One day as a freshman, Brett Luce ('18) attended a free climbing session at the Pohl Recreation Center.
That one experience led him to an addiction to the outdoors and to achieve one of hiking's greatest feats -- completing the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine this year.
For four months, the geography major conquered the trail's big boulders and steep inclines -- as well as storms, a stomach virus and cranky knees. But those issues seemed small compared to his love for the hiking lifestyle -- being free, forming relationships and waking up in different places.
"I really loved just the adventure side of it, but I also loved how being outdoors connected me to people," he says.
His love for adventure began at the free climb at Pohl, where the people were so "friendly and cool" that he returned again and again. He took part in the Outdoor Pursuits Center's other activities, such as day hiking trips, and even got a job there.
Then he picked up a book from the center's free library called Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis, who tells her story of hiking the Appalachian Trail after college.
"Man, I have to do this," he recalls thinking after reading the book.
Luce planned the adventure for a year. He saved money by couch-surfing with friends and pinching pennies to help with the cost of the trip -- $1,000 a month to hike the trail, food and the occasional hotel. His parents didn't want him to start the trail by himself, so he and a friend began it together, starting in Springer Mountain, Georgia, in March. Luce was the 1,609th person to do so that year.
"I was just trying to grasp the fact that I was actually there on the trail," he says.
Every day, he made breakfast -- usually cold oatmeal -- and packed his backpack. He'd walk for 20 miles a day, meeting new people and, since he burned about 5,000 calories a day, he munched on high-calorie foods such as honey buns, Snickers bars, crackers, Nutella and granola bars. After setting up his base camp for the night, he usually ate Ramen Noodles for supper. He went through a pair of shoes about every 500 to 700 miles -- four in all.
"There's always a state of awe each day," he says. "You go into trail mode. You get your trail legs. You do what you need to do. You do just fall into the rhythm. You do what you have to do to get to your next campsite."
He'd get supplies by hitchhiking into the towns when the trail crossed roads -- the locals recognized hikers and were always willing to help. Friends and family occasionally sent him supplies.
Was there ever a low moment?
"Oh yeah," Luce says. "There were quite a few days when I questioned whether I wanted to be out there."
He missed his friends. His stomach acted up. He thought his knees would explode.
He got stuck on some ridges in lightning storms, praying the next bolt didn't hit him. He lost 20 pounds along the way and, when he reached the White Mountains of New Hampshire, he worried that a fierce windstorm would carry him away.
His favorite moment didn't come on the trail, but when his group of new friends stayed at a vacation home in Connecticut, where they threw a party to celebrate their progress.
"It was the memory of dancing, having fun and getting along with the friends I met out on the trail and who I was sharing the experience with," he says.
When Luce reached the end this August in Maine, he become the 187th person to complete the trail this year.
"The experience was very surreal," he says. "It felt like it would never end. Then it was time to go home."
He currently works as a sales representative for Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop in Fort Worth. He and his friend Luke Dixon, a senior political science and nonprofit leadership studies major at UNT, plan to move to Washington state so they can immerse themselves in the world of ice climbing and mountaineering. Luce may later go back to graduate school to pursue research.
For now he's getting back to reality, such as grocery shopping.
"It's just chaos returning from such a peaceful environment," he says. "I'm getting accustomed to life again."