Just over two months ago I had the opportunity to meet Matt Mason, a supporter on an incredible mission to hike the 2,184 mile Appalachian Trail (northern Georgia to central Maine) to raise money for the Chicago Fire Foundation.
The day was June 2 and after hiking 1,257 miles, the Section 8er had taken a diversion off the trail in order to attend the Fire’s match at New England – the first game he’d seen all season. While the 2-0 defeat wasn’t exactly the storybook result, Mason said seeing the Fire after three months in the wilderness was beneficial.
“Seeing the members of the club was huge,” said the 23-year-old hiker. “It was rejuvenating to see something I was familiar with – not having that connection is something that often brings people down out on the trail. I got to see some friends from Section 8 and talk to Frank [Klopas] after the game – it was just so awesome and really kept me going.”
If you haven’t figured out yet, Mason completed the remaining 927 miles, reaching the peak of Mount Katahdin on August 1. It was there with great pride he took the photo below proudly displaying the only extra item he carried along the way.
It wasn’t always easy…
What most struck me about Mason back in June was the positive attitude and the humility he carried about his hike. Despite carrying out a physically grueling act in the name of charity, he said to me then, “All I’m doing is walking.”
I found out Tuesday that within a week after speaking to him, the longtime Fire fan nearly quit the trail.
“Right after that in New York was the hardest stretch for me,” he said. “I woke up one morning and just couldn’t get up. I slept an extra hour and was totally exhausted.”
There are many obvious dangers to doing such a long hike. In five months on the trail, one is likely to encounter inclement weather. Stephen Colbert might have pointed to the threat of bears. For hikers, the reality is much more simple: loss or damage of equipment, an injury, lyme disease or dehydration.
Like a true Fire fan, Mason would go on to say, “The water in New York was pretty bad. I hit New York when it was pretty dry, so often times we were getting water out of quasi-cesspools. It wasn’t enjoyable and the miles were just not happening that day.”
Mason only hiked 14 miles that day (he was planning on 24) and described himself as feeling, “dead”. One of every hiker’s greatest fears had hit him.
“Thinking you have lyme disease is a pretty scary reality. People are scared of bears but a tick, an insect smaller than your finger nail, can give you this disease.”
The symptoms are joint problems, being tired, low energy and Mason had them all. Concerned about his health, he considered calling it quits.
Along the trail, hikers will often run into each other and form relationships. Through this, they’re given nicknames based on where they’re from or certain stories they tell along the way. Mason, known as “Pretzel” for a story regarding his high school alma mater’s mascot and former President George W. Bush was brought back to health by a fellow hiker from Ireland.
“Thankfully there was this guy named ‘Paddy-O’ that came through and literally saved my hike. He gave me two liters of Gatorade and a bunch of Little Debbie snacks. I thought it was lyme disease but it was really just dehydration from not drinking enough of the bad water. It’s amazing how some water and high fructose corn syrup can change your outlook on life.”
That was June 8. The next day, Mason got turned around at a shelter and ended up hiking two miles the wrong way. After that he says he never felt like quitting again.
Surviving dehydration made him stronger for the toughest part of the journey. From the New Hampshire border about 150 miles into Maine are continuous straight up and down mountains.
It was during this stretch in southern Maine that Mason experienced the “craziest” part of his trip.
One day he found himself caught up on an exposed mountain during a thunderstorm. The pouring rain created waterfalls on the granite mountaintop but the 40 mile per hour wind actually began to blow the precipitation back up the mountain.
“It was ridiculous. I just ran down on the wet slabs of granite below tree lines and bushwacked through. I wasn’t going to risk my life on the side of a mountain during a downpour.”
“That experience and those mountains were brutal but they were nothing compared to that day in June.”
After 153 days, Mason would summit at Mount Katahdin on August 1. Admittedly, it was a euphoric moment for the young hiker but he eventually brought it back to his main purpose.
“When I got to the top, I think I just yelled. I yelled a lot and I did the “C.J. Dance”.
The celebratory dance that former Fire captain C.J. Brown and current captain Logan Pause has carried on in front of Section 8 after home victories had become a common practice for Mason along the trail, so much so that fellow hikers named it “The Pretzel Dance.”
“I had to reiterate to them that the dance belonged to C.J.”
Looking back on the experience, Mason said the trail taught him an important life lesson.
“The trail reminded me how important balance is. It’s definitely a place to stop and smell the roses but if you smell the roses too much, you’ll never make it to the end. You have to enjoy it and also put your head down and hike. I think that transfers pretty well over to life.”
Mason returned to Chicago shortly after summiting and took in his first home game of the season, a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on August 4.
With his return, Mason still hadn’t reached his fundraising goal of $2,184 (one dollar for every mile hiked).
He received a donation from “The Great Stinkin’ Onions” better known as the Chicago Fire Foundation Marathon team that ran the Section 8 Chicago tailgate that day as well as receiving money from another Section 8 group, Ultras Red Side from a previous tailgate.
As of Tuesday, Mason said he stood at about $1,500, approximately $684 short of his goal.
When the Fire take on the New England Revolution Saturday night at Toyota Park, Mason will present the Fire Foundation with whatever the final fundraising number is as well as the flag he carried along the way. The presentation comes nearly a year to the day that another Fire supporter, Giovanni Savaglio presented the club with a flag he carried to the North Pole.
Even if he doesn’t end up hitting $2,184, Mason had this to say.
“It was truly an honor to carry that flag for the club. I never viewed it as my flag – this was our flag. I was merely the person walking it from Georgia to Maine. I’m really looking forward to giving it back to the Fire and the fans of Chicago.”
There is still time to help Matt hit his goal, click here to donate to his cause.
Check out photos from Matt's trip in the Storify gallery below: