That first morning, it was already light when he woke at 3 a.m., on the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, where the Appalachian Mountains, which rise in Alabama, begin their decline into the sea.
He was about to hike the length — and much of the height — of the ancient mountains, then continue walking to the southern end of the country in Key West.
On July 6, the morning he took his first step, he had 4,800 miles in front of him.
He would cover them all on foot.
In nearly seven months — 205 days, to be exact — James Hoher of Jupiter would walk the length of the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT) , which connects the Appalachian Trail with lesser-known hiking tracks north and south. He would cross one national border, two provinces and 16 states.
Within a few days, Hoher crossed a Canadian snowfield, still unmelted in late July; by autumn, he was climbing North Carolina’s red and gold mountains. In winter, he forded miles of Florida’s steaming swamps then tramped beneath a cathedral of palms.
He tried to cover at least the length of a marathon every day, but often walked more. One day in the Florida flatlands, the lure of home quickening his step, he whipped through 48.5 miles, finishing his day alone in the starry dark.
In Fitbit terms, that’s 97,000 steps, at 2,000 steps a mile.
He did it because, well, better let him explain.
“I started backpacking because I didn’t know what I wanted to to do with my life,” said Hoher, sitting at a picnic table in the woods at Riverbend Park, not far from his mother’s Jupiter house. He returned home in mid-January. “But when I do something, I’m the kind of guy who goes all in.”
Take yo-yoing, for example. His father gave him one in grade school.
“I practiced so much I entered state and world yo-yo championships.(see a You Tube video of Hoher’s technique). It’s the same thing with art,” said Hoher, who attended Bak Middle School of the Arts and Dreyfoos High School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. “I’m very competitive. So when I got into hiking, I wanted to do this big thing.”
Tall, lean and deeply tanned with close-cropped hair, Hoher is known as “Jupiter Hikes” or just “Jupiter” among Florida’s nickname-loving hiking community. More than 3,000 people followed his Jupiterhikes, Life of the Wanderlust blog as he chronicled his meandering journey south.
He thinks he’s the only person to finish the ECT in the past year, and one of only a few to ever complete the grueling trail.
“I think I’m only the 25th person in the last 25 years to do this,” Hoher said. “And I might be the fastest. Because it’s comprised of seven or eight different trails, I’m not going to claim anything, like a record. That’s not why I did it. The reason I went fast is, it’s cheaper.”
He would celebrate his 25th birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas on the trail, never once hitching a ride, climbing aboard a bus or hailing an Uber, for what’s known among hikers as an “unsupported hike.”
When he had to leave the trail to pick up the supply boxes his mother mailed to post offices at regular intervals or to get food, he walked into nearby towns, adding another 100 to 200 unofficial miles to his tally.
By the time he got to the Southernmost Point in Key West on January 21, he’d been through six pairs of shoes.
His knee-length hiking shorts had become Richard Simmons’ length.
He craved food that didn’t come in a freeze-dried pouch.
And he’d become a celebrity on the hiking internet sites around the Southeast.
“It’s extremely rare that people hike the length of (the ECT),” said Karl Borton, an official with the Florida Trail Association, a hiking organization. “It’s very taxing on the body.”
After high school, Hoher tried college for a semester, then quit.
“You come out of high school so young. I didn’t know why I was going to college,” he said. “I was drinking too much, smoking cigarettes, smoking weed. I didn’t want to be that person.”
He worked in the dairy department of a Publix, spending his days in a cold, windowless room while saving his money.
He had grown up on Florida’s trails, after being introduced early to the outdoor life by his mother, Vicki Rogerson.
Extreme hiking, known as through-hiking, became his short-term answer to, “So, what are you going to do with your life?”
On his days off, he would hike the 63-mile Ocean-to-Lake Trail that runs from Hobe Sound’s beach to Lake Okeechobee. To build up heat tolerance, he hiked through fiery summer days and buggy, wet nights.
“I’ve never known anybody who hikes like him,” said Scott Lunsford, a member of the Loxahatchee chapter of the Florida Trail Association, which maintains the OTL trail. “Most people are satisfied with backpacking the 63 miles of the trail, but James goes out and hikes both ways, then once kept going the 120 miles around the lake (Okeechobee, the state’s largest freshwater lake.)
Hoher was worried that recent hiking movies such as Reese Witherspoon’s “Wild,” and the Cheryl Strayed book it was based on, along with the Robert Redford/Nick Nolte film, “A Walk in the Woods,” about the Appalachian Trail, would spoil the wilderness solitude he sought.
“I was wondering if I was going to find all these weeping women on the trail. Or all these guys in their 50s with midlife crises,” said Hoher.
Instead, he was almost always alone, living in his head, sometimes talking out loud just to hear a human voice. It was an exquisite kind of lonelieness, almost like meditation.
Far apart from the 21st century, he had space to think and wonder and marvel.
He could spend 30 minutes watching an upside down beetle trying to right itself. Wait for the right moment to get photos of the owls that always seemed to be peering at him from overhead. Watch whales and seals swim close to shore in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and play with the friendly wild ponies in the Virginia highlands.
Hoher packed light. His small, unframed Pa’lante backpack weighed just six pounds, filled. He carried a cell phone, flashlight, water, light sleeping bag, jacket, rain tarp, extra socks, guidebook, titanium spoon, gloves, and neck gaiter, to keep out cold. No camping stove. Not even a first aid kit.
Most nights, he was too tired to light a fire. A vegan, he ate mainly re-hydrated beans, peanut butter, dried seaweed and candy. When he ran out of food, it was one of the few things he could eat from a convenience store.
There were mishaps and illnesses, the worst occurring only a few days into his hike.
Jumping off a rock while taking a selfie for his blog, he badly sprained his ankle.
“I had to walk on it 63 miles to get to a town with a hotel,” said Hoher. “I spent those days crying. My ankle swelled up like a red sausage. I stayed in the hotel six days, icing it.”
Also in Quebec, he had a trail stand-off with an angry moose, who was protecting her calf.
“I backed way up and waited about 30 minutes until she finally left,” said Hoher.
He got a fever in New Hampshire, “I found a place I could hole up for a few days,” and a bad cold in Florida, “I just pushed through it.”
“A lot of people who attempt something like this, they’re looking for an excuse to go home,” said Hoher. “I looked for reasons to stay.”
He saw about 10 bears along the trail, often with cubs, who always ran away.
He avoided sleeping in hiking shelters, where bears and mice know careless hikers leave food, preferring to bed down in soft underbrush, only occasionally with a tarp stretched overhead.
He was dazzled by the glittering firmament overhead nearly every night.
On the Alabama stretch of trail, he saw no one until he woke one morning with a shotgun in his face. The man holding it marched Hoher to a nearby road and told him to get on his way. Or, words to that effect.
Waking up in his sleeping bag one morning in the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida’s Panhandle, he heard what he thought was an armadillo rustling nearby.
Sitting up, he saw one of the rarest sights in the American wildness: a Florida panther.
“He just zoomed by me,” said Hoher, still astonished at his luck.
Near the end, he decided to try to set a speed record on the Florida Trail, that runs from the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola through Central Florida to the Tamiami Trail.
Despite having to take detours around construction, he set a record pace of 28 days, 9 hours and 59 minutes to the marker in the Big Cypress Indian Reservation.
“That’s at least a day faster than the previous record holder,” said Hoher.
Now, he has to consider what comes next.
First, he needs a job in order to save money.
With 30,000 views on his blog last year, he’s hoping to attract sponsors, like other extreme athletes do.
“I had a gear company spokesman call and say, ‘You’re valuable,’ but I didn’t sign with him because I don’t like what he’s making. It’s a moral dilemma. It would support a way of living that I love, but I’d feel like a sell out,” Hoher said.
After she fed him (and fed him and fed him,) his proud mother says the son who returned to her has grown up.
“The transition was pretty evident,” said Rogerson. “He’s a whole different person. He has a focus on the dreams and the life that he wants. He’s following through. He’s deciding what he wants to do next and figuring out how to get there.”
“I’ve mellowed,” admits Hoher.
A few days after Hoher had been home, he drove to the store, realizing the 15 minute drive would have taken him a couple of hours on foot.
“It was very weird. Life was suddenly on fast forward. But then I watched a guy blow through a red light. I thought, ‘Welcome back’.”
But perhaps not for long.
Hoher wants to head out west, to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border north to British Columbia.
It runs 2,650 miles, practically a walk in the park for Hoher.
He hopes his long walk home will inspire others to explore the country’s wild places in order to understand their need for protection.
“These are ever-receding pockets of wilderness,” said Hoher. “Without us being stewards of these places, without our support, they’ll go away.”
HOHER’S 6-POUND BACKPACK
This is what he took on his long journey
*light sleeping bag
*neck gaiter, to keep out cold.