Local teenager takes on the Appalachian Trail

Elliott Lea, a 19-year-old West Jessamine High School graduate, recently finished a seven-month journey hiking 2,190 miles to complete the entire Appalachian Trail.
Elliott said he grew up hiking at Red River Gorge, but never really thought about taking on a trail of this magnitude until shortly before he left on his journey.

“I kind of discovered it six months before I did it and decided to go out and do it,” Elliott said. “I started out alone and I met people along the way. (There are) a ton of other people out there doing this.”
Starting out with only $2,500 and enough supplies for four days, Elliott said when it came right down to it, there was really wasn’t much he could do to plan ahead.
“There is no planning,” Elliott said. “You have four days of food — start walking. You kind of look at the day but you really just don’t think about it.”
There are novice and experienced hikers on the trail. Elliott said the oldest person he met was a man who went by the name of “Pappy.”
“He was 87, and he did not start hiking until he was 60,” Elliott said. “He had done all three major trails. He was going to be the oldest person to finish. The youngest people I met were two guys who were 17 years old and who actually had to fly back (home) for prom.”
Those he met who traveled the farthest to hike the trail were from Germany.
“There was a BBC documentary in German in 2017 so there was a lot of German people out there who said they saw it and wanted to come out to America,” Elliott said.
Elliot also frequently encountered Ridge Runners — on the trails. He said he saw about 12 on his journey, about one for each state, who were around to pick up trash and keep an eye on the hikers. Trail Magic were also a frequent and welcome sight, offering snacks and water to those hiking and passing through.
“You would walk up on a road crossing and there would be somebody in their truck with coolers and food and snacks — pretty much anything you can think of,” Elliott said. “Sometimes, it was just a cooler and no one was there and you’d pop it up and there was some sodas in there, maybe some candy and maybe a log to write in and say thanks. Sometimes, there were people in a truck with a grill on the truck bed and they were grilling out burgers.”
Elliot regularly hitchhiked, which helped him to make it into nearby towns to get supplies, rest and sometimes eat a much-needed slice of pizza or a hamburger.
“All the towns around the trail know who hikers are,” Elliott said. “Usually, people picking you up know you are a hiker and they are excited to pick you up. I would stop for supplies every four days. As we got farther north, it was maybe 2 to 3 [a.m.] sometimes. There were some times I was rationing maybe the last 12 hours. I started with $2,500 cash but my parents helped out halfway because I was super low. It was not enough. I thought I could be more frugal but then you get into town and you want a burger.”
On his journey, Elliott said his favorite state with the easiest terrain was New York, the shortest state to hike through was Maryland, the nicest weather was in Pennsylvania and there was a lot of bogs, swamps, lakes and gross water in Maine.
“I did not expect so many awesome people to be out there,” Elliott said. “There was a lot of really cool people. They really helped along the way. Maybe it was not necessarily just the scenery — it was the people from all over the place that you have never encountered before.”
Waking up in the cold was the hardest to Elliott. In the heat, he would wake up at 4:30 a.m. when the sun was coming up and birds were loud. Once the sun was down, Elliott said he would go to sleep. Around 1 p.m., Elliott said everyone would stop hiking and take a siesta to wait out any warm weather.
With only 150 miles left in his venture, Elliott fell sick. At mile 2,000, he had to trudge the two hours for a gap to hitchhike into the nearest town, where he waited out the illness for eight days at the Stratton Motel and Hostel in Stratton, Maine. Losing 10 pounds the first four days, Elliott said all that was going through his mind when he was stuck in the Maine hotel was, “I want to go home.”
“It was not easy to go home,” Elliott said. “It would have been an ordeal. At the same time, to wait for them (parents) and go all the way back — if I had done that I knew through all that waiting I would have been ready to hike again.”
Finishing the trail is just the beginning of Elliott’s journey as he said he hopes to one day hike the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
“He’s done something big. He just needs to think big from now on,” said Paul Lea, Elliott’s father. “If he accomplished this, he can accomplish anything he wants.”