To make sense of this, you have to reread the figures I've just cited and resist the impulse to scan them like so many quantifiers of high achievement. You have to remember that you're reading about one of the longest journeys ever undertaken on foot. You also have to ignore the tidy name of his route—as if it were some mega-version of the PCT—and you have to accept that, yes, of course Skurka has sponsorship from outdoor gear companies and a website declaring admirably that his trip "underscores the magnificence of America's West, its long-distance trail system, and its National Parks, while also highlighting the environmental and ecological threats that are adversely affecting them." This is good stuff, and Skurka really means it, but nobody walks 6,875 miles (11,064 kilometers) alone to "highlight" or "underscore." They do it because they need to, because they want to, because it feels right.
That much was obvious from the moment I first saw Skurka. It was 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning at a picnic table outside the village of Twin Lakes, Colorado, just over Independence Pass from Aspen and at the base of the state's highest peak, 14,433-foot (4,399-meter) Mount Elbert. He had rolled into town to pick up a package of food and clean clothes that his mother had mailed to him at the Twin Lakes General Store and Post Office, and to send his own dirty clothes back to her for washing. He also wanted to wolf down some serious calories. As he tucked into a massive plate of eggs, bacon, and potatoes at the Twin Lakes Nordic Lodge, he looked like any other clean-cut young man: short dark hair, a black sun visor, a square jaw, and the most insanely fit-looking legs you've ever seen.
He's not a weirdo, in case you're wondering. In fact, you couldn't meet a more all-American guy than Andrew Skurka; Tom Cruise would be a fine choice to play him in a biopic (at least in his non-manic, non-jumping-on-Oprah's-couch moments). He comes from a normal family in a normal suburb of Providence, Rhode Island; he was an all-state high school runner with a 4:21 mile; he worked summer internships at Paine Webber and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce; he ran Division I track at Duke; and he now carries degrees in political science and economics—just the ticket for his intended career as an investment banker. But then, rather abruptly, everything changed, and nowadays Skurka is putting in a very different kind of hard work. When he'd finished a second plate of eggs and hoisted on his backpack to start walking again, I did my best to learn why.
I also struggled to keep up; hiking with Skurka is like tagging along on one of Lance Armstrong's workout rides, except at high altitude. He was going easy on me, of course, restraining his gait in the name of conversation and plain decency, but he still hoofed it out of Twin Lakes like a man hungry to get hammering again. His stride had an aggressive, forceful acceleration, as if he couldn't quite rein in the team of horses that lives in his chest. We tore across fields and aimed uphill through a forest. Between my deep, gasping breaths, I got him to admit that, more or less, it all started with 9/11. The ensuing collapse of the financial services sector meant fewer summer internships for go-getter college kids like Skurka. To occupy his time, he had to veer off the straight and narrow. Before his junior year at Duke, he took a gig as a counselor at a North Carolina outdoors camp. Before his senior year, he walked the 2,175-mile (3,500-kilometer) Appalachian Trail alone—in 95 days.