a local trail association and simply insisted he eat with them on Thanksgiving. And then there were the Godells, whom he met after a particularly gruesome stretch on the Michigan highway, where the combination of rainwater and kicked-up road dirt nearly broke his spirit. He still calls the Godells once a month, just to catch up. That's the kind of luck Skurka had on the trail.
"You go through these cycles where nothing particularly spectacular happens for three, four days, maybe a week," he says. "You're putting in the miles, the weather might be crappy, you're not meeting anybody interesting when you go into towns, and then...something happens."
Like the way the western end of New York looks when the sun breaks through eight straight days of rain, or the way instant mashed potato burritos taste after trudging thirty-five miles in the heat. All of a sudden, the Pacific wouldn't seem so far off. And much less suddenly, it wasn't that far off, until finally, he was bathing in it.
He can't even begin to describe how good that felt. Twenty-four-year-olds aren't supposed to know accomplishment like that.
But he knows he's hooked. So, now, as he drives across the country for the speaking tour that's grown out of the trip, he's also cooking up his next adventure, which may or may not involve hiking.
"I could see my interests changing if I were to meet a woman I absolutely adored but wasn't into hiking so much," he acknowledges. "Say, if she were into something totally different, like trail running or ultra-marathoning, I think I could be happy doing that instead."
Andrew Skurka '03
March 31, 2006