Hiking the Appalachian Trail


The Appalachian Trail is a winding, mountainous, continual wild path that stretches from Georgia to Maine and is comprised of 2,200 miles. Well, 2,198.4 miles to be exact. On February 24, 2023, Madison resident, Tommy Lister began this Bucket List journey. On Saturday, July 16 he finished the grueling task. For a normal, healthy, able bodied soul, the journey is a dream that only 20,000 plus have hiked the entire trail since its creation in the 1930s. Lister wasn’t even supposed to be on the trail, much less hiking it, per his doctor. 

After a lifetime of right ankle problems, the Madison resident and custom home builder had surgery in February of 2021. Dr. Penny Lawin of Mississippi Sports Medicine cleaned out his ankle that was first broken at Scout camp as a teen and sprained multiple times over his basketball career and pretty much every year of his total of 61 so far on planet earth. 

She repaired and reattached long detached ligaments, cleaned out the joint on both sides and took care of five bone particles. Then she told him to stop doing some of the things he loved. She also told him his left ankle needs to be fixed as well. 

“One, You really shouldn’t be running. Your cartilage isn’t going to last a whole lot longer. Two, you definitely don’t need to be hiking in the mountains,” Lister explained. “Just don’t hike in the mountains.”

Great common sense medical advice but Lister didn’t know if he could give up his active lifestyle of mountain hiking, running ½ marathons and hunting in Montana. After checkups through August, Dr. Lawin released him. 

“I was really depressed after the surgery. What she said and how bad my ankle was. She cut on me in three different places. I had no idea when I came out of surgery that I’d be cut on that much,” Lister said. “I didn’t know if I’d get over the surgery.”

With his foot in a boot his calf atrophied and his foot was swollen, Lister was ready to rehab his ankle and leg. He started working with physical therapist Brian Hendley to at least get his leg back to normal. But the PT asked Lister what his goals were.

“He brought me back to ground zero and said, ‘one day at a time. Let’s work on this,’” Lister said. “Then he asked me, ‘If there were three things you want to accomplish. What would they be?’ He immediately got me thinking about the goals.”

The first thing he listed was hunting elk in Montana. But he didn’t know how he’d backpack in, kill an elk and pack it out with a bad ankle. Lister had always enjoyed running and wanted to run a ½ marathon but the number one item on his list – Thru Hike the AT.

“His eyes got big and hey said, ‘whoo. Man, I know we can accomplish the first two and we’ll work on that third one.’”

Lister started training and ran his first race at Thanksgiving. The Turkey Trot in Ridgeland. In December of 2021, he ran his first half marathon – and finished. 

“I ran seven the next year and ended in December, I ended with the same one I started with,” he said. 

Then he put his focus on hiking. Trips to Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and hikes in Mississippi. 

“I got my backpack and my gear all together and I left in February for the AT,” Lister said. 

His love for hiking began in Boy Scout Troop 91 in Belzoni where his late father, Richard Lister, was the Scoutmaster. He continued after scouting with his dad and his older brother, Richard also hiked and the trio enjoyed traversing mountainous terrains. 

“My brother moved to South Carolina and he was on the edge of the Appalachians and close to the Smokies,” he said. “In a matter of four years, I did some hikes with dad and some with him. Then the last one in 1981 with my dad. I didn’t do much in my 20s but at age 40, I started elk hunting and you have to be able to hike in the mountains to get close enough to bow hunt.”

The elk hunts refined his procedures and protocols for hiking but as he aged, he had to get smarter.

“I began to look at different gear and ways to stay out longer and it became more of a serious thing,” he said. “I’ve always loved to hike and get to a place where people can’t drive to and you can see part of God’s creation.”

The father of two and grandfather of two, decided to challenge the AT. He read “Hiking Through” by Paul Stutzman. The story captivated and challenged Lister. Stutzman had lost his wife to cancer. Lister was still struggling with losing his older sister in a car wreck in 1986. Tommy was driving as they were trying to find his teenage nephew who had run away and was literally on a dark and evil life road. 

“After that, days and months and years went by and the son never changed in life and was in jail,” Lister said. “I never wanted to see him or talk to him again because he would never change.”

Lister took the trail hoping to find solace and answers from God about the tragedy. The five month hike gave him plenty of time for that. But first he had to plan. He started with YouTube videos of those who had attempted and completed the hike. He gathered gear he had tested and bought the best iPhone to create videos along the way for his own YouTube channel (@BigTontheAT) where he documented the journey. He also downloaded the app, Far Out to map out the trail and his journey. He purchased the Appalachian Trail map in the app and it showed him all the campsites and shelters, road crossing, places to get water and more. But with all the planning he’d done, he knew there was one thing he needed to keep in focus.

“I focused on how they did it. But there’s one thing I realized. This has to be the most important thing in your life if you’re going to accomplish it. If it’s not, there are too many things that can go wrong and will make you quit and go home,” he said. “I quit doing houses in December and didn’t do anything but work on this.”

He hiked various pieces of the trail trying out all of the gear and food he would need to make it through the AT. He didn’t have any brand name sponsors but he had plenty of family, friend and church support. 

“All this time I’m’ trying out gear, trying out shoes, trying out clothes, eating freeze dried meals and seeing what will work for me and what won’t work for me,” he said. 

After training on parts of the trail, Big T – a nickname from his granddaughter – hit the trail on February 24 – the actual anniversary of his tragic auto accident in 1986. He started small with a few miles.

“The first day I did 12.3 miles. You don’t want to start out with big miles because. You’ll hurt yourself and burn out. About the second week, I did an 18 mile day but you get to where a 20 mile day is something you know you can do. You plan where you’re going to stay whether it’s on the trail or in a shelter or you get off the trail in a hostel or hotel. Every day is different,” he said. “My first 25 mile day I didn’t know if I could go. The shelter was 25 miles away and I got there right at dark.”

With a one week plan in his pocket, Lister decided to map out the rest while on the trail, a week at a time, taking his body and energy and the hurdles in front of him all mixed in the equation. Beginning in Georgia, Lister traversed and focused on his steps, some were easy, some were extremely difficult. Climbing mountains, crossing rivers, fighting insects, ticks and even a rattlesnake, Lister kept walking. The miles added up, 20, 50 to 100. Then another 100 and another. He kept going. At one point he was on a 16 mile a day average for five months. 

And he took time off the trail as well. Zero days where he would stay in a hotel or inn off the trail and recoup and relax and restore his body. Pick up packages with new supplies and shed some weight from his pack until the next zero day. And he’d charge his battery pack, create his video and post them and then get back on the trail. 

Yes, there were days when he thought he’d had enough of the trail.

“There were times when I thought, ‘you know it sure would be easy to catch a ride to the nearest airport and be home. Take a hot shower and sleep in my own bed and be comfortable and not fight bugs and be wet all the time.’ But it didn’t stay in my mind that long. But it was important to me that I needed to accomplish this goal in my life.”

He finished the hike and took a lot out of the 2,200 mile journey. 

“There’s a satisfaction of ‘hey, I did this. I did something that not many people can or are able to do.’ I don’t say this in a bragging way but in a way that makes me grateful. I’m grateful to the Lord that He’s given me the strength and He’s given me a time in my life where I can take off time from work and I’m awed at His grace and His mercy that He’s placed on me. It was an awesome worship experience of the Lord and I follow that up by also being in nature and you go through some incredible, incredible places that people don’t see. You can’t see it unless you’re willing to walk some serious miles in some serious elevation to see. And it all falls back onto I’m blessed. Thank you, Lord for letting me be here. I take away that this is a wonderful, great creation that you made for us to enjoy.”

Finishing the hike gave him the fever to keep hiking, something he mentioned that other hikers lose after such a journey. 

“I’ve decided in the last three weeks that I want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail – 2,600 miles that starts in southern California at the Mexico border and goes up the Sierra Range up through Oregon and Washington to the Canadian border,” he said. 

When Lister finished his hike, he found out the nephew he had tried to bring home all those years ago had been in a car wreck in early August and was on life support. Lister went to visit.

“I talked to him and told him I forgave him. I had harbored hatred for all these years in my heart,” Lister said. “If I hadn’t gone on this hike and spent five months in the wilderness would I have ever reached a point where I forgave him. But for the first time in a long, long time I got peace from God because I forgave him.”

The nephew passed away shortly after the meeting and Lister learned his nephew found Jesus in the end. 

“The Lord has blessed me in so many ways. Just to be able to complete this, to go 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine to have the time, to have the money, to have energy, to have the people at home supporting me – it’s been an incredible blessing. But here in the end, I get the blessing of having a little bit of joy in my heart again over something so tragic.”