A Mountain of a Man
Wilderness tales – we see them all the time in Hollywood. Whether it’s someone scaling a treacherous mountain trail in tormenting elements, or the beginnings of a thriller film, it makes no difference. There’s something about the wilderness that takes our attention and seizes it in an iron grip. We are simply fascinated with survival stories; they are, many times, the heart of a good story, or the makings of a legend.
However, to many of us, the wilderness may just be something we hear about or watch from the comfort of our homes. But for Max Nagel - well, let’s just say he might not be leaving his couch so soon.
Now 20-years-old as of October 15, Max Nagel is not what you’d expect your average wilderness-wanderer to look like. A head of abundant curls, matched with a comfortable, modern look makes up the young man, who has the aura of an educated philosopher more than a man of the outdoors.
At this point in the year, most young adults are busy completing syllabi in college, not a 2,000-mile hiking trail. But, it’s a different kind of education Max is pursuing at the moment – survival education, no less.
It would seem that one needs to be just as studious as a college freshman when it comes to spending six-months on the Appalachian Trail.
Nagel can testify to that, firsthand.
The idea to trek almost 2,200 miles in the wilderness has not been a life-long dream for Nagel; not really. The passion came while sitting in class one day during senior year, after reading testimonies and educating himself on the topic – he decided he wanted to pursue a backpacking trip, before faced with any difficult life decisions like college or “adult responsibilities.”
“It just hit me,” Nagel says, stuffing his hands into his pockets, “and I realized it was something I really wanted to do in my life.”
With no previous backpacking or hiking experience under his belt, Nagel began researching for himself the Appalachian Trail, or if you’re into the hiking lingo, the “A.T.” If you do a Google search, the trek is a marked hiking trail, extending between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is 2,190 miles on foot, without factoring in any extra “off trail” experiences. Statistically, Nagel shared, there are around 5,000 people a year that attempt the A.T., but not many of them see their destination in Maine.
“Someone had mentioned off the cuff that I was the 1,043rd person to have climbed it,” Nagel stated. How true that statistic is, Nagel wasn’t entirely sure, but given the length of the trail, coupled with the trials of living out of a backpack, it isn’t hard to imagine it being an accurate count.
Equal in challenge is the preparation for the trip, which Nagel stated dominated a lot of his time in readying himself for his trip. Humble in his claim that there wasn’t much physical training on his part aside from “pushing carts at Target,” the then 19-year-old Buffalo resident stated that researching gear and knowing your limits of what you can carry were at the top of his priority list.
“Every ounce is taken into consideration,” Nagel said, “when you prepare, you don’t look at the price or the brand-name – you check the ounces and the weight, as well as the statistics. There’s a reason the multiple hundreds of dollars tent is multiple hundreds of dollars.”
So, with his final total gear weighing in at 30 pounds with food and water, and after weeks of study and mental preparation with next to no physical training, Nagel was ready to say his goodbyes at the foot of Springer Mountain on March 28.
‘A White-Knuckle Experience’
March 28 came – soon.
Eric and Bridget Nagel were the ones who had to face the reality of “dropping [their] kid in the middle of the wilderness.” However, Bridget bid her son adieu long before her husband, Eric, did – Eric drove their son to Georgia, while Bridget said her goodbyes here, in Minnesota.
Eric commented that the ride out to Springer Mountain was fine in and of itself, minus the few hours they were lost in the middle of Georgia. However, the hike to the base of the trail, as well as the “saying goodbye” aspect of the trip quickly began to fall apart as soon as he watched his son hike out of sight.
“I had this growing sense of anxiety as we made our way out there,” Eric shared, “I began to realize that maybe we hadn’t prepared enough for this; that I was shoving him out the door too fast.”
Aside from the “white-knuckle experience” of climbing up the mountain road in a vehicle, which was never really made for mountain excursions, the departure of Max Nagel was not the picturesque scene they’d hoped for. It was raining, and a bit cold, and the pair were speechless as they snapped photos and strapped on Max’s gear.
Now, in hindsight, Eric can laugh about how he felt standing in the middle of nowhere in a state that wasn’t home, about to send his son on his way for six months. “I mean, what do you say in a moment like that? I told him to stay in contact, and make friends. There was probably more I could’ve said, but that’s what came to me then.”
The tears would come in Gainesville, when Eric realized that he’d dropped his son off in the middle of the wilderness. “It just hit me, then and there, in the middle of buying Kleenex boxes,” he said.
Bridget, Max’s mother, who spent the “white-knuckle” part of the trip at home, chimed in, “When he called me, I told him to turn around and go back and get him!” Bridget rubs at a teary eye as she adds, “I told him to take tons of photos just so I could see his face – I just had to see him.”
His parents’ demands of staying in contact and sharing pictures weren’t easy ones, Max shared. “Every minute you’re not focused on hiking is a minute later you arrive at your destination. It puts a demand on you physically, it can be more work focusing on cell service, and it makes your time really inflexible. Staying in contact was really hard.”
Coming from a young adult who desired a taste of independence away from society and home-life, Eric and Bridget gave their son a look that shows that they didn’t believe him for one minute. Thankfully, relief and excitement are the primary emotions in the room, not anger or disbelief.
Bridget commented to the anxiety and stress at home from a personal standpoint, “As a mother, you spend your nights wondering ‘Where is he? Is he ok?’ I’m not sure I got any decent sleep in six months!”
However, goodbyes were only the beginning of what promised to be a long six months without Max Nagel at home.
On the Trail
Max shared that being on the trail was a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” that he wanted to do again. With a phone app as his guide, and 2x6 trail-markers to show him the way, he set off from Georgia for his six-month trip to Maine, which he arrived at on September 30.
Thankfully, Max was able to meet up with another hiking group of people who were on the same trek he was. He hiked with them all the way to their destination, which he shared was the best part of the experience, “I made friends that I’ll hopefully have for the rest of my life, and we conquered something together. That is so meaningful to me.”
There were about 20 people who Max hiked with, and he said having people along for the journey made the trails and difficulties all the more bearable.
When asked what the biggest skill he learned was, Max will tell it to you straight – how to survive with meager means. “You read about them in the books and online, but living survival skills is different,” he commented. “You learn different ways of hanging your gear to prevent bears, how to pace yourself, and how to measure your weight to calorie intake.”
“You become very aware of your overall health and condition when you’re that physically active,” Eric shared. “You become aware of little things that slow you down or hinder you. On the trail every moment counts.”
The weather was also one of the most important things to be aware of in the wilderness, Max shared. While there wasn’t much snow on his trip, it rained a lot. There was a three-week stretch while hiking through Virginia, where it rained almost every day.
The heat, though – that was the kicker for Max. “At the beginning of July, it was 95 degrees with 100% humidity, and we took five days off our hike just to beat out the heat. We were at Harper’s Ferry trying not to get heat exhaustion, and that can be frustrating. You get a sort of cabin fever, wanting to get back out again.”
Then, in Massachusetts, the group weathered a storm that had everyone worried, which Max said was probably the most worrisome stretch of the trek.
Back home, however, Max’s family had worries of their own. When Max was able, he’d send updates and pictures of his whereabouts so his family could stay involved with his trip and keep tabs on their son. Bridget commented that they’d pinned up a large map of Max’s journey and had marked it upon each update that he’d send.
Theo Nagel, who is the youngest of the family, spoke regarding the map. “The worst part for us was looking at the map and seeing how much more he had to go!”
To this, Max simply comments, “Progress is progress.”
Max’s family was dutiful in keeping up-to-speed on his journey; sending him new shoes, clothes, cameras, and other necessary items at points throughout his trip. “I think we sent him three pairs of shoes throughout the entire six months,” Eric shared.
The biggest challenge of the trip wasn’t being away from home for six months or battling elements however, Max commented. It was the end-cap of the journey, at Mount Katahdin in Maine.
“I didn’t realize how treacherous the trail was to the finish,” Max chuckles nervously while sinking farther down in his chair. “I was clinging to the rocks for dear life. You’re on the knife’s edge on some of those side trails when there’s a thousand-foot drop on either side!”
“It’s a bit weird, being back home,” Max says, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly, “I miss my friends and hiking. It’s almost really surreal, being back. You realize little things like beds, fridges, that kind of thing – and, for the record, cars go so fast!”
When asked about the stress and strain of his journey, Max only responds with the simple statement of, “It’s a different kind of stress. It’s what you do in a day versus the stuff you have to do for the rest of your life. To me, that kind of stuff is far more stressful than hiking two thousand miles.”
Towards the end of his hike, Max stated that he was travelling roughly 20 miles a day, having only started out hiking around 10 miles a day from his start in Georgia. The best part of his journey was being in Maine, he shared excitedly, saying that it was a “simply beautiful” state. When you ask him the best part of being home, he will confidently tell you that the food is better, after having lived on a variation of macaroni and cheese for six months.
“You really learn what you are capable of doing,” Max said at the end of his shared experiences. “I realized that I could do more than I thought I could, which is a good thing to know so early in life. If I do what I put my mind to, I can really do anything. That’s the biggest thing I took from this.”
As for what he’s putting his mind to do – well, don’t ask Bridget. She’s exasperated that her son isn’t more interested in college, instead more focused on planning a trip down the Mississippi River by canoe or another hiking trip along the Pacific Coast. Max stated that eventually he would like to study environmental science, or pursue a career in the DNR, but that wasn’t what he wanted to do “at the moment.”
Max Nagel arrived safety back to Buffalo, Minnesota on October 1, both hungry and tired. Now, he is looking to find honest, steady work to begin saving for his next adventure, while his family just shakes their head at him while his middle brother, Simon, chuckles under his breath.