A lot of 23-year-olds wonder about their next step in life, but it's different for Aaron Schroeder.
On Saturday, he stepped off the Appalachian Trail at its southern terminus atop Springer Mountain, Ga. -- 2,185.9 miles and 116 days after starting down the trail at the other end in Katahdin, Maine.
For four months, Schroeder rose before dawn, strapped a 25-pound backpack over his 6-foot-2 frame and started a journey with a clear goal and few choices. He trekked up and down mountains over 14 states at a clip of 22 miles per hiking day.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says the total elevation gain is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times. That's why he lost 20 pounds, burning 6,000 calories a day. It's why he went through five pairs of New Balance shoes and a number of Darn Tough wool socks, made in Vermont. And it's why only one in four who start a "thru-hike" finish it.
"We took a lot of pictures at the finish because my parents both came up, and once we had done that it was like, 'OK, I guess we're done now,'" Schroeder said. "But I didn't know what the next step was. It was such a weird feeling, such a confused feeling."
Back at home on Hilton Head Island, Schroeder could review his feelings recorded day by day on the trail in his blog, "Aaron Takes a Walk," at aarontakesawalk.blogspot.com.
But he said Thursday he knows what his next step is: Find a job. He squeezed the hike in after earning a master's degree in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and an undergraduate degree from Duke. He was salutatorian of the class of 2008 at Hilton Head Preparatory School.
"It's still sinking in," Schroeder said, the "Congratulations" banner still in the front yard. "It almost doesn't feel like it's done."
He anticipated being wowed by the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, black bears, 5,000-foot peaks, and strangers with "trail names" like the one he got for being an early riser -- "Rooster."
But he didn't realize it also would be a tour through small-town America, where he was treated like company when he got off the trail. In Damascus, Va., half the residents had walked the trail, liked it there, and stayed. In Glasgow, Va., goofy mannequins ride a brachiosaurus dinosaur. He felt the sadness of towns that he could tell used to be something else before they lost their industry.
Schroeder said the challenge of the Appalachian Trail is more in the mind than the legs. Only once did he seriously consider quitting. But he rested, got up and continued the drill: Set a goal and meet it. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. "I'm so glad I did," he said.
Now as he steps into the adult world, Schroeder hopes to always hear the call of old "Rooster."
"I just have to keep reminding myself, when I'm intimidated by something, that you just chip away it," he said. "Break it into small pieces."
Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.