In 2010 CSU atmospheric science alumnus Pete Wetzel set out to hike home – to all two dozen places he’d ever called home in his 60-plus years. Nine years and more than 18,000 miles later, he concluded his journey in Fort Collins, where he earned his Ph.D. in atmospheric science from Colorado State University in 1978. His advisor, Professor Emeritus William Cotton, joined him Oct. 26 for part of the final leg of his adventure. Together they walked the Poudre Trail from the Kodak Trailhead south of Windsor to the Poudre Learning Center west of Greeley.
Due to budget cuts, Wetzel took an early retirement buyout offer from NASA in 2005, where he was a research atmospheric scientist. In 2010 he acquired his first personal GPS tracker, and he has not stopped logging miles since. He has the recorded GPS tracks to prove it, ever updating an online map of his travels.
In 2012 Wetzel hiked the Appalachian Trail – twice, once in each direction, making him one of a select few who have done the “double” in a calendar year, and the oldest of those by more than a decade, he calculates. Wetzel found his “happy place” hiking long distances through territory new to him, especially on footpaths in the woods. But he felt he needed a goal to sustain and justify further long-distance hiking.
Many Appalachian Trail hikers move on to the “Triple Crown,” adding the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail to their mileage. Wetzel knew dozens of people who had done this, and copying someone else did not appeal to him. He needed a hiking goal nobody had imagined.
“All my life I’ve been strongly motivated to do things my own way, to deliberately be different from others, not to be a copycat but a pathfinder,” he said.
Karl Bushby, who is attempting to be the first person to hike a continuous path around the world, inspired Wetzel. The British ex-paratrooper started at the southern tip of South America, crossed the Bering Strait on the ice in winter, and has reached Uzbekistan on his way to his final destination in Hull, England.
Wetzel knew that an adventure of that scope was beyond him, given that he was already in his mid-sixties, and he had no desire to copy Bushby. So Wetzel formulated a personal plan grand enough in scope to keep him hiking with purpose for a long time: He would hike an unbroken path to the front door of every home he’d ever had.
“It’s a way to keep me interested in doing what I love most – exploring new wild places on foot,” he said.
In the ensuing years, Wetzel’s ambitious goal took him to State College, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Delaware; Topsail Island, North Carolina; Keystone Heights, Florida; and Ellicott City, Maryland, among other former zip codes. Memorable natural settings have punctuated his path along the way. He recalls the grandeur of the Roan High Balds on the Appalachian Trail, Ash Cave in Ohio, Pictured Rocks on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and Avery Peak in Maine. In Ocala National Forest on the Florida Trail, Wetzel sighted several endangered scrub jays, and he spotted the rare Georgia aster, a flower threatened by habitat destruction, on the Pinhoti Trail.
The finish line
“Colorado or bust” has been Wetzel’s mantra since he set out from his birthplace in Sauk City, Wisconsin, earlier this year to complete the last stretch of his arduous journey. His finish line is the home he built out of native rock 40 years ago in Rist Canyon. At 7,400 feet in elevation, with a panoramic 100-mile view of Pawnee National Grassland to the east, it will be the trek’s high point in more than one way. His daughter flies in to Colorado this weekend to cross the finish line with him.
“By connecting all the hikes I do with all the others I’ve done, it just feels like I’m constantly adding value to what I’ve already accomplished, keeping my past hikes ‘relevant’,” Wetzel said. “I can point to the ground under my feet and say, ‘This trail that I’m laying down connects, unbroken, to Key West Florida, to Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, to North Carolina’s beaches, etc.”
Wetzel intends to spend the winter writing. First he’ll revise a novel he has been working on, then he hopes to write a memoir about his journey, Hiking Home. He also is promoting and virtually scouting a network of connected footpaths, called the Fifty Trail, that would connect all 49 continental states and D.C. His next route by foot either will be scouting for the Fifty Trail or will extend his unbroken path from Fort Collins to the Pacific Ocean, and maybe even venture on to the Arctic Ocean.
As Wetzel elegantly puts it on his blog’s overview page, “Sure as hell beats a treadmill.”