Wright-Patt man completes hike of Appalachian Trail

  • Published
  • By Vince Little
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – The expedition was 15 trips and 13 years in the making, but Rob Ligas ultimately conquered the Appalachian Trail.

This past summer, the Air Force retiree and longtime 88th Civil Engineer Squadron member made a final push through the arduous “100-mile wilderness” to wrap up his nearly 2,200-mile hike from Amicalola Falls and Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the stony heights of Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak.

Over the years along the 14-state trail, Ligas lost toenails, encountered bears and poisonous snakes, took tumbles on steep embankments and suffered broken bones. In the end, he joins an exclusive club.

More than 3,000 people set out each year to complete the entire Appalachian Trail and 3 million hike segments of it, according to statistics. Only 1 in 4 who attempt the feat successfully finish the full trek.

“The feeling at first was bittersweet,” Ligas said after reaching Mount Katahdin on Aug. 2. “I couldn’t believe that the journey was going to be over, but after walking the ‘100-mile wilderness’ through mud, rocks and roots and an extra 17 miles on that final section this summer, I was kind of glad to get to the top of the mountain. Mount Katahdin was very adventurous to say the least – lots of hand and fist climbing. I was very proud to finally accomplish this journey.”

Why the Appalachian Trail?

Ligas was 51 when he signed in at Amicalola Falls on Aug. 27, 2010, as the 23rd person to depart for the trailhead 8.8 miles away at Springer Mountain that day.

“The inspiration for hiking the Appalachian Trail 13 years ago began when I started reading different folks’ trail journals,” recalled Ligas, who served on active duty from 1978 to 1998 and has worked in the 88 CES lock shop as an Air Force civilian since 2002. “The words from the movie ‘Shawshank Redemption’ rang in my head: ‘Get busy living or get busy dying.’ I chose to get busy living and decided the Appalachian Trail was a great way to start that, so I began my planning.”

At the time, he lived just 5 miles from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. To prepare for the trail’s physical demands, he began walking to and from work. He also hit the gym five days a week for work on the StairMaster and elliptical machines.

The Appalachian bid would have to be made in “section hiking” during leave stints, said Jeff Garrett, 62, a friend and 88 CES colleague who hiked alongside Ligas for a couple of days early on.

“Hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail requires a lot of dedication, focus and perseverance,” Garrett said. “I think Rob’s accomplishment is fantastic, especially when you consider a lot of people get out of breath walking from their car in the parking lot to the desk inside the building.”

Ligas said he usually covered 10 to 20 miles a day on the trail. For the most part, he slept in designated shelters or campsites but often set up a tent, too.

Over the first decade, he carried a backpack weighing 43-48 pounds. He later reduced it to a 30-pound pack, which included a five-day supply of food and water.

Food and water weigh hikers down, so many resupply themselves by buying provisions and medical supplies in nearby towns off the trail and mailing packages to themselves at the next post office ahead.

Ligas said his meals mainly consisted of salmon packets, kippers, tuna, couscous (a grainy pasta or rice), snack olives, sardines and Meals, Ready to Eat.

“I tried to pack approximately 2 pounds per day in food,” he added. “I tried to go with anything that is full of calories – although I am usually always calorie-deficient out there.”

The Appalachian Trail itself measures exactly 2,198 miles, but that doesn’t count the added walking hikers must do for survival.

“When you get into a town, you may walk another 6 or 7 miles to get to where you need to go,” Ligas said.

Along the way, Ligas said hikers are often uplifted by “trail angels,” who will set up coolers full of soda, snacks and refreshments at various points.

“They’ll have breakfast, lunch and dinners sometimes,” he said. “One time, a guy was handing out ice cream. They give out first-aid kits, or some people will pick you up and take you into town for resupply, a shower or to recharge your electronics. It’s amazing.”

‘Spectacular’ scenery, dangers

In 2019 at Fingerboard Shelter in Southfields, New York, just before Bear Mountain, Ligas was on his final night before ending that year’s section hike. A bear ended up stealing three bags of food from him and two other hikers.

“I walked 15.4 miles the next day without any food,” he said. “Thankfully, it was the last day.”

He hiked the Appalachian Trail in all kinds of weather – from pouring rain and snow to summer heat and high winds.

“Rob has experienced numerous challenges while hiking, from finding water to drink to ticks, rattlesnakes within feet, bears within 20 feet and losing toenails while on the trail,” Garrett said.

Besides the toenails and many blisters, bumps and bruises every year – typically a result of falls and slips on the Appalachian Trail – Ligas said he took a spill down a large rock and face-planted into a boulder just outside Grafton Notch Campground in Newry, Maine, at the beginning of his 2022 hike. It left him with a nice black eye.

He went on to walk another 130-plus miles.

“When I finished my hike and got home, I went to the doctor, who did an X-ray,” he said. “I had broken my orbital bone. ... Sometimes, when you want something so bad, you have to embrace the suck.”

On the trail over the years, Ligas also walked up on a few timber rattlesnakes and once came across a “whole family of copperheads” on a mountain in Tennessee, he said. He also spotted several black rat snakes, a couple porcupines, black bears, deer, turkey, grouse and other woodland animals.

“Of course, there were always those tiny little mice crawling all over you in the shelters at night,” he said.

The rewards, however, were vast and numerous.

In Virginia, Ligas got up-close with the wild ponies at Grayson Highlands State Park while hiking with his son, Robert Ligas II – and took in panoramic views on Catawba Mountain’s McAfee Knob. The same landscapes could be found walking through the White Mountains along the Presidential Range in New Hampshire.

“The most spectacular scenery is difficult to pin down because all of it had its special moments – even the difficult ones,” he said. “The best views are those that are all God’s country, not blocked by towns or electric wires or anything that would take away from natural beauty. In the words of Jon Muir: ‘That is all food for my soul. I go to the mountains to lose my mind and find my soul.’”

After emerging from Maine’s “100-mile wilderness,” hikers face one of the hardest climbs and greatest sustained ascent on the Appalachian Trail: Katahdin.

The mountain features more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain. Hikers have to use hands and feet to climb over steep boulders and ledges above the treeline.

Ligas reached the top with Rob Sego, a friend from Kentucky who’s hiked alongside him since 2012. Hikers are given Appalachian Trail names. Ligas is “Padre,” while Sego became “Eeyore.”

“He was a godsend,” Ligas said. “The Lord gave me the help and endurance to get through this. It was special to reach the end with him. ... If you can keep the pain down and continue to be able to walk, that’s what you have to do.”

Garrett says he’s hiked in Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, backpacked in Wyoming’s Grant Teton mountains and walked along the rim of the Grand Canyon. Any trail ahead can be as “difficult or enjoyable as you want it to be – just like in life,” he added.

“I stay focused on the mountaintop experiences and the scenic views,” Garrett said. “Yes, the AT can have its grueling days. You have your good days and bad days while hiking on the AT. Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of; it’s yours.

“But when you have those truly epic one-of-a-kind days or that picture of a waterfall that took hiking 5 or 10 miles to get to, instead of just driving up to capture, then you truly have a special sense of accomplishment.”

Eyeing the next conquest

Ligas said his wife, Wendy, played a big part in his Appalachian Trail triumph. She logged more than 30,000 miles driving him to and from trailheads between Ohio and the 14 different states it passes through.

And he’s not done with the Appalachian Trail. He said he wants to cover parts of it again in 2025 and 2026.

Next year, he’d like to go off-roading in Arizona with his nephew. In 2027 after retiring from WPAFB, he hopes to complete the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches 2,653 miles from Mexico to Canada. It’s closely aligned with the highest portions of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges.

Just like the roots of his Appalachian Trail expedition, you get busy living or get busy dying.

“You embrace what’s in front of you,” Ligas says. “As long as I have my health – my knees, my shoulders and back are in good shape and ready to go – we’ll give it a shot. It will all be good.”