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"I remember going through this super- rugged section of the trail in Maine," Skurka told me, as he hopped from rock to rock across a creek while I splashed along behind him, wetting my socks. "I got poured on the entire day and I didn't see a thing. I was up in the clouds and I remember all this wind and rain and I was like, Yeah! I'm doing it, man! I'm doing it! So I wondered, Are we working to live or living to work? And I thought, Neither. I'm just living! I'm not working at all!" From there, apparently, it was all downhill, at least in terms of investment banking: Skurka took a leave of absence from his senior year at Duke to intern at the Nature Conservancy. He followed that with a summer job in Boulder where he seized on the idea of hiking from the Atlantic coast of Quebec to the Pacific coast of Washington. It just hit him one day, a thunderbolt that said, Hey, I know what I want to do! I want to hike across North America! Sweet!

"I had to tell my parents very slowly," Skurka said. "They were completely unconvinced it was the best thing to do with the opportunities given to me by going to Duke, not to mention all the money they'd spent." But he did it anyway: Starting in August 2004, he hiked 7,778 miles (12,517 kilometers) in 339 days. "This was as American as apple pie," Skurka recalled. "A young, wet-behind-the-ears kid going to see my country, eating pasties on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, talking to ranchers in Montana about birthing cattle, going to branding parties, seeing the effect of logging in the Northwest." By the time it was over, in July 2005, Skurka knew there was something special between him and the open road—or the open trail, to be more precise. "I don't get lonely out there," he told me, "because I feel that there's no better home for me, no place I belong more. There's no woman, no town, nothing." He doesn't even get scared. Why be worried about wild animals? After all, he's one of them.

Skurka went on a tear in the summer of 2006, walking the 1,700-mile (2,736-kilometer) California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail in 45 days ("Do the math on that one," he suggested, helpfully); then the 480-mile (772-kilometer) Colorado Trail in 14.5 days; and then a 180-mile (290-kilometer) stretch of Yellowstone in six days. He knows these are outrageous athletic achievements, and he does think in those terms—at some level, he's still the high school track star, having finally found his proper event. In fact, everything about Skurka's approach suggests the lean and disciplined strategy of a pro athlete. His pack, minus food and water, is an extraordinary seven and a half pounds (three kilograms). His daily diet consists of two Balance Bars and a Clif Bar for breakfast; a snack every two hours for the next 12 hours, alternating between Snack A, a Balance Bar and a candy bar, and Snack B, exactly three ounces of Pringles and three ounces of mixed nuts; and a dinner of instant mashed potatoes rolled up in a tortilla followed by three ounces of Hershey's Dark Chocolate. The rationale? It's light and easily packable. To offset the caloric deficit he builds up in the wilds, he gorges on eggs, bacon, cookies, and peanuts whenever he reaches a town, usually every few days. On the trail he makes sure to sleep at least seven hours a night—it helps fend off overuse injuries—and he moves so fast that it's impossible for anyone to keep up with him. Rather than slow his pace, Skurka simply does without long-term visitors: The only person to accompany him overnight is fellow long-distance hiker Scott Williamson, who joined the trip for a day and a half.

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