New Hampshire Airman Conquers the Appalachian Trail

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Victoria Nelson
  • 157th Air Refueling Wing

An Air National Guardsman from Rye, New Hampshire, recently spent seven months camping under an open sky as he through hiked the Appalachian Trail.

Tech. Sgt. Alan Dwyer started on March 22 at Springer Mountain, Georgia, and proceeded to hike the 2,200 miles through 14 states along the east coast before finishing Oct. 26.

“It’s pretty crazy to complete a lifetime goal,” said Dwyer. “It was difficult and frustrating at times, but there was an ever-growing awareness as I hiked that this is an opportunity a lot of people don’t get.”

The trail heading north begins at the southern terminus marker. Before the official start to the trail, there is a lengthy set of stairs that leads hikers up the side of a waterfall to Springer Mountain. Eight miles in, a rock with a logbook inside of a metal box holds the names and stories of people beginning and ending their journey on the AT.

“If you look inside the box, on the top, there’s a Maineiac sticker,” Dwyer said, referring to the Maine Air National Guard. “I had to put a 157th Comm Flight sticker next to it. It was funny to be in a moment that felt so far away and have this little piece of Guard culture present.”

Dwyer said he embarked across the Appalachian Mountain ridgelines from Georgia to Maine to give the outdoors more gravity in his life.

“Before I left, I loved spending time outdoors but there were always other things that would pull me away from it,” he explained. “I’ve wanted to hike the AT since I was 15 years old. Living out there I developed a relationship with that space and now have a greater draw to make time for it and that’s really special.”

He began his planning years in advance. Dwyer put money aside each paycheck for four years. Originally, he hoped to start on the trail in 2021 but a member of the Comm Flight deployed and Dwyer filled their role.

“It made me even more grateful for this opportunity and pushed me to keep planning,” he said. “I saw that if I didn’t make it happen soon it may never happen, so I just kept going.”

Dwyer kept in contact with friends, family and coworkers on his website and through a GPS tracker, accessible through a QR code. Chief Master Sgt. Frederick Balas, the defense operations senior enlisted leader with the 157th Communications Squadron, followed Dwyer’s journey and updated the squadron during drills.

“His efforts have made an impact, not just here in Comm, but across the Wing,” said Balas. “I had a conversation with someone in [the Logistics Readiness Squadron] about Dwyer while I was picking up my mobility bag, and with someone in personnel and security forces. They were all excited. They thought it was so cool that a member of this Wing could go and do that.”

Balas said he thinks the fulfillment of this dream will fuel Dwyer to continue to move forward in stride and inspire others.

“We spend our whole lives thinking about what we want to do but how many of us take the steps to actually make it happen?” Balas asked. “He’s a trailblazer.”

2023 was a grueling year for through hikers. Dwyer said he faced relentless rainy weather during the spring and summer seasons, including catastrophic flooding in Vermont and dangerous water levels in rivers across Maine.

“It’s one of those things you realize--nothing you plan goes as planned,” Dwyer laughed.

His gear and shoes took a beating up and down more than 460,000 feet of elevation, yet he remained resilient throughout.

“The most challenging days for me were in Massachusetts,” remembered Dwyer. “The pack I was using had adjustable straps. One side broke so I tied it with a shoelace, then the other side broke so I tied it with a shoelace too. The same day I got stung by a bee and it swelled. My pack was rubbing against it, and I got a friction burn. I got a hole in my water bladder that day as well. Soon after I tripped on some rocks and snapped a trekking pole, it was just one thing after another after another and I just wanted to move forward.”

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 75% of people who attempt to thru-hike the AT do not complete it. Dwyer said many of the people he crossed paths with were making another attempt or finishing a journey they started years ago.

“The people you run into are amazing and overcoming so many things that could be categorized as obstacles and reasons why they would be unable to complete such a feat,” he exclaimed. “But they were out there hiking with cystic fibrosis, an 83-year-old who had two knee replacements and so many people coming back to finish what they started.”

More than three quarters of the way through, Dwyer was faced with the potential closure of Baxter State Park in Maine, the final stretch of the northern AT. The park closed due to flooding and frozen conditions in October, days before Dwyer was scheduled to finish.

He decided to flip. Dwyer got a ride to Mt. Katahdin before the park closed and then hiked back down to the spot he got off trail in Gorham, New Hampshire.

Headed south from Maine, he adapted to the colder weather and physical demands of the White Mountains.

“The trail lets you rebuild the fundamental skills you need to survive,” explained Dwyer. “It was getting colder, and you need to feed yourself, shelter yourself, and keep yourself safe. One of the coolest things on the trail is seeing people healthier and more able than when they started, yourself included.”

He added that seven months on the trail is as much of a mental challenge as it is physical.

“You have time to think every thought you’ve ever had like eight times over,” he laughed. “It doesn’t change what you’ve been through but by the time you’re done you’re more at peace with the life you have.”

Dwyer now stops to appreciate his time outside and the time he makes for friends and family more than when he left in March.

“I have a greater gratitude for the little things in the same way you do getting back from a deployment,” Dwyer said. “Hopefully I bring that mentality back to my workplace. The mission is important, and we are going to do whatever we need to, to make it happen but we do the best work when we are healthy and that means understanding that the mission will be here tomorrow.”

Balas and other members across the wing said Dwyer’s endeavor gave them an opportunity to help someone achieve a life-changing dream.

“It’s something I will never forget because it was unique for me as well,” Balas explained. “Just being in a position where I could be part of making it happen, you don’t often get an opportunity to help someone achieve something so amazing and life changing.”

Dwyer was surprised how much joy people found in helping and supporting his endeavor.

“There were many times this pursuit felt selfish because it’s a personal goal,” he said. “But so many people supported me along the way. As soon as I got back people stopped me to ask questions because it’s their dream to hike the AT someday or something similar.”

He said those conversations felt important and added to the gravity of his accomplishment.

“It’s weird to have those interactions because I just walked for a long time, you know?” Dwyer laughed. “It never seems as much of a big deal once you’ve done it but there is something to be said about pursuing your next big goal. When we see someone else achieve a big thing it makes it much less foreign.”

After finishing his journey he transitioned back into his role in the New Hampshire Air National Guard. He said he is excited for what the communications team has ahead and the future hikes he has in store.

“Honestly, the trail is a ridiculous pursuit,” Dwyer said. “It’s a constant grind and challenge and I think a lot of our pursuits in the military can feel the same way. The mission is so big that the single achievements of a day can feel irrelevant but then you look back and you see how far you’ve come and how much you can accomplish as a team.”