Hitting the Trail
When Paul Longchamps goes for a walk, he covers distances most people only travel in cars. For Longchamps, a 10-mile hike is a breeze. Lately, he's been logging more than 80 miles a week. He regularly walks the several miles between his Liverpool home and campus, where he is a general maintenance worker. "Yesterday I did 25.6 miles," he says one late summer day, checking the pedometer on his smart phone. "If I'd walked around the block when I got home, it would have been a marathon."
Stride after stride, mile after mile, Longchamps is preparing for a lifelong dream, the biggest hike of his life: On February 29, he plans to hit the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and keep hiking for nearly 2,200 miles until he reaches Mt. Katahdin, Maine, in late August. It's an idea that has stirred in him since he was 15, when his mother gave him a backpack and he first heard about the trail at Boy Scout camp in the Adirondacks. And that royal blue backpack, loaded with about 30 pounds of absolute essentials, including a portable solar panel to charge his mobile phone, will accompany him on the journey. "I want to take this backpack because of what it represents to me from 35 years ago," he says.
Longchamps grew up in the Rochester area, struggled with a tumultuous family situation, quit school at age 16, and set out on his own, often finding solace in walking. "I literally walked to Maryland once," he says. "When I'm out there hiking, especially with a backpack, I can go anywhere."
Longchamps, who is taking a personal leave of absence to tackle the Appalachian, began working at the University in 1987, holding positions as a custodian, food service worker, baker, and housing zone worker. During that time, he and his wife, Karen, have seen their two children come to the Hill to study: Daughter Jolie is a 2008 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, and son Carl is a sophomore at SUNY ESF. As an homage to his work as a "light bulb changer," as he puts it, Longchamps launched a blog, "Orange Lightening," to document his trip and has T-shirts for sale at the SU Bookstore, bearing a logo with that title designed by staffer Larissa Deyneka, with profits benefiting the SU Outing Club. "I walk five mph, which is about twice as fast as the average person walks," he says. "I can tell you where I'm going to be and when I'm going to be there, like a freight train."
Setting that kind of blistering pace is routine for Longchamps. He credits Keith Berger, his longtime friend and hiking partner, whom he met at SU, for prodding him back onto the trails nearly a decade ago. They routinely hike twice a week in all sorts of conditions, and because of their work schedules, often find themselves strapping on headlamps and navigating trails in the dark. "My legs just do their thing," he says. "Sometimes it feels like I'm riding a horse. I think about my foot falls being a couple inches farther than I can reach and make the very best of each stride."
A consummate planner, Longchamps lets no detail escape him. Along with preparing his gear and all the logistics involved, he plans to celebrate his 50th birthday, 27th wedding anniversary, and a family reunion during the six-month journey. Through it all, he enjoys the meditative state—the time to think—that long-distance walking provides. "I don't slow down," he says. "It's like nothing to me. I just love to walk." —Jay Cox
Photo by John Dowling