In 1979 — not long after he met his wife when the two were guides in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and not long after he canoed the entirety of the Mississippi River — Cory Kolodji made plans to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Since Kolodji grew up in Baltimore, it had been his dream to hike the 2,194-mile trail that traverses 14 states. But then things got in the way. First, mice ate through the food he stockpiled for the 1979 trip, so he canceled. Then life happened: A move to Minnesota, marriage, three kids, a career as a science teacher at Chisholm High School.
He never gave up the dream. So when Kolodji retired in 2021, he made plans. He got the gear. He practiced on the Superior Hiking Trail in northeastern Minnesota. He had the window of opportunity: He was healthy, he didn't have any sick relatives or any kids planning a wedding.
On March 28, 2022, he set off from the southern terminus at Georgia's Springer Mountain.
"I talked with many other hikers on the trail who had similar experiences, with the idea festering their whole lives," Kolodji said. "And once they had the opportunity, a break in jobs or completing their education or really wanting to contemplate a change because of COVID, off they went into the wide blue yonder."
It's one thing to contemplate such an ambitious hike when you're young and spry, he said. It's quite another at 65. His wife pushed him to hike it in stages over several seasons. But watching YouTube videos convinced him: By God, I will go! "Really out of hubris more than anything else," he laughed.
The trip was grueling. He camped, mostly. He'd shower and do laundry once a week or so at nearby hostels. He'd hitchhike into towns to resupply. He lost 30 pounds. He went through four pairs of hiking boots. He got blisters. He fell and cracked open his chin. As he hiked north, he loved watching the wildflowers come in. He paused in wonder as wild ponies sprinted past him in Virginia.
His brother visited from California in July to hike with him — and gave Kolodji COVID. Luckily, he was in Maryland, near his brother-in-law's house, so he spent a week locked in his brother-in-law's spare bedroom until he was better. He took a week off for a family vacation in August on a houseboat in Voyageurs National Park. But then he picked up his hike right where he left off.
He kept a journal, and plenty of times he wrote that he wanted to quit. He never actually thought he would finish until he reached the Maine border in September, 281 miles from the end.
"And then the next day I fell and broke my rib," he said.
It was a rainy day, and he slipped on a root. He had to hike 5 miles out on a steep hill. Again he convalesced at a family member's house, this one a brother-in-law in Maine, and again got back onto the trail. His youngest son, who'd hiked the first few weeks with him, flew out to hike the last couple of weeks with him. On Oct. 15, they reached the end of the Appalachian Trail, on Mount Katahdin in Maine.
"I thought long and hard about why I was hiking the trail," Kolodji said. "I wanted that picture on Mt. Katahdin. I wanted to finish. But the real reason I wanted to hike it was because I could. A lot of it was really painful. It was a hard hike, especially for an old man.
"But now that I've completed it," he said, "I can't help but wonder about doing it again."