By Amy PerryAugust 31, 2017
FORT LEE, Va. (Aug. 31, 2017) -- Just over six months ago, Fort Lee spouse and USO volunteer coordinator Julie Coffman took the first step on the journey of a lifetime.
Coffman set out to traverse the Appalachian Trail, an arduous undertaking, to say the least.
The trail goes through 14 states and is 2,198 miles long. The journey took her 163 days. She had 23 zero days (no miles hiked) and took off five weeks for family activities.
"I thought it was going to be a cake walk. I sure was in for a surprise," she said. "This was one of the hardest things I have ever done."
Coffman's family -- including Sgt. 1st Class Doyle Coffman, who was an instructor on the Ordnance Campus, and her three children -- were supportive of her journey, but also surprised at first.
"About a year-and-a-half ago, I decided it was my turn to go TDY," Coffman said. "I always have had a love of the outdoors and thought I wanted to do something big before I turned 40. A few nights later, I told my family. I think, at first, they thought I was nuts.
"I told them I was almost 40 years old and needed to find peace and clarity in myself," she continued. "They understood this."
The hike was a chance for Coffman to rediscover herself, she said.
"I have been the Army spouse, mom, Linda's daughter, and many other things, but I wondered who I really was," Coffman said. "I've been to college, but could never decide what to study. I've switched professions many times, but never decided what I wanted to be. I used this as a quest to do soul searching and find these answers."
On Feb. 18, Coffman's husband and two of her children dropped her off in Amicalola Falls, Ga., which is the starting point for the thru-hiker traveling northbound.
It's been said that hikers will walk more than 5 million steps on the trail, but when Coffman's Fitbit died due to water damage, it registered more than 7 million.
"When I started, there were no leaves on the trees, so you could see for miles," she said. "As I walked north, the seasons changed and the leaves came out to turn into a green tunnel. The views were still amazing!
I stayed at 17 hostels, four strangers' houses, behind a building and in a restroom. I cowboy camped (under the stars) in three parks. For the most part, I used my tent up until the end. When I got lazy, or when it was storming, then I camped in a shelter."
It rained about half the time she was on the trail, said Coffman, but that wasn't the only weather difficulties she faced.
"I hiked for about four days in over a foot of snow deep in Tennessee, and temps of 11 F and a wind chill of -10 F," she said. "The trail took on many forms from dirt to mud puddles, bridges, board walks, bogs, bog bridges, rocks, cliffs, rock scrambles, streams, and, yes, even rivers. I have forded four rivers and rode on two boats."
Many northbound hikers experience the "Virginia blues," said Coffman, where they are just done with the trail and want to quit.
"For me, it was the Vermont blues," she said. "I was done; I had it with the mud, rain, smells, cuts, scrapes, hunger, exhaustion, and everything about the Appalachian Trail. There's a saying that you don't quit on a bad day. So, I hitched into the Yellow Deli Hostel in Rutland Vermont. I had the rest of the day and the next one off as a mental health break and spent it with family and friends. I took off on the trail with a new outlook the next day."
Coffman's trail name is Trippin' due to her not being the most graceful hiker, she said.
"I quit counting how many times I biffed it," said Coffman. "I tripped all day long, but tried not to eat dirt too many times. The most I ever fell was 10. Maine had to be the state I ate the most dirt. I broke four toes and two ribs, and I tore my rotator cuff. It was my fault because I like to monkey around on rocks. The injuries did not stop me, though, I just pulled over, taped them up and pushed on. I had zero blisters, as for which I am very happy, but lost all but two of my toenails."
Coffman said the hike gave her a greater appreciation for the little things in life, like modern bathrooms.
"The longest I went without a shower was nine days," she said. "I have a new respect for running water and flushing toilets."
Additionally, she said she lost 38 pounds on her journey and consumed about 3,500 calories a day with two breakfasts, lunch, dinner, and lots of snacks.
"I also developed a sweet tooth," Coffman said. 'When I came into a town, and saw the word 'bakery,' well, my feet just took me there."
Summiting the trail on the final day was Coffman's favorite part of the journey, she said.
"It was a day of mixed emotions," she recalled. "I felt so empowered when I got to the top. I accomplished and fulfilled a dream."
Coffman used the trip to promote another aspect of her life that she loves -- volunteering with the USO.
"When thinking about all the reasons why I wanted to do this hike, I thought of all the people I would be meeting, and all the opportunities it would have to pass on knowledge about an organization I love," said Coffman, who posed at various landmarks along the trail with her USO patch. "Most people don't even know what the USO is, so it was great to inform them of all the hard work our volunteers do for our service members. The USO and I climbed approximately 470,000 feet in elevation and reached the summit of dozens of mountains. I followed over 165,000 white blazes, which are the trail markers for the trail.
"I hiked 2,198 miles, but I can't say I did it all on my own," she continued. "I had a great support system. I could not have done the trail without the love and support of my family. Most of the time I could not talk to them, but I always knew they were there with me. I also have been blessed to have great friends, and a USO family to support me on my journey. The Fort Lee USO employees and volunteers were a vital part of my trip on the Appalachian Trail."
Now, Coffman said she's enjoying family time. They changed duty stations shortly after she completed her trip and are on their way to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. But she has her eye on her next goal: "I have the Pacific Crest Trail -- a 2,659-mile path that runs from California to Canada -- on my docket for 2020."