Courtesy Coast Guard Reservist Magazine
Author's note: Tom Cowan and I were stationed together here at Coast Guard Headquarters about 10 years ago. During that time, I knew him in his official capacity in the world of public affairs as “Master Chief” (of course!), but at his retirement in 2013, it was amazing to see the amount of people who came out of the woodwork—many of them outside the public affairs world—to attend. As I later learned, Tom’s work as a gold badge (on active duty and as a reservist) was well respected across the Coast Guard, and his gentle, uplifting influence was a familiar thread in both his civilian and military careers. When he made the trek up the East Coast along the Appalachian Trail earlier this year, many people took notice and followed along via social media, including me.
Shoes, check. Stove, check. Soap? Weighs too much. Pocket knife, check. Enough sugar and carbs to last 75 miles or so, check. Weigh the pack. Take a few things out. Repack. Re-weigh. Repeat.
Every spring, around 3,000 hikers attempt to complete the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile hike that passes through 14 states on the East Coast. Most of these people, called thru-hikers as opposed to those just going out for the day, begin in Georgia and finish in Maine, spending between four to seven months to complete the trail. The hike itself can be treacherous, the gear required will vary constantly as the seasons change, and three out of four who attempt it won’t finish.
Despite the steep odds, Tom Cowan, a retired Coast Guard master chief petty officer, talked about it for years. His life had been spent between balancing two careers of service—35 years in the military and 35 years as a federal civilian with the military—and raising a family with his wife, Teri. When he finished his career in the Coast Guard Reserve in 2013 and his job with the Air Force in 2020, his son asked him if he really was going to do the Appalachian Trail.
Moment of truth.
“I knew I’d told too many people to back out,” he said with a laugh. Cowan’s a tall, lanky type, constantly on the move with road races, but 2,000 miles would test even the strongest resolve. But he was glad he’d kept in shape through all his years working in and with the military, and he was looking forward to a new challenge.
“I call it the delayed gratification plan,” Cowan said, half joking, half not. “I’ve always had these things I wanted to do, and I put them off. Now that I’m retired, I felt I needed to start doing the things I’ve dreamed about. I don’t have an excuse—I can’t say it’s work anymore.”
He set a date, stowed his essentials in a pack that weighed over 30 pounds, and flew with Teri to Atlanta. She drove him to the trail head at Springer Mountain, Ga., March 22, 2021.
“And I started walking.”
Appalachian Trail (or AT) hikers know that last sentence could fill months. But at his very first stop on the trail, Cowan happened upon the one person he’d hike alongside more than any. Jacqui Johnson, a teacher from Pennsylvania, was also testing her resolve for long distance hikes, in preparation for doing more of them in the future with her partner, John, who thru-hiked the AT in 2017. Johnson had also picked March 22 as her first day on the trail and was eager to get going. While many of the hikers at the first stop gathered to chat and relax, she noticed Cowan heading out early the next morning, and the two drew on each other’s momentum, keeping a good pace and keeping each other company.
“Tom was a lot of my trail family,” Johnson said, referring to the term thru-hikers use when referring to the people they spend time with most. Though much of the day can be spent hiking alone, hikers in the same trail family share their plans, rides, and resources with others, forming a social and safety network.
Along the way, the two developed a routine, walking together a few miles, having lunch, and meeting up later to share stories of their day and plan the next. Cowan was often the person retrieving fresh water for the pair, and Johnson, a natural planner, would map out the next day’s mileage and stops on their behalf.
Many hikers expect to spend much of their time on the trail in solitude, as Cowan and Johnson did, but with their extended trail families, neither was alone long. Cowan said the occasional meetings between hikers moving at the same pace was like being on a city road and running into neighbors.
“When you meet people in real life, you hang out a few hours at a time,” she said. “Friendship grows slowly. But with the trail, you’re spending every waking minute with these people, and it feels like you’ve known a person for years.”
Though they would eventually finish at separate times, within two weeks of each other, Johnson (known on the trail as Shilly Shally) hiked more than 1,200 miles with Cowan (known as “Hamlet” for his penchant for passing time by memorizing soliloquies, like Hamlet’s famous “To Be or Not to Be”).
As their feet and knees adjusted to the weight of their packs, they eventually progressed to hiking as many as 26 miles in a single day. Once or twice a week, depending on the route, they would plan stops in town to resupply, recharge batteries, and check in with family. (Cowan also took time to upload new photos to social media keeping friends up to date with his progress, using the hashtag #appalachianreboot.) As part of the resupply trips into town, Cowan looked forward to hot food, and Johnson sought out the nearest Mexican restaurants. AT hikers are known for being voracious eaters, seeking to replenish calories lost through constant movement.
Cowan, in his mid-60s, was already lean, but he dropped another 25 pounds on the trail. His diet just couldn’t keep up with the non-stop level of activity, and he began to dislike the sugary, carb-filled trail food. The effect of navigating sharp rocks, walking across the bottom of riverbeds, and scrambling up hills was leaving his body aching each morning.
“It was a lot harder than I thought—I had no idea,” said Cowan with a laugh. “That was good, though; sometimes I think it’s best not to know too much [ahead of time]. If I knew what I knew now, I’d say ‘yeah, it’s too hard.’”
His military background was a boon though. He cited the military’s eternal optimistic can-do spirit
“I had no doubt that I could [finish], and I don’t know why, because it was hard! I think it was an attitude I got from the military. We’re tasked to do things all the time that are out of our wheelhouse—but we figure out how to do it. I went into this with the same attitude, and as hard as it got…. I kept going.”
Around the halfway point near the Delaware Water Gap, Cowan found his desire to complete the trail was flagging. He wrestled with himself, realizing how crazy the idea of walking 2,000 miles really was. Resolved, he decided to take off the next day and rest. However, in the morning, he felt better, and started walking again.
As he continued to document his progress, leaving Pennsylvania in his wake, news of his endeavor spread through his communities—his Air Force family, his Coast Guard family, and other friends and loved ones. People looked forward to Cowan’s campy photos and his calm, gravelly-voiced videos, logging details of people he met and sights he saw. Through social media, his friends and family sent messages of support and encouragement, and it buoyed Cowan’s spirit on the tough days.
“It made a big difference to know people were out there, to know people care,” he said. “A little comment here and there, just to let me know they were there, it made it really possible to finish.”
He kept his pace consistent and shed extra gear whenever possible. His face became even leaner as the miles passed, and his white hair grew longer. The trail made him work harder than ever in the last three states. The rain was near constant in Vermont, and he said he fell so many times on the muddy terrain. He broke a finger, nursed scrapes, and his feet ached constantly.
Eventually, he and Johnson split up after New Hampshire as their paces and schedules parted ways. He was never alone long, though, leapfrogging other hikers, finding new members of his trail family. His Instagram page was full of lush forest shots, waterfalls, sunsets, and hikers lounging at rest stops and hostels.
In August, Cowan joined a group of four other men, and they commiserated along the way, sharing stories and food to the finish.
He said the AT had a kind of equaling effect, generating fast friendships.
“On the trail, you’re all hikers; you all have the same challenges, the same pains,” he said. “What stood out to me was how easy it was to get along and communicate when we all share a common goal—in this case, it’s hiking 2,000-plus miles. What I wonder is, in normal life, how good it could be if we could focus on what we have in common and work together to make positive changes?”
On Aug. 13, 2021, he summitted Mount Katahdin, Maine, finishing in 145 days. There, on Johnson’s recommendation, he recorded a final version of Shakespeare’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, tailor made for AT hikers. He returned to Utah with Teri just in time to meet a grandson born while he was on the trail, and his twin granddaughters, born two weeks later.
As he cuddled his grandchildren and healed his body, he reflected upon his time on the trail.
“One of the things I thought was incredible was the trail angels; [people who] would go out of their way to give food, drinks, and encouragement to complete strangers. I can’t overstate how much this small act of kindness meant,” he said. “If you extrapolate what trail angels do for hikers, if we could to that in our daily interactions, whether you know them or not, kindness—and lifting up others with your words and deeds—it goes a long way. And you may never know it, but it makes a difference in someone’s life.”
Occasionally, he misses the simplicity of the wilderness—life downsized to only what one could carry in a backpack. However, as a chief’s chief, Cowan continues to look for new ways to challenge himself. He’s considering a cross-country bike trip next year.
“As long as my knees hold out,” he joked.