Lancaster County man gives in to the lure of the country’s longest hiking trails [column] | Outside
When Steve Prescott from Bainbridge goes hiking, he will be gone for a while.
The 58-year-old traveler typically traverses a patched trail or loop of trails that stretch 400 to 3,000 miles or more, and he’s been gone for months.
Somewhere while hiking the 1,700-mile Great Eastern Trail in 2020, he broke the 20,000-mile mark on his solo hikes since he began long-distance hiking in 1999.
During that time, he sampled all the great national trails in the country: the 3,028-mile Continental Divide Trail between Canada and Mexico, the 2,650-mile high Pacific Crest Trail which also spans both countries but higher up, the Great Eastern Trail – he’s one of only four hikers so far on the all-new 1,700-mile trail that connects nine eastern states – and, of course, the venerable Appalachian Trail and its 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine. He walked the entire trail twice, 20 years apart.
And that’s not counting the hundreds of kilometers he has traveled since he started trail running.
Or, the thousands of miles he covered during periods of whitewater kayaking and exploring the backwaters for leisurely canoe trips. His favorite: being dropped off by seaplane and canoeing 250 miles to the Arctic Ocean on the isolated copper mine river in Canada. He also paddled both branches of the Susquehanna and the 99-mile Everglades Wilderness Waterway.
A self-proclaimed introvert, you’d think Prescott has a firm mantra about what drives him to seek out long-distance travel. But he struggles to put words to the toss that keeps him on the move with his only belongings in a bag on his back.
“I don’t know the answer, but I want everyone to feel good about themselves. For me, it’s a luxury to be alone in nature or by a river.
Prescott grew up on the family farm in Conoy Township which straddles woods, fields and the Susquehanna River. He and five siblings traveled the country, and Prescott remembers taking long walks with his hardworking father after church on Sundays.
“Both my parents were very fond of nature. The wonder they instilled in us – I guess I took it to a different degree,” Prescott says.
His first long trail was to hike the Appalachian Trail, at the age of 35, already middle-aged. He bucked the trend and hiked it north to south, risking bad weather but reducing the number of other hikers who can sometimes clog the trail.
Unlike many who undertake the rigors of a continuous trek, Prescott faced no emotional upheaval or life change.
“I think what stands out is the freedom of being there and the simplicity of it,” he recalls. “What drew me there was the nature aspect, being with the times and the wildlife. And there’s the uncertainty of what you’re going to encounter and just being self-sufficient.
Almost all hikers on the Appalachian Trail take a trail name or are given one by other hikers. But Prescott resisted. “My name is Steve. I don’t need an alter ego there,” he says.
Like many who walk the trail, the experience gripped his psyche. Prescott left his position as director of major events at Clemson University and the following year he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and its wilderness to discover wonders above the treeline.
Returning to his past as a farmer, Prescott likes to get up at sunrise and walk until sunset. Although he doesn’t walk particularly fast to soak up the beauty that surrounds him, he typically walks 20-25 miles a day.
In all of his travels on foot, the worst injury Prescott suffered was a bloody ear after tripping on a rocky path. He had giardia from aquatic parasites three times and caught Lyme disease. But he’s never been mugged, seriously lost, or had a really bad encounter with another human being.
He now packs his cell phone to contact loved ones once a week, but does not use it otherwise. “One of the attractions has always been that no one knows where I am,” he explains. “It’s hard to experience that in life now. It’s something I still cling to from my childhood. It means adventure to me.
He allowed himself a seven-year gap before giving in to wanderlust again in 2007 and tackling the Continental Divide Trail, the third jewel in the country’s triple crown of long-distance trails and the highest and the farthest. It takes almost a year and a half to cover it. Prescott went through two pairs of trail running shoes, his favorite shoes on the trails.
Prescott also returned to his roots in Lancaster County to live on the homestead and start organic farming. He ran a farmer’s market and Prescott’s Patch, a community-supported vegetable and berry farming business, from 2001 to 2018.
These days, semi-retired, Prescott has set a goal of logging 1,000 miles a year, mostly by hitting regional trails.
In 2021 he created a 420 mile loop of some of his favorite trails in Pennsylvania including the Donut Hole Trail, Susquehannock Trail System, Chuck Keiper Trail, Black Forest Trail, Old Sinnemahoning Trail, Quehanna Trail and the Bucktail Path.
He also hiked the 330 miles of the Allegheny Trail along the spine of the mountain range in West Virginia.
This week, Prescott set off for a 600-mile mix he set up that begins in New York’s Finger Lakes and will follow various trails, eventually ending in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, where Prescott’s brother lives.
It will probably be like so many other long journeys he has made. He will appreciate the random people he meets along the way. And he will know the satisfaction of being alone and the challenge of facing any weather.
“Being alone makes you feel vulnerable in a way that I think is good,” he says. “Our senses are heightened by what surrounds us.”
• Ad Crable is a LNL | Outdoor Writer LancasterOnline.