CLEVELAND, Miss.—Each year, only a quarter of the roughly 3,000 individuals who attempt to thru-hike the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail (A.T.) successfully complete the mammoth undertaking in one trip. Delta State University Outdoor Recreation Administration student Merritt Burgin is now among that special group of hikers.
Burgin set off on the A.T. earlier this year with DSU alums Raina Stiffler Burgin ’12, ‘19, Marshall Burgin ’15 and Olivia Dick ’20. Burgin was the first from the group to successfully complete the trail on Sept. 17, 2021. He celebrated the moment by posing for a photo at the iconic sign on top of Mount Katadhin at Baxter Peak, the highest point in Maine, while sporting his DSU Outdoor Program backpacking shirt.
“No rain, no pain, no Maine. You hear that a lot on trail. I feel like that sentiment is something I will always carry in life. In order to achieve the things you hope to, you must embrace it all, both good and bad. The trail taught us all that, day after day until the very end. Nothing worth having is easy,” said Burgin as he reflected on the accomplishment.
Dr. Todd Davis, assistant professor and director of Delta State’s Outdoor Recreation Program, said the program is thrilled to have its first thru-hiker.
“The College of Education and Human Sciences is super proud of Merritt,” said Davis. “To take on the pinnacle of the outdoor wilderness adventure which is attempting to finish the Appalachian Trail in one shot is extremely arduous. There are a lot of people who do section hikes, but for him to go and do a thru-hike makes us all extremely proud.”
Burgin credits his Delta State’s Outdoor Recreation classes for preparing him to conquer the task. The Outdoor Recreation Education Program (OREP), the state’s first program of its kind, is an academic/experiential learning program for outdoor recreation adventure activities.
“I think the most important lesson I took on trail from my time with the Outdoor Rec program was to always have a Plan B,” he said. “While spending months walking through the wilderness, things change daily: trail conditions, weather, injuries and the like. These things will change how much and far you can hike. I was changing plans on a weekly basis to keep myself safe and healthy out there.”
Davis said the program is designed to cultivate leadership and survival skills.
“We teach courses in risk management and risk evaluation, and in that we develop leaders who lead people as well as themselves. Merritt is an example of this—clearly everything translated really well for him to achieve this accomplishment.”
“We’re encouraging more people to be adventurous with their life because life is short,” he added.
More from Burgin on the trail:
“One night, the whole crew, Marshall, Raina, Olivia, and I with the dogs, slept on top of Grassy Ridge Bald in the Roan Highlands. It’s the highest point we walked to while in those mountains I believe. It was the type of night you hike for. There was a single gigantic rain cloud off in the distance we watched roll past us through a distant valley during sunset. Then slowly after the sun set, you could see light after light turn on, some in the close woods, some in the distant valley. Little towns that did not exist in my view suddenly revealed themselves. That night was like being in a planetarium. The sky lit up with stars like you would not believe. Looking back on it, the sights were so magnificent that I forget how incredibly cold and windy it was at the top. One of our strings tying down the tent snapped! I don’t know if I have ever worked as well without being able to see as I did in that moment. The next morning, we watched the sky slowly turn from purple to pink to orange and red as the sun lit up the morning. People often wonder why we would walk for months through the woods, and nights like that are exactly why.”