When Anna Ball and Jason Brocar each decided they wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail last year, they didn't begin in the same state, they didn't finish in the same place, they didn't finish at the same time. Heck, they didn't even know the other person existed.
But after meeting up and hiking more than 1,000 miles together, the two South Dakotans forged a bond — first of friendship, and then one of love — on the trail that lasted long after they accomplished their original dream. The couple now lives together in a home in Piedmont.
Anna and Jason will give a slideshow presentation and tell tales from the journey they each took through the Appalachian Mountains, at 5:30 p.m. this evening in the Cyclorama Mural Room at the Dahl Arts Center. The presentation is part of the 11th Annual Dahl Mountain Culture Festival, which is hosted by the Rapid City Arts Council.
The couple said they took more than 5,000 pictures, and each one has a little story attached to it. They will also answer any questions that people have about their hike and their experience.
The two of them completed what's called a "thru-trail" hike of the Appalachian Trail, Jason said. That means they must complete the entire 2,185.3-mile hike within 12 months of starting it. Each year, thousands of hikers attempt a through-hike, but only about one in four people complete it, according to the website appalachiantrail.org.
Anna did what Jason described as a "flip-flop route," which means she changed directions, while Jason headed straight south.
Here's how Anna described her hike, which began on April 6, 2014.
"I started in Georgia intending to hike straight north to Maine. I got to Virginia, about 724 miles in, when I realized I wasn't going to make it up there before cold weather hit," Anna recalled. "So I took a bus up to Maine and started going south."
Her bus trip happened in July, right as Jason was preparing to start his hike south from Maine. The two eventually met 200 miles down the trail in a small town called Rangeley and clicked because they wound up being the only two people on the trail who hailed from South Dakota.
At every little hostel, cabin or campsite along the trail, there was a map of the country were you could put a push-pin to mark the state you came from, Anna said. She was always the only one from South Dakota until she met Jason.
"It was like, I'm from South Dakota, you're from South Dakota. What?" Anna said.
Jason, who started his hike in July, said he was hiking with a small group of people when he met Anna. He said two members of the group left the next day and since Anna wasn't with anyone she just stuck with the remainder of Jason's group.
"Then we just ended up hiking together for the next 1,300 miles," Jason said.
The two quickly became friends, but it took a couple of months before a spark ignited any romantic chemistry between the two, he said.
Jason said the two of them got together in New York sometime in September and everything "just clicked."
The pair each had completely different reasons for going on the hike. Anna, who was nicknamed "Birdie" because she loved bird-watching and always carried a small pair of binoculars, did it to fulfill a childhood dream. Though she has lived in South Dakota for more than 20 years, she was born in Maryland and as a little girl she met a man who was hiking.
"I remember meeting as a little girl a man with a backpack, my family and I were out hiking at the time, and I remember it was so amazing to me, as a little kid that you could carry everything you ever needed, ever in a backpack and go wherever you wanted in the world," she said. "I was like: 'I want to do this.'"
Jason didn't even think about hiking the trail until after his retirement from the military. Jason had served 13 years in the Marine Corps and 11 years in the Army and attained the rank of Staff Sergeant before he retired.
Jason's commanding officer asked him what he was going to do when he submitted his retirement papers. Jason responded that he didn't have any idea, so he started looking up jobs that are mostly outdoors, and found himself learning about the Appalachian Trail.
"Somehow I got onto Appalachian Trail websites, and I just said, 'ya know what? When I get out I'm gonna hike the trail,'" he said.
Most people thought he was crazy and asked him why he would bother. He always gave the same response.
"I said, 'because I want to do something epic after all this time in the service.'" He had no idea that he'd wind up with more than a few stories to tell.
He was given the trail name "MAV," which stands for Marine Army veteran.
Anna's trip took a total of 7.5 months when she finished up in Virginia on Nov. 16. Jason's trip took about 5.5 months, though he finished the hike in Georgia on Dec. 31.
Once they completed their dream, they met up again in South Dakota to begin a new chapter in their lives, this time as a couple.