“It makes me happy to be an inspiration to those who might shy away from something difficult.” Soren West
Early September 2016 – Monson, Maine: Sojo’s right shoulder was hot, swollen and ached constantly. Tired of the pain, he hiked into Monson to find a doctor. After drawing fluid from the infected shoulder, the doctor recommended surgery for a torn tendon. The 75-year-old laughed, “Doc, I’d rather you amputate my arm than quit the trail.” An appeal from Sojo’s orthopedic surgeon in Pennsylvania fell on deaf ears. After a four-day hospital stay, he returned to the trail.
During summer camp at age 12, Soren West first hiked a few miles on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The majestic experience of God’s creation sank deep into his heart that week. Three years later, Soren and a high school friend developed a plan to hike the entire trail. But life got busy, and the hike never happened.
Soren received a B.A. in English from Yale University in 1964. While a senior, he met his future wife, Bonnie, who supported him through Villanova Law School. Soren became a trial lawyer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and they had five children. The family loved hiking trails in the Northeast, and was keenly aware of Soren’s dream to hike the AT. He talked about it all the time.
At 65 Soren told the family, “If I can close my law office this year, I’m going to do the trail.” Each successive year, he made the same declaration. When Soren was still practicing law at 72, his youngest son commented, “Pops, if you don’t do the AT soon, you will be the first guy to do it pushing a walker.” Soren got the message and finally said yes to his dream.
In May 2014, Soren, recently recovered from knee replacement surgery, began training. During the next 18 months, he hiked almost 500 miles with a 30-pound backpack. He read every book he could find and talked with AT veterans. Bonnie supported Soren’s adventure. She knew it was useless to try to talk him out of it.
On February 21, 2016, Soren set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia, the southern terminus of the AT with his eight-year-old golden retriever, Theo. Those who plan to thru-hike – complete the entire AT in a year – traditionally choose a trail name. Soren chose Sojourner, ‘an old soul passing through this world’ (Sojo for short).
After a week of hiking the trail in Georgia, Sojo was confident Bonnie could pick him up in Maine months later. Despite it being the most challenging thing that he had ever attempted, there was no way he was going to quit.
In time Sojo learned to endure the howling winds, rainy days, cold lonely nights, wet clothes and the bugs. After experiencing diarrhea for two months, he eventually adjusted to a diet with plenty of oatmeal, tuna fish, raisins, nuts and protein bars. Even though he was consuming 3,000 calories daily, he lost a pound a week.
Late winter in Georgia turned to spring in the Carolinas and Virginia. Sojo and Theo trudged on, trying to average 10 miles a day. Family members met him in early June in Middletown, Virginia, to celebrate his 75th birthday. The next day Sojo and Theo were headed north.
Summer in Pennsylvania gave way to fall in New England. According to his journal, Sojo fell more than 50 times due to slipping on loose rocks and tripping over roots. He tore tendons in both arms and his shoulder and broke a front tooth. Family members tried to persuade him to quit after the hospital stay in Maine. But he hiked on.
On October 16, 2016, eight months and six days after leaving Springer Mountain, Georgia, Sojo and Theo reached the top of Mt. Katahdin, Maine, the trail’s northern end. Lugging a 40-pound pack with Theo at his side, he had walked 2,200 miles through the wilderness, scaling more than 500 mountains that were at least 3,000 feet in elevation.
Soren West was the oldest thru hiker to complete the AT in 2016 and is one of only 50 people over 70 to complete the entire trail. Soren says, “The key lesson you learn on the AT is to take it one step at a time. Five million steps in all.”