Getting to Where I Am
by Richard Carroll (1976–82)
I walked the Appalachian Trail in 1975 in a journey that spanned five months and one day. I stepped across an engraved plaque set in stone at Springer Mountain, Georgia marking the southern terminus of the A.T. on April 14th, and climbed Mt. Katahdin, Maine, the northern terminus, on September 15th. I would have completed the climb the day before, but it had snowed on the mountain, and the park service closed the trail, thus I wound up experiencing all four seasons on the Appalachian Trail.
That last night I rested in a shelter, let my guard down, and got a commemorative hole in my pack from a mouse rummaging around for the remnants of the food I carried. After five months of hanging my pack, boots, food bag, and anything edible or sweaty in trees to stave off bears, porcupines, and other woodland residents, I shared a meal with a mouse. Later I sewed my A.T. Thru-Hiker patch over the hole, honoring this breach.
Along the way, I kept a journal upon which my local newspaper based a series of articles. Now, I have adapted those writings and observations into my memoir 2,000 Miles Around the Tree of Life: A Naturalist Hikes the Appalachian Trail .
I was brought up on a small farm in Cheshire, Connecticut, with as many as 10,000 turkeys free-ranging in the back lot. It was rather intimidating for a young boy to look eye-to-wattle with those turkeys as I made my way to my cousin’s house next door. My mother was considered the naturalist-in-residence in our area, and was known as “Lill the Flower Lady” — and I was Mother Nature’s son. Anyone who found a snake or a turtle would bring it to her to identify. She ran a nature center at a Girl Scout camp in town, and she taught principles of conservation biology to my sister and me as kids. We were instilled with a love and respect for nature — a foundation that would support me throughout my career, and in every aspect of my life.
My five months on the Appalachian Trail in 1975 were pivotal for me. The previous spring I had graduated from Southern Connecticut State College, in New Haven, with a B.S. in marine biology. What does one do with a B.S. in marine biology? My marine biology professor suggested that I apply to the Peace Corps to get real-life experience in the field. I applied — and then I set off on my A.T. challenge.
My parents met me in the Shenandoahs and brought me a letter from the Peace Corps — an invitation to go to the Philippines to raise shrimp. I was now about halfway finished with the trail, and had no inclination to hang up my boots, so I turned down the offer.
I thought that would be the last that I would hear from the Peace Corps, but when I finished the 2,000 miles and hitchhiked home, another invitation urged me to go to the Central African Republic to raise fish. In 1976, I left for C.A.R., as far from the mountains and ocean as one can get on this earth. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there for five years, first working as a fisheries extension agent in villages, and then as a wildlife biologist studying black rhino and elephants. After I had completed my service, I did research there for a dissertation on gorilla feeding ecology for a Ph.D. from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. This led to a 35-year career at the World Wildlife Fund heading the Africa and Madagascar Programs. But that’s another few books away — stay tuned!
Truly, the A.T. was a turning point in my life — it was the first significant thing I set out to do and finished. The satisfaction of doing something so grand was a revelation — to have experienced every moment from beginning to end. As I look back 40 years later, I can see that this trail guided me toward my path as a biologist dedicated to keeping life alive on this earth. It has been “right livelihood” done personally, physically, and from the heart. The Appalachian Trail was marked with white blazes, which led to other journeys marked by intuition and inspiration. I have had a good life, with three great children walking their own paths. All I tell them is to follow their hearts.