Father and Son Take the High Ground

Bryan Limb and his son, Ender, at Round Bald on the Tennessee/North Carolina border. Contributed

BY LAURA DOUGLASS || Seven Lakes Insider

Salami and pepperoni, maybe a tuna packet, spread over warmed stuffing or rice mix. For months this has been the dinner du jour for Bryan Limb and his son, Ender. The duo from Carthage — one a recently retired veteran and the other a 2022 high school grad — are wrapping up their thru-hike of the 2,190-plus mile Appalachian Trail this week. Napoleon supposedly said an army marches on its stomach: so too, with hikers.

“We used to do crazy stuff like taking crushed potato chips and sprinkling it over our meals to add variation,” laughs Bryan. “We also eat those Knorr sides where you just add water. Clean up is easy because you swish around the water, drink it and discard the trash. It seems gross but every calorie matters down here.”

Commonly know as the “A.T.,” the first national scenic trail under the National Park System passes through 14 states — including North Carolina — eight national forests, six national parks and numerous small towns and state/local recreational areas. To hike it end to end, from Mount Katahdin in Maine, the northern terminus, to Springer Mountain in Georgia, the southern terminus, is a grueling challenge that typically takes five to seven months to complete. The elevation gain and loss is equivalent to hiking Mount Everest from sea level and back 16 times. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only about one in hour thru-hikers finish.

Bryan began kicking around the idea of an AT thru-hike two years ago. With just under 21 years in the service, most of that time spent supporting Special Operations, his planned retirement was just over the horizon.

“It was a pipe dream, an off-the-cuff comment that once I retired I was going to do this. I was pretty outdoorsy as a kid,” he said, of growing up in Belpre, Ohio. “Then the YouTube vortex sucked me in. I tried to learn as much about thru-hiking as I could. About a year out, I got really serious and asked Ender if he’d like to go.”

Ender, who ran cross country at Union Pines and had earned his Eagle Award with Boy Scout Troop 810, in Vass, said he really didn’t know what he was getting himself into. “But I’m so glad I did.”

The duo started their southbound hike, a SOBO in AT parlance, leaving Baxter State Park in Maine on June 17. They officially hit the halfway mark on Sept. 3, and plan to finish their hike on Nov. 13 — after spending just shy of 150 days on the trail. Along the way, they’ve celebrated Ender’s 18th birthday with cupcakes and a “zero mile” day, that was back in July, and enjoyed brief refueling visits from Cassandra Limb, who has been chasing her husband and son by RV since Day 60.

Friends and family have been tracking their progress online with a GPS app.

Bryan and Ender have averaged about 20 miles of hiking a day and have both worn through four pairs of trail-style running shoes. Bryan sleeps in a tent and Ender has a hammock, “He’s a hanger and I’m a ground dweller,” he jokes. They try to stick to established AT shelter sites, a Leave No Trace practice to minimize their impact on the trail. These sites also give them a chance to refill their water bottles.

“We basically get up with the sun and try to get to camp by sunset. The days are getting shorter, so we’re not making as much distance now,” Bryan said.

They’ve accomplished a few big days including the “four state challenge,” right around the halfway point, when they hiked 44.5 miles in 24 hours, going from Pennsylvania, across slivers of Maryland and West Virginia, to the border of Virginia.

Bryan Limb and Ender Limb at the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border on the Appalachian Trail. Contributed

Prior to their trip, the duo had limited backpacking experience with Boy Scouts. One trip they were out for 11 days, but the daily hikes were much shorter.

“That was in 2021, so it gave us a chance to test our gear,” Bryan says.

But meal planning when you’re burning through 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day is the most important step in tackling the AT. Breakfast is usually oatmeal, especially as they’ve hiked into fall. Ender likes bagels with hard meats and cheese for lunch, while Bryan prefers tortillas and peanut butter, sometimes hard meats. Snacks are a must: one in the morning and two sometimes three in the afternoon. Dinner is always a hot meal. Altogether, father and son each carry about two pounds of food for each day.

“Ender also carries the heavy sweets. I just mooch of him,” says Bryan.

Like other thru-hikers, they both have adopted trail names during their journey. Bryan is called Workin’ On It. Ender started off as Ungood, after kidding the first week about the unpleasant odor of his hiking attire, but when his summer sausage spoiled in the bear canister he took on the moniker, Dirty Meat.

One day early in, while traversing the 100 Mile Wilderness, a stand-alone bucket list hike for many in Maine, they happened upon a little bit of “trail magic.” A fellow hiker named Lulu was sharing hot dogs, hamburgers, sodas and beer.

“We could smell it cooking three miles out,” Bryan says. “We thought it was a campsite but when we got to it, it was like, wow! It was a lot of junk food, which is something that hikers absolutely love. It was like 9 a.m. and we didn’t care. We both ate hot dogs and cheeseburgers that morning.”

Another trail angel gave them a lift to and from Rutland, Vermont, when they had to leave the trail, briefly, to pick up more supplies.

“The level of trail support just from strangers has been amazing,” says Bryan.

Two months in, Cassandra caught up with them in southern New York. She resupplies food and any other necessities every few days when they meet up at trailheads. 

“We’ll spend an hour or two together and have a meal. It’s really great. It saves us some time and has allowed us to move down the trail a bit more efficiently so we don’t have to carry such heavy loads of food,” Bryan says. 

More importantly is the time they’ve had together. Ender plans to enroll at Sandhills Community College when they return, and hopes to later transfer to N.C. State to study aerospace engineering. Bryan will be jumping into the job market.

“I went straight from retirement to the trail. That was my priority,” he says. “I spent a lot of time away with my service so being able to get back the time I missed with Ender. It’s been him and I every day for four and half months. We already had a pretty strong relationship when we started, but we are bonding at another level. As a parent and son relationship, I don’t know if it could be any stronger at this point. We are just in sync.”

“As a parent,” he adds, “you want your child to understand that you can achieve something hard, you just have to be diligent and consistent. I hope my perseverance shows Ender what he can achieve. We have never been in a situation where we wanted to quit.”

Ender agrees, “I have enjoyed the whole trip and doing this with my father. This is time we didn’t have before and an experience that not very many people get to have. It is exciting that I can do something that I’ll be able to share with my friends. They will want to hear all the stories. This has been an experience and that is what I love the most. This isn’t a goal that takes a week to do. This is a goal that takes five months.”

Contact Laura Douglass at (910) 693-2475 or Laura@thepilot.com.