Local couple reflect on recent Appalachian Trail hike

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

McDonough natives Josh and Maranda Stone wanted to do something unique to get their marriage off on the right foot. Rather than go on a cruise or hit the beach, the Stones decided to take a different route – namely, by hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Josh and Maranda Stone began their marriage by hiking the Appalachian trail from start to finish. Special photo

“We didn’t want to wait,” said Maranda, 24. “If you wait too long, you’re not going to do it. You either do it now, or you wait until you’re retired. We wanted to do it before we got into the whole cycle of ‘your work is your life.’”

The couple recently completed a 146-day hike along the trail and are now living in Cleveland, Ga.

Maranda graduated from Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy before studying education at the University of North Georgia. She and Josh, who also went to ELCA before going to Toccoa Falls College, decided together to walk the trail because of their shared affinity for the outdoors.

“During college, we both got into outdoor activities,” said Maranda. “It’s therapy for me. I’ve always enjoyed being outside. There’s nothing like being in the woods -- the sounds, smells, sights. It’s all very calming and peaceful, and it just feels right.”

Maranda began working as a zipline guide in Helen once she and Josh made the decision to hike the trail. She said they had a lot to learn about being outdoors for months at a time.

“We had only been camping a few times, and neither of us had ever been on a backpacking trip,” said Maranda Stone. “The longest hike we had ever gone on was about was 12-13 miles.”

Special photo

The couple got married in 2014 and saved their money throughout the following year, knowing the hike would keep them away for 4-6 months. After months of preparation, they finally embarked on their excursion on March 28.

Josh, 24, is a patient-care coordinator at the Black Bear Lodge near Helen, Ga., and has enjoyed hiking for about five years. Although he had never hiked anything as long as the Appalachian Trail, he was eager to get started.

“I was comfortable with the notion of on-the-job experience, letting it teach us how to walk the trail instead of forcing my abilities on the trail,” said Josh. “The trail is the great equalizer. As you’re walking, your only goal is to keep walking.”

The Stones acknowledged that hiking the trail took a physical toll on their bodies. Josh lost 45 pounds while walking the trail, going from 225 pounds to his current weight of 180.

“I have not weighed this little since I was a sophomore in high school,” he said. “We were molding our bodies along the way. It’s very romantic at first, but there’s so many more grueling aspects to it -- starting out a day and realizing you have to get 20 miles down the road so you don’t run out of food.”

For her part, Maranda was plagued by knee pain for the first half of the trail. Still, she said, that was just one element of the difficulties they faced together.

“I cried every day for a month and half,” she said. “Mentally, it is very challenging. I knew it was going to be hard physically, but mentally it was even more so. We didn’t have a home to come back to even if we did decide to quit.”

The couple navigated through areas including the Smoky Mountains National Park and Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Maranda said it was in the latter location that they saw a bear for the first time – though certainly not the last.

“We saw 11 while we were in the park,” she said.

Josh also recalled that he “freaked out” upon seeing that first bear at Shenandoah. But, like his wife, he eventually grew accustomed to such a sight.

“They’re kind of like dogs in that park,” he said. “They’re not afraid of you, and they’re kind of indifferent that you’re there.”

Josh said he and his wife were struck just as much the people they met – their fellow hikers from all over the world. The trail, he said, brings people together in a powerful way and enables them to create strong bonds with each other.

“They’re the best people in the world,” he said. “Doctors, lawyers, high-school graduates … it’s a much wider range of people than you might think.”

The Stones finally reached the end of the Appalachian Trail on Aug. 20. Maranda said the experience taught her a lot about herself and the man she married.

“I learned a lot about the human body and what it can do,” she said. “I didn’t know that I could hike over 20 miles a day every day. Your legs turn into unreal walking machines … We had so many experiences that we shared together, and I think it proves a lot that we made it through it.”