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Soren West '64 hikes the Appalachian Trail

Lancaster man, 75, dusts off childhood dream, hikes 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail

Lancaster (PA) Online

Nov 13, 2016

How many of us harbor a dream for 60 years?

How many of us would set aside that dream countless times — my family needs me, my job needs me — and then act on it at age 74?

And not just any dream, mind you, but hiking 2,189.1 miles from Maine to Georgia. Up and down mountains with an elevation change equivalent to hiking Mount Everest 16 times. Alone except for a trusty dog.

Soren West
1964 graduation

Soren P. West did. He’s back in Lancaster a year older, with a loose tooth, shoulder bursitis from numerous falls, and nerve damage in his toes and fingertips from slogging through seven straight days of cold rain and snow in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness at the end of the journey.

He is so glad to be home and with family again. But he has learned so much about life and himself.

He is already a legend in his large family. And he should be an inspiration to you.

His big takeaway: When you need to take a step in life but are afraid of all the unseen steps that follow, take that first step and have faith that the following steps will be revealed to you. “Just keep on going,” he advises.

First hike

West was a 12-year-old in 1953 when he got his first hiking experience in New Hampshire’s majestic White Mountains. “That just stuck in my craw, I guess,” West says.

As a freshman in a boarding school in Massachusetts, he and a roommate actually did some grandiose planning to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Nothing came of it and, as West puts it, life took over. The idea continued to germinate, under the surface. When he was 65, and every year after that, West would tell his family that if he could get all his cases as a civil attorney in order, he was going to close his office and start hiking the Appalachian Trail.

His family heard that refrain every year for the next nine years.  Got tired of hearing it maybe, even Bonnie, his wife of 51 years.

“It’s quite something to say, ‘Dear, I’m going to disappear for eight months,’” West  admits.

“It wasn’t just this dream I had to fulfill,” is how West explains it. “It was something that got planted in there and it just seemed an inevitable thing that I would have to answer to and do it.”

2016 was the year. He closed his office and began preparing for the long hike.

In excellent shape, West walked briskly four to five times a week on a 4-mile route through School Lane Hills. He also backpacked in many of Pennsylvania’s most rugged trails.

He researched and meticulously bought the right gear. He talked to other seniors who had through-hiked the  trail. (The oldest person to ever through-hike the trail was 86.)

He read books about the daunting hike and the toll it can take physically and mentally. He knew what to expect.

He purchased saddle bags for his beloved golden retriever Theo, who would accompany him.

His family was unified in their support of his quest, delayed as it was. But the odds were stacked again him — only one in four people who start to hike the trail nonstop ever finish it.

And some family members held unspoken worries.

“Somewhere in my mind a part of me almost prepared myself that I could very well lose him in his efforts to through-hike the trail at his age,” confides Emily West, his daughter.

To be sure, the march between Feb. 21 and Oct. 27 of this year was arduous and fraught with peril. He had multiple dangerous falls and bouts of overwhelming loneliness for his family.

Fourteen family members met him in Virginia in June to celebrate West’s 75th birthday. They were startled by the sight of him, now 30 pounds lighter and with long gray hair and a shaggy beard.

But after Pennsylvania, it became emotionally harder as West realized he was hiking away from loved ones and the family meals and rituals he and Bonnie did  daily for so many years.

Favorite moment

The wondrous sights along the trail helped sustain his drive. West, who gave himself the trail name Sojo, for sojourner or soul journey, never tired of the views over mountain ranges and sunsets and sunrises that took his breath away.

His favorite moment was atop Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

His son Christopher and his two grandsons Thomas and Isaac had driven up from Lancaster to hike with him. “The wind was howling,” West recalls, “and clouds closed in and opened up repeatedly, covering and then revealing distant mountains. It was a weather show that grabbed the heart and shook any lethargy.

“Something inside came resoundingly alive and evoked a howl from deep within me. I wanted to meet nature on her terms and enter into the splendor of her performance. It was awesome!”

But soon he was hiking and camping alone again. He pushed ever on.

Tight boots gave him painful toe discomfort. He developed plantar fasciitis that inflamed his right heel. For two solid months, his strength was sapped by diarrhea. Hospitalized in Maine, a doctor wanted to operate on a shoulder damaged in one of his falls.

West refused. “That would have put me off the trail.” He adds, “The doctor did not get the mindset of an AT through-hiker.”

Nathan West, another of his three sons, surprised his dad deep in the woods near the end of the trail in Maine. Nathan offered to carry his dad’s heavy backpack and ease the strain on his enflamed shoulders for a bit. “No, I will carry it every last bloody mile!” West replied. 

Averaging 10 miles a day, he pushed on. After eight months and six days he walked off the trail in Maine and into his wife’s arms.

He was the oldest person to through-hike the Appalachian Trail in 2016.

Back at his home on Buchanan Avenue in Lancaster city, West is still trying to adjust to a life not as simple as it was when you followed white blazes on trees and headed north, with all you needed on your back. He vows to retain some of the simplicity in his life moving forward.

He has become an icon of awe and admiration for his family.

“So  many people have dreams, but the dreams get put aside along the way, or fear of taking that first step to make it happen takes hold,” says Hollie West, a niece.

“Soren, on the other hand, kept his dream alive always, and didn’t stop until he lived it. We can all learn from and be inspired by Soren.”

Observes son Soren West Jr., “The moment he set out on the trail, he formed a legacy for his descendants. The moment he completed it, his legacy became monumental.”

“Now that he is back, I can hardly take it in,” adds daughter Emily West. “I am also deeply aware that, no matter what failings he has had in family life over the years (as all parents have), each step was an expression — a true physical kinetic expression  — of his love for each person in his family, and in his life.”

Says West himself, “I’m in a way as much in awe of what I did as anyone might be looking in from the outside. For many of us in life, there might be that something we’ve always wanted to do or arrange in our lives that we could do it.

“It would make me happy to be an inspiration to those who might shy away from something that is difficult.”

Soren West as a mild-mannered attorney before he started his Appalachian Trail journey,
and near the end of the hike.

Soren West on McAfee Knob near Roanoke, Virginia

Soren West on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine

Mount Katahdin in the distance in Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness.