Everyone on the trail has a story.
A few days earlier, Howser, 51, of Sparta, Tenn., met Thomas Graham of Robbinsville, N.J., and Gary Christensen of Jacksonville, Fla., on the trail. Graham was laid off from his job as a heavy-equipment operator in September and saw it as a chance to hike the trail. Christensen took the challenge to celebrate his 50th birthday.
Graham began his hike by climbing the 425 stairs to the top of Amicalola Falls in Georgia, eight miles south of the trail's traditional starting point at Springer Mountain.
"They were tough, but they're behind us now, so they seem easy," he says. "And it's been a blast ever since."
The country's longest marked footpath touches 14 states and runs through eight national forests, plus state and local forests and parks. It takes about 5 million footsteps to walk the entire trail, and hikers can come across more than 2,000 plant and animal species, according to the volunteer-based Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Designated as a national scenic trail in 1968, it was proposed in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, who was grieving after his wife drowned in New York's East River.
And now the stories of MacKaye, four other trail pioneers, and the trail itself are being told at the Appalachian Trail Museum, which opened June 5 in Pine Grove Furnace State Park.
The museum occupies a 200-year-old grist mill about two miles from the trail's midpoint - 1,069 miles from both Springer Mountain and Mount Katahdin, Maine. Most of the small exhibition space is devoted to Earl Shaffer, widely considered the trail's first thru-hiker - those who cover the full trail in one season - and the first to document it.
As a young man in nearby York County, he and his boyhood friend, Walter Winemiller, dreamed of hiking the trail, but World War II interrupted their plans. Before Shaffer joined the Army, the two made a pact to hike the entire trail when they returned.
Only Shaffer came home; Winemiller was killed in the first wave of Marines who landed on Iwo Jima. To honor his fallen friend, Shaffer kept his promise.
The four other legendary thru-hikers are MacKaye, Gene Espy, Grandma Gatewood, and Ed Garvey, whose hiking gear, journals, boots, and canteens are on display. Five crudely carved wooden busts sit on the museum's mantel like a Pennsylvanian Mount Rushmore.
MacKaye's dream wasn't realized until 1937, and Shaffer thru-hiked the trail in 1948. In 1951, Espy became the trail's second thru-hiker, and four years later, Gatewood, a mother of 11, became the first woman to conquer the trail - at age 67. She is also the first to thru-hike more than once - her high-top sneakers and eyeglasses are on display.
Garvey lobbied for passage of the National Scenic Trail Act of 1968, and his 1971 book Appalachian Hiker is credited with popularizing the trail in the 1970s and '80s.
Before the book, there were few thru-hikers. Today, roughly 1,500 hikers set out northbound on the trail each year, with 300 to 400 completing it. Only a few hundred hikers start in Maine - most prefer to avoid the cold and muddy spring in New England and follow the warmer Southern weather up the Eastern Seaboard.
The pace and length of stops varies for each hiker, but the entire trek usually takes five to seven months and costs about $3,000 to $5,000, not including gear. About 165,000 white-paint blazes mark the route.
The 3- to 4-foot-wide trail also attracts day hikers - singles, couples, and families of all ages - and section hikers, who often camp out during their week or so. There are stretches suited for all abilities, from the gentle grades of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to rocky Mahoosuc Notch, near the New Hampshire-Maine border.
The trail climbs up to 6,625 feet at Clingmans Dome, Tenn., and drops to 124 feet at Bear Mountain, N.Y.
More than 250 shelters dot the trail, usually near a creek or spring, and many with an outhouse nearby. In the museum, a hike shelter built by Earl Shaffer provides a glimpse of what roughing it along the trail looks like - a three-sided log cabin with the front open to the elements.
The museum's volunteer staff provides local lore and trail history. But much of the museum's collection, such as books, magazine articles, maps, canteens, and walking sticks, is in storage, waiting to be added once $50,000 more is raised through grants and donations.
Journals and personal artifacts convey the spiritual nature of the journey. But the best way to understand trekkers' motivation is to step outside and meet them passing through the state park.
The hike gives many a chance to redefine themselves. Some even take on a trail name.
"Sometimes you pick it, and other times people give it to you," says Larry Luxenberg, president of the museum and author of Walking the Appalachian Trail. "It's like you're leaving your regular society behind and develop a new persona. In some ways, it's like being reborn."
Take for example Chris Doran, who teaches a backpacking course at Harrisburg Area Community College. In 35 years, he has covered nearly 500 miles, getting his trail name in Virginia, when he had trouble putting on a new backpack. After he'd done several 360-degree turns with his arm flailing, fellow hikers dubbed him "Dances With Packs."
Karen Howser's trail name, Cody, was her screen name on a quit-smoking support site. Graham calls himself Tom Thumb, and Christensen goes by No Tech, because he eschews all things digital.
"I'm just analog," he says proudly.
Christensen has a point. There are moments when the park's sun-dappled vistas demand that visitors slow down and put away their digital cameras, cell phones, and GPS devices.
Four miles of trails weave through the park, which also has two lakes for fishing, swimming, and canoeing. A stunning array of ferns, flowers, and pines meets each curve. There also is a variety of edible berries, locals Andy and Gail Wolfe point out.
"There's wild strawberries and winterberries," Andy Wolfe says. "The blueberries are what the locals call huckleberries."
In towns up and down the trail, locals take responsibility for its upkeep. The Wolfes maintain an offshoot called Dead Woman's Hollow Road. Legend has it that, in the 1940s, a women picking huckleberries died of a rattlesnake bite - never mind that the area's rattlesnakes aren't terribly dangerous.
If thru-hikers represent the soul of the trail, the volunteers who maintain it demonstrate its heart. Although the trail is managed by the conservancy, the National Park Service, and the USDA Forest Service, more than 6,000 volunteers in 30 clubs keep the trail clear and hikable.
Rosalind "Rosie" Suit, who says she is "only 73 years old," drives two hours from Baltimore to volunteer at the museum and help maintain a nearby section of the trail for the Mountain Club of Maryland.
"I get more joy out of volunteering then actually doing the hiking - and I love to hike," she says. "But doing something for the trail or the museum is a chance to contribute something that will last long beyond myself. That's what's important."
There also are folks in trail towns who offer hikers encouragement, shelter on a rainy day, a warm meal or a place to do laundry. Hikers dub them "trail angels," and their kindness is known as "trail magic."
Bonnie Shipe of Cumberland County, for example, doled out ice cream each summer until the trail was moved off the public road near her home. Still, her legend lives on.
Today, hikers gorge on ice cream at the state park's General Store. It's called the Half-Gallon Challenge. When it started 29 years ago, the ice cream was free for those who polished off the half gallon; now, they get a commemorative wooden spoon.
Two-and-a-half weeks after passing through the park, Karen Howser reaches Sunshine Mountain in Sussex, N.J. She frequently runs into Graham (Tom Thumb), since they both average five to 20 miles a day. She hasn't seen Christensen (No Tech) since Pennsylvania.
"There's a saying on the trail, 'You have to hike your own hike,' " Howser says by cell phone. "Every day, everybody makes their own decisions about where they're going to go and how much mileage they're going to do. Everybody has to make these choices for themselves. But we're all flowing together in the bubble - you know, as a group."
A few days earlier, Howser had come across some trail magic - a cooler filled with Coca-Cola and Tabasco-flavored Cheez-It crackers. On the cooler, there was a note: "From the family of Tom Thumb."
On and Off the Appalachian Trail
Appalachian Trail Museum
1100 Pine Grove Rd., Gardners, Pa.
Hours: noon-4 p.m. daily though Labor Day, weekends in fall and spring; closed Nov. 1-March 31.
Admission: Free; donation requested
Pine Grove Furnace State Park
1100 Pine Grove Rd., Gardners, Pa.
Four miles of trails weave through the park, which also has two lakes for fishing, swimming, and canoeing. Canoes and bikes are available to rent.
The small general store is best known for its Half Gallon Challenge –– a sort of trial by ice cream for exhausted hikers. A nondenominational house of worship holds services each Sunday.
For everyone from thru-hikers to day hikers, the first stop should be the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's website, www.appalachiantrail.org.
The list of guidebooks and other sources is as long as the trail. The Free Library of Philadelphia has 76 titles listed under the subject, Amazon.com has more than 1,200.
The conservancy's Laurie Potteiger recommends reading memoirs and inspirational writings of hikers in addition to the practical guides. The average hike can cost $3,000 to $5,000, Potteiger says, provided hikers avoid spending too much when passing through the nearby towns. A more expensive option is to approach the trail in three- to six-day hikes.
The park offers all levels of camping. For those who prefer sleeping under the stars, there are more than 70 tent and trailer sites. The nearby hot showers and bathrooms are spotless.
Young volunteers from Central Pennsylvania Conservancy have been restoring The Ironmaster's Mansion as a youth hostel, scheduled to open next season. The Paymaster's Cabin, a historic house that sleeps six, is available for rent year-round.
For reservations in the park, call 1-888-727-2757 or go to www.pa.reserveworld.com.
There are also a couple of fine B&Bs in nearby Carlisle: Pheasant Field, 150 Hickory Town Rd., $119-$209, 20 percent discount to hikers, plus free pickup from the trail (717-258-0717, www.pheasantfield.com) and Carlisle House, 148 S. Hanover St., $109-$169 (717-249-0350, www.thecarlislehouse.com).
Things to do
The Totem Pole Playhouse is a half-hour drive from the park. Each summer, it offers light musicals and comedies (9555 Golf Course Rd., Fayetteville; www.totempoleplayhouse.org, 717-352-2164).
The South Mountain Golf Course is a nine-hole layout (9632 Swamp Rd., South Mountain, 717-749-3286, www.smgolfpa.com).
In neaby Orrtanna, Mr. Ed's Candy Shop has homemade fudge and a collection of more than 10,000 toy elephants (6019 Chambersburg Rd.; 717-352 3792, www.mistereds.com).
Also in Orrtanna, Adams County Winery offers tours and tastings. In July and August, there are jazz, blues, and rock concerts every Saturday afternoon (251 Peach Tree Rd., 717-334-4631, www.adamscountywinery.com).
Places to eat
The Inn at Herr Ridge
900 Chambersburg Rd.
Twenty-nine-year-old chef Charles Stockman's weekly menu features local duck, pork, chicken, produce, and Poconos trout.
101 East King St.
Chef Neil Annis has his own savvy take on local fare.
Hiking closer to home
The American Hiking Society book 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Philadelphia includes easy-to-reach trails in the Philadelphia region and Berks County, Pa., New Jersey, and Delaware.
- Tom Stoelker