Dr. Blaise Vitale of Grantsburg is on leave from his practice at Burnett Medical Center to fulfill a 10-year dream — hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.
Vitale is a man of wide interests and knowledge. He does deep research before tackling any venture, whether it’s studying a new medical procedure, refining his Boy Scout leadership skills or planning a long hike.
To ready himself for months of hiking Appalachian Trail (AT), Vitale read many books and hikers’ diaries, watched YouTube videos, studied maps, and researched everything from toe socks, boots and all-purpose hat to gas stoves and tent, carefully considering the weight and necessity of each item in his pack. When he adds the weight of five-six days of food and one liter of water, his backpack weighs 30 pounds.
Vitale carries his smartphone to serve as camera, compass and communications device, and also to journal his daily mileage and highlights.
His physical preparation included hundreds of miles on his treadmill, plus hiking on trails in many parts of the country. In 2016 he did a 91-mile backpacking trip with his son and other Boy Scouts at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. He prides himself on staying current with modern medicine, so he combined his medical conference trips with a few days of hiking nearby in Arizona, Utah and California.
In 2014 he hiked the 40-mile Gov. Knowles Trail from Cushing to Danbury. In 2016-17 he hiked approximately 250 miles on the Ice Age trail and hiked the entire 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) in northern Minnesota. It adds up to nearly 1,000 total miles of training walks and hikes before setting out on the AT. While the SHT seemed challenging at the time, Vitale says, “Even the hardest part of the Superior Trail is only equivalent to the mildest part of the Appalachian Trail.”
Reaching a life milestone
Next week marks 30 years since Dr. Vitale graduated from medical school, and almost 27 years of medical practice in Grantsburg. He measures his life in an unusual way — by days rather than years.
“Generally,” he said, “a human life span averages 30,000 days, with the first 10,000 days (until about age 27) as one’s youth. The next 10,000 are middle age.” Vitale hit the AT on March 29, 2018, which was the 20,000th day of his life, or, as he puts it, “the start of third and final stage of my life — old age.” He will turn 55 later this year. “I started on that day to remind myself to make the most of the last 10,000 days.”
Of course, no one is guaranteed 30,000 days, he reasons. His loss of both parents and an older sister in the past few years has driven that notion home. He said, “It was time for me to do some life evaluation and to take an extended break from my practice.”
A rigorous journey
Most people need 5-7 months to finish the Appalachian Trail if they are a well-prepared and an accomplished hiker on a thru-hike. The trail follows the constant up-and-down spine of the Appalachian Mountains from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia northward 2,200 miles to Mt. Katahdin in central Maine. Along the way, hikers pass through some or all of 14 states.
Each spring about 5,000 hikers set out, mostly from Georgia, heading north on a “thru-hike” with the goal to walk the entire trail in one spring-to-fall season. Vitale’s research showed 78 percent, or almost 4,000 drop out as they run out of money or time, suffer an injury or give up due to mental, physical and/or spiritual fatigue. “It certainly is a physical and mental challenge. Some days you have to push yourself to keep going because you really don’t want to.”
Vitale was reluctant to talk with a reporter about the trip prior to his departure due to concern he might fail, he said. Now that he has hiked 528 miles of the AT in about 30 days, he has gained confidence that he will finish in September or October despite the many challenges that await.
A ‘flip-flop’ hike
Vitale’s goal for the first leg of his journey was to start at the border of North Carolina and Virginia and hike northward through Virginia to the trail headquarters in Harpers Ferry, Virginia.
That way, he reasoned, he would be several states north of the vast majority of hikers starting in Georgia. If a hiker breaks his hike into non-consecutive sections but completes it all in a single season, it’s called a “flip-flop thru hike,” and that’s what Vitale is doing.
He was surprised and pleased by his pace. He allowed himself a pace of 11 miles per day but found that he was doing 15 or more many days. Instead of stopping at Harpers Ferry, he continued north to complete West Virginia and Maryland and to nearly reach Harrisburg, PA before stopping last week to return to Grantsburg.
Doc on the trail
While Dr. Vitale has had no serious injuries and not a single blister, he has treated blisters and wrapped knees for others along the trail, carrying needle and thread, special Leukotape for bracing knees and ankles.
Return for graduation
A traditional thru-hike was not in the cards for Blaise. With his son, Theodore, graduating from Grantsburg High School later this month, Vitale knew he would need start in early spring and return to Grantsburg in May to attend graduation. He plans to return to the trail in early June.
The “triple crown” of American hiking trails are the Pacific Crest trail, the Continental Divide trail and the AT. A hiker who completes all three will have covered more than 7,000 trail miles, much of it up and down mountains. The AT is challenging due to its constant elevation changes and rocky terrain.
Vitale’s research shows as he traverses northern Pennsylvania the trail becomes so narrow and rocky that hikers must place one foot directly in front for the other, which slows the walking pace markedly. In parts of Maine, the trail climbs rocks so steep that hikers must use their hands to help pull themselves up sharp rock outcrops and use equal caution and exertion on the downhill side.
Vitale started the trip with a pair of high-quality hiking boots from REI Outfitters, but wore them out in this first leg of the journey. First the padding wore out, then parts of the tread broke off, making the boots less comfortable and stable. He now estimates the full trip will require four pairs of boots.
Resuming his hike in Maine
Again, to avoid the masses of hikers moving along the AT together, Vitale will continue his “flip flop” by starting the next phase at the AT’s northern terminus, Mt. Katahdin in Maine and heading south until he reaches his previous end point in south Pennsylvania. His wife, Suzanne, will ferry him southern Virginia near the North Carolina border to finish the three southernmost states.
The start at Mt. Katahdin requires climbing the 5,000 foot mountain, then heading southward through the “100-mile Wilderness.” Along the AT one usually crosses a road every seven miles, but there are no roads in the 100-Mile Wilderness. It will require him to carry more food and water in that strenuous part of the journey.
Continuing along the steepest parts of the AT, he will reach the White Mountains of New Hampshire, a series of strenuous climbs and descents. He says as he climbs every elevation, the air gets colder, so he has some heavier, warm clothes among his gear.
Friends and hiking companions
As a native of the White Plains, NY area, he is looking forward to meeting up with friends and family at many points of his southward journey. Although much of the hiking is solo, he has also made several friends, including a group of four males who have sometimes hiked together and call themselves the “Grumpy Old Men.”
Each hiker adopts a trail name that they use when they write in the trail logs and journals at various campsites, lean-tos, shelters and hostels along the trail. Dr. Vitale, whose first name is Blaise, chose “Trailblazer” as his moniker. He and his “grumpy old men” group are (pictured above from left) “Grinder” from Florida, “Now” from Connecticut, “Trailblazer” from Grantsburg, and “Grumpy” from Massachusetts.
What lies ahead?
What has Vitale learned about himself of this journey for self-awareness? And, what are his plans when he reaches the final southern trail step? Will he return to medical practice in Grantsburg?
“I don’t know and I have been told not to think about it or it will ruin the trip,” he said. He some hikers have written that the first third of the trip is “physical” as you get accustomed to the trail. The second section as “mental” when some hikers wonder why they are doing it, and third and final section as “spiritual,” where hikers reflect on their bigger purpose and how to make the most of their life.
“My goal is to enjoy the special moments of each day’s hike,” he says. “I take time appreciate the side trips to the scenic overlooks like McAfee’s Knob (above photo) and historic sites along the way, visiting waterfalls a ways off the trail, and climbing the steps of the original Washington Monument in Maryland. I will hold off on making future plans until the final month,” he said.