Minnesota 78-year-old traverses entire Appalachian Trail
Egon Overgaard is using his trip as an opportunity to raise money for a solar array project at Salem Lutheran Church in Longville.
LONGVILLE — The average American takes 3,000-4,000 steps per day.
Egon Overgaard’s number is much higher.
For the past six months, the 78-year-old Longville man has logged about 40,000 steps most days.
He has stood at the foot of Georgia’s Springer Mountain, taken in the breathtaking views of McAfee Knob in Virginia, stumbled over boulders in Pennsylvania and gazed at the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
As of Wednesday, Aug. 31, Overgaard was in Rumford, Maine, and 1,960 miles into the Appalachian Trail.
“It’s just something you do,” he said by phone Wednesday.
It’s the sort of adventure that has always been in Overgaard’s mind. He and his wife used to drive through the Appalachian Mountains years ago on their way back to the Midwest when he was in the Navy and stationed in Charleston, South Carolina.
“I knew the trail was there, and I think it just kind of stuck in my head,” he said.
Overgaard finally took the leap in March, after losing his wife of 57 years last year.
“There was nothing keeping me anywhere in particular, and it started forming in my mind,” he said.
After running the idea past his kids and getting a favorable response, it was time to act.
“Finally, I said, ‘I’m going to do it,’ and then I guess I just started to do it,” he said.
Trekking with tramily
After some friends dropped Overgaard off at the southern end of the trail in Georgia, he hiked the first 113 miles by himself.
But a chance encounter with the Scharkeys while traversing a particularly strenuous side trail brought him companionship.
“I think they realized that, ‘Maybe this guy needs a little help,’ and so they kind of took me under their wing,” he said.
Overgaard ended up at the same campsite with Kevin and Leah Scharkey that night and quickly formed a bond. The Scharkeys are fellow Minnesotans from Winona, and Kevin and Overgaard both spent time in the Navy and on submarines.
“It’s what you call a tramily,” Kevin Scharkey said. “You end up meeting a lot of people, and you end up hiking at the same pace, and you just develop good company with each other.”
At times there have been 10 or 12 hikers in Overgaard’s tramily, but mostly it’s just he and the Scharkeys. Or more specifically, it’s been Goat Roper, Zen and Azaleah.
“With the trail, everybody has trail names,” Kevin Scharkey said.
Usually the nicknames come from other hikers. But in Overgaard’s case, his preceded the trail. He used to own goats, so his friends nicknamed him Goat Roper.
Azaleah is a mash-up of the flower and Leah’s name.
Zen comes from Kevin’s much calmer demeanor after retiring from the stressful military life.
Overgaard has become a recurring presence on the Scharkeys’ YouTube channel, KevinandLeah, as the hikers document their journey for friends and family to see.
And the videos will be good memories down the road.
“In a year or whatever when I want to go back and think about the trail, that’s how I’m gonna do it — through their videos that they’ve done,” Overgaard said.
Campaigning for a cause
Sometimes Overgaard comes on camera to tell the occasional joke.
How does the moon cut his hair? Eclipse it.
Overgaard entertains viewers with that joke in a special announcement video detailing a project he is working on during his hike. He is using the trip to raise funds for a solar array project at Salem Lutheran Church back in Longville. Those who donate money to his GoFundMe get to vote on whether he keeps his “mountain man” look of a long white beard and hair after his journey, shaves it off or cuts into a fun style, like a mohawk.
“I’m doing it not just for me,” he said of the hike. “... I’m trying as hard as I can to raise some money for that.”
Anyone interested in contributing to Overgaard’s cause and putting their two cents in on his hair can do so at gofundme.com/f/egons-at-trek-for-solar-power .
Wisdom from the walk
After about six months on the trail, Overgaard is on track to finish his journey in mid-September, a nearly 2,200-mile feat only accomplished by about 25% of hikers who take it on. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 187 hikers submitted applications in 2021 to be added to the roster of 2,000-millers, joining others who have finished trail. In the pre-pandemic world, more than 1,000 people submitted their names in 2019. Five hikers have completed the feat so far in 2022.
Overgaard himself has thought of quitting a time or two.
Once was on a day when his knees were giving him trouble, and Kevin said he would carry him to Mount Katahdin — the trail’s northern end — if he had to.
“So I thought, ‘Well, God, I can’t make him do that, so I’m going to keep going,’” Overgaard said.
The other time was on a particularly rocky stretch in Pennsylvania, when he had to traverse basketball-sized boulders that moved with every step.
“That just wore on me, and I was more than ready to quit that time,” he said. “But you get through it.”
Through to parts that are a little more enjoyable, albeit challenging.
“Just a few days ago we went through what they call the longest mile on the trail,” Overgaard said. “It’s just a mile of big boulders and rocks — all this crazy stuff. Sometimes you crawl through it, under it. And sometimes you’ve got to take your pack off and push it through. That and about as much fun as I’ve had on the trail.”
Other times, the hike just feels like drudgery, climbing and climbing only to go right back down the mountain and aggravate the knees.
But then there are the moments that are worth it, liking seeing the New York City skyline from afar.
“Or sometimes you’re walking beside a mountain stream, and there’s waterfalls,” Overgaard said.
Those parts of the trip make it worth it.
“I don’t know if I would want to do it again, but I’m really glad I’m doing it,” he said.
Even while hiking with his tramily, the hike gives Overgaard a lot of time to think.
“Everybody hikes their own hike. So you don’t really walk with somebody because everybody walks at a different pace. So you’re often by yourself, and that means that you’re in your own head,” he said.
“I’ve had a lot of time to think about things — regrets. I think it’s a really hard thing, looking at your life, wondering, ‘Could I have done something differently?’ I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I think there is a certain amount of inner questioning and looking for answers.”
Overgaard hopes he might be able to figure out some of those answers by the time he’s finished with the trail, but he does know one thing with certainty.
“One thing I’ve learned for sure out here is that a lot of what I thought was really pretty important probably isn’t as important as I made it out,” he said. “... I’ve developed a little more tolerance for other people. I guess I try to find a reason for why somebody thinks the way they do.”
Even if more tolerance is the only thing Overgaard happens to take with him from this experience, the entire journey will have been worth it.
Overgaard chronicles his journey on his Facebook page and through his blog at thetrek.co/author/egon-overgaard/ .
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.