Most people fulfill their desire for adventure in faraway locales by watching the Discovery Channel, but a person with local ties is making a habit of experiencing the real thing, including hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.
Though only in her 20s, Becca Tompkins, a woman from Ararat, Virginia, who is a former member of the Surry Runnin’ Patriot girls basketball team, already has built a travel résumé that might put Marco Pole to shame.
In 2011, Tompkins, the daughter of Jack and Jan Tompkins, journeyed to western Africa on a school mission trip, where she ministered to prostitutes in the war-torn nation of Sierra Leone.
Then in 2014, she embarked on a two-year mission to South America, being assigned to a small city on the Amazon River at the southernmost tip of Colombia in the Amazon basin near the borders of Brazil and Peru. She did much hiking in the Andes, including making her way to Machu Picchu, an Incan citadel situated high in the mountains in Peru.
This summer, her plans included doing some hiking and traveling through Italy, along with hiking out West in Utah.
Tackling the trail
“I’m kind of nomadic,” Tompkins said when discussing her penchant for travel during an interview earlier this year, which includes a desire to get out of her comfort zone and be challenged.
Her through-hike of the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail was her most-ambitious adventure so far.
At this time last year, Tompkins ended her continuous journey, one that had begun in Georgia on March 22, 2017, and was completed on Sept. 25 — a year ago today — on Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Tompkins, who was born in Dallas, but “pretty much” raised in Virginia — living in Ararat near the North Carolina line before relocating to Texas where family members live — had long entertained the idea of through-hiking the fabled Appalachian Trail.
“I started dreaming about the AT (Appalachian Trail) when I was about 21 years old and in college, and at the time it seemed like a super-human feat that just an average girl couldn’t complete,” she explained in a video recorded beforehand.
“But then I started reading books about other people who had hiked it, especially other girls, and I realized that it is a super-human feat, but it becomes humanly possible when people set out there with determination and they just see it through,” she added.
Tompkins became motivated to hike the trail to prove to herself that she could accomplish what many people only dream about.
She did a lot of mountain hiking in preparation for the trek, but perhaps more importantly prepared herself mentally for a task that would include negotiating much rough terrain in addition to dealing with harsh weather.
‘“I knew it was going to be very challenging and I would have to overcome it,” recalled Tompkins, who had to rely on sheer willpower to keep going at times.
She started her arduous walk at Springer Mountain in Georgia and gradually meandered northward toward its completion at Mount Katahdin in Maine.
“I started alone and met people along the way,” Tompkins said, referring to the social network that tends to exist among fellow hikers with a common objective. “There were sections I hiked by myself.”
Tompkins’ sister Hannah, who many in Patrick County know as a basketball coach at Patrick County High School and a special education teacher at Stuart Elementary, hiked 400 miles with her.
Even Becca’s mom joined her for a brief stretch.
“I had her hike the hardest 30 miles in the Southern Nantahala Wilderness area,” Tompkins said of a place with many heights to negotiate. “In that 30-mile section a lot of people quit.”
‘Trail magic’ a key
Survival along the sprawling Appalachian Trail requires the same elements one relies on in everyday life: food, water and shelter.
Tompkins employed a frequent tactic of trail hikers, having nutritious items sent to post offices at various points along the trail which can be retrieved as needed.
“My mom would mail me things,” she said.
Then there was something called “trail magic.”
“Trail magic is a huge part of the Appalachian Trail,” Tompkins said of a phenomenon perpetuated by many folks living on the periphery of its path who dedicate their time helping hikers achieve their goals.
Those individuals, known as “trail angels,” perform random acts of kindness for those on the trek while expecting nothing in return. This might include a ride into town, offering temporary lodging or serving food to hikers from the edge of the trail and otherwise showing “great appreciation” for them, Tompkins said.
She believes some of the trail angels live vicariously through the hikers.
“It has made me a more kind person,” Tompkins said of the effect of many acts of kindness shown toward her on the Appalachian Trail.
Her experience last year also made her appreciate different types of people, who might not share the same viewpoints as she. “You can have meaningful relationships with people even if we don’t agree on everything,” she said.
“It was also one of the most-enriching experiences.”
In addition, Tompkins says the hike helped unravel myths about dangers lurking out in the world, as reinforced by television and movies.
“You watch shows like ‘Law and Order’ that make you think everybody is out to get you, but it’s not that way.” She became comfortable with hitchhiking alone, which was required at times to obtain food from towns that aren’t right in the trail’s path.
Tompkins forged friendships with individuals along the way, including trail angels and fellow hikers, some she pledges to stay in touch with in years to come.
In addition to encountering people from various “walks” of life, including a year-old baby, Tompkins often is asked about the animals she saw during the excursion.
The list notably includes seven bears, eight rattlesnakes, two porcupines and one moose.
Though she completed the journey unscathed, the going predictably got rough at times.
“My feet never hurt as badly as they have on the Appalachian Trail,” Tompkins said, more than on other hikes and when she played basketball.
She averaged about 12 miles per day, sometimes covering as many as 25, with her pace 10 to 15 miles on some days.
The physical grind of hiking over rough terrain was exacerbated by weather that was unforgiving on occasion. “The elements can be very challenging,” Tompkins said.
“Hiking, living out of your backpack and everything you have is soaking wet — you know you’re going to be sleeping wet and cold.”
The going got really hard when Tompkins reached Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest peak in the Northeast at an elevation of 6,288 feet. It is infamous for brutal weather, which has included the strongest winds ever recorded on land.
Further complicating the situation were the effects of a hurricane in that area during Tompkins’ time there.
“The day I climbed Mount Washington, it was miserable,” she said.
Tompkins knew there was a shelter nearby, but explained that such structures often are not luxury accommodations but quite crude.
“I was so cold I was afraid I was going to be hypothermic,” said the hiker, who also feared risking a bad fall. “About 50 people have died on Mount Washington.”
At that point, Tompkins was around 300 miles from the finish. “And I seriously contemplated quitting.”
“The next day I waited for the sun to come out,” said Tompkins. She was further energized by a meal of macaroni and cheese.
“Those hardest moments are the ones that I remember.” Getting through them has made Tompkins a better person. “I have a deep sense of self-confidence I never had before.”
The adventurer later arrived back in Ararat to a big reception. “We had a really great welcome-home party — it was actually in Mount Airy,” Tompkins said.
“I was most excited about coming home and seeing my family and seeing my dog Sarge, and taking a hot bath,” she added.
“On the trail that’s something you don’t do.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.