FORSYTH COUNTY — Charlie Ewing Jr. has grown up hearing his father talk about adventures along the Appalachian Trail.
In fall 1986, Ewing Sr. completed his “thru-hike” of the famed trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine. One who completes a thru-hike of the AT, as it is often referred to, makes the entire trip — all 2,165-plus miles — from start to finish at one time.
His son heard all about his father’s trek, which the older Ewing made when he was 26 with his sister, Tricia Ewing.
“Dad did it and it was one of those things that a day or two didn’t go by without him referencing it or saying something about it,” the younger Ewing said. “It was very apparent how much it impacted his life.”
Those tales, combined with the family’s love of the great outdoors in general, led Ewing Jr. to know from a young age that he wanted to literally follow in his father’s footsteps and complete his own thru-hike of the AT someday.
Mom Jeri Ewing said many of the family’s vacations when their son, who is an only child, was growing up were spent outdoors.
“He took his first camping trip at the age of three months, and received his first backpack for Christmas when he was 4 years old,” she said, noting that the family also spent as many as 50 nights a year vacationing in their pop-up camper.
Ewing Jr., a 2010 graduate of Forsyth Central High School, added that his time as a Boy Scout and eventually an Eagle Scout, the organization’s highest rank, also fed his desire to someday make the thru-hike.
He and his dad, who served as a Scout master, logged many miles hiking with the Scout troop, including a two-week, 100-mile trip to Philmont, a famous Boy Scout facility in New Mexico.
“Everything just led to me knowing that hiking the entire AT was something that I really wanted to do,” the younger Ewing said.
That chance finally came along when he realized his roommate at Virginia Tech, Sage Sardelis, also had an interest in completing a thru-hike.
Ewing made plans to finish his history degree in fall 2013, a semester earlier than planned, in order to have a few months to make the trip with Sardelis.
“We finally said, ‘Are we serious about hiking the trail, because if we are we need to make plans to do that,’” said Ewing, noting that while he had always known he wanted to complete a thru-hike, when it came right down to it, it was hard to imagine actually reaching the peak of Mount Katahdin at the trail’s end in Maine.
“It was something that I had been thinking about for so long that it was like, ‘Oh, I’ll do that one day.’ But it never occurred to me that I would actually have to plan in order to make it happen,” he said.
Eventually, the plans did come together and he and Sardellis made their way through the entire trek in five months and seven days.
That was quite a bit quicker than his father and aunt had taken to finish up in 1986.
“We were not nearly as experienced as him,” said the elder Ewing. “It was almost off the cuff for us. We were out there and we just kind of learned along the way.
“It took us about six and a half months. We started in late March and ended in early October.”
The father said he was extremely proud that his son decided to make the thru-hike too, although being a parent gave him a totally different perspective.
“As a parent, and having done it myself, you know there are risks out there and things could happen,” he said. “As a parent, it is definitely more nerve racking.”
But the elder Ewing said he took comfort in all the previous hiking trips the pair had made together.
“He’s a really good outdoorsman and he’s always really safe,” he said.
Both men say the shared experience is something they treasure for themselves as individuals and for their father-son relationship.
“It’s something that so few people have experienced, and it’s a very physically and mentally demanding experience, that now we both have had,” the younger Ewing said. “There’s this shared knowledge, shared wisdom, shared pain, but shared happiness as well.”
He added that the trek has also helped him better understand his father’s positive outlook on life.
“If you finish [the trail], you have to have a certain mentality of accepting what you can’t control and just being happy about all the good things around you,” he said. “I totally understand why my father has that mentality of always being happy, always pointing out the good things in life.”
The elder Ewing agreed.
“I feel like we’ve always had a really close relationship, but to me this is just another thing that creates a deep understanding,” he said. “He really understands me that much better and I can really understand him because we share this experience that is really life changing.”
He added that his son probably won’t understand the full impact of the trail for a while, but that it will be something that will always be a part of his soul.
“I don’t even know if he will understand it as much now as he will as the years pass,” Ewing Sr. said. “It was 28 years ago for me and I still think about things that I learned … like learning how to really enjoy life even if it is raining or things are uncomfortable. No matter what, life is great. That’s something that is instilled in you when you’re out there.
“It could be a miserable, driving rain, but you get over some overlook in the mountains and there’s this beautiful cloud formation that you wouldn’t have seen if it wasn’t raining … you learn to look for the positives in life even if things are going quite your way.”