until 1998 when I turned 45 did I finally realize that I perform best when there are no
expectations placed upon me. So you can imagine my state of mind when I graduated
valedictorian of my high school class in 1971. Everyone thought I would become
a doctor. I dutifully enrolled in the premedical program at Cornell University
and graduated with a major in biology in 1975. I did find the time in my
senior year to take a film production course and absolutely loved it. But
I had already been accepted to Temple Medical School in Philadelphia and
who in their right mind would turn down such an offer? So off I went.
After two weeks I knew I'd made a terrible mistake.
But I hung in there. After all, aren't we supposed to finish what we started?
At the end of my third year, I was desperate for a break. I wanted to try
my hand at filmmaking but I needed more training. Bob Jones University, an
ultraconservative Christian college in Greenville, SC seemed to have the
program I was looking for. In 1978 I enrolled as a special student. Nine
months later I was running for the exit. I just wasn't used to the demerit
system, being chaperoned on dates or having to wear a tie to class. But the
good news was that I still enjoyed making films.
I was persuaded by those close to me to at least finish my fourth and final
year at medical school. So back to Temple I went. Two weeks later (in fact,
it was the last Friday in July of 1979) I quit–the best decision I've ever
I finally found a job working as a cameraman for a local TV station. I remember
sitting in a news car outside the federal prison in Allenwood, PA with another
cameraman named Tim Hogeboom. We were waiting for some convict to arrive
and the subject of the Appalachian Trail came up. It turned out Tim was planning
to thru-hike the trail. We both shared a dream of producing a documentary
on the trail. The following spring Tim quit his job, borrowed a 16mm camera
and hiked the trail from Georgia to Maine. Two years later no finished film
had yet materialized so I decided the moment was now. Rather than thru-hike
the trail myself, I decided to film a different hiker in each of the 14 states
the trail passes through. The project took 15 months and $20,000 to complete.
The result was "Five Million Steps" the first complete documentary of the
Appalachian Trail thru-hiker's experience. The film went on to win an award at the Columbus
International Film Festival and was shown on a dozen PBS stations nationwide.
Oh, I forgot to mention that I got fired from my cameraman job because I
had spent too much time editing "Five Million Steps". That's the second best
thing that happened to me because it forced me to start thinking as an
The smallest and lightest film equipment available in the 70s and 80s were
the home movie super 8mm film cameras. That's what I used on "Five Million
Steps". 8 mm video cameras didn't come on the scene until the late
80s. Encouraged by the success of my film, I finally purchased a hi-8mm video camera and shot two videos in 1990. For "27 Days" I followed four senior
citizens as they attempted an end-to-end hike on VT's Long Trail. While taping
in VT, I learned about Bill Irwin. He was well on his way to becoming the
first blind person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. He was willing to
let me tape him in NH and ME and the result was "Amazing Grace!".
In 1991 I set up my camera at high traffic areas along the
northern half of
the Appalachian Trail and conducted a series of interviews with thru-hikers. The result
was "How To Hike The Appalachian Trail." This video became so popular
it was even carried in the Campmor catalog!
The same year I shot my friend Don Hess ("Trashman") as he hiked a trail
right in my backyard–the Loyalsock Trail. Two years later I finished editing
the piece called "Doc on the 'Sock."
By this time I felt my own thru-hike was long overdue. I had hiked the 60
mile Loyalsock Trail many times and I'd even done the 270 mile Long Trail.
But the Appalachian Trail was calling. On April 14 of 1992, I rounded the top of Springer Mountain
and 137 days later I shoved my fist skyward on Mount Katahdin. I was finally
a real long distance hiker.
My brother Roy and I collaborated on "Free Food?!" -an edible plants video
aimed at backpackers and other people on the move. That was followed by
"Lightweight Backpacking Secrets Revealed (Let The Revolution Begin)." I
had spent the five years since my rather painful Appalachian Trail hike looking for a better
way to backpack. The standard 40 to 60 pound packs were killing me and a lot
of my fellow hikers. I did interviews with nine other minimalists while I
narrated the video and shared the results of my own experiments. Viewer response
to the video has been phenomenal. Lightweight backpacking is clearly a concept
that's long overdue.
A month after the "Secrets" video release, I applied the lightweight principles
on a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike. Averaging almost 26 miles a day, I completed
the trail in 106 days. The only injury I had to contend with was Morton's
toe, which actually got its start on my Appalachian Trail hike some five years earlier.
By wearing trail running shoes, my toes never became painful but only numb.
"How To Hike The Pacific Crest Trail" followed. By now I was using a tiny
1.5 pound digital camcorder. The new technology allowed me to exploit its
features to the max. For example, the Pacific Crest Trail video is an epic length of four
hours 39 minutes.
Suddenly a trilogy was in sight. "How To Hike The Continental Divide Trail"
simply had to be done even though the trail itself wasn't completed yet.
Responding to viewer's requests for more scenery, the video features a
mini-documentary by my friend Tim Hogeboom as well as interviews with a dozen
Continental Divide Trail hikers including authors Karen Berger and Dan Smith and the "Father of
the Continental Divide Trail," Jim Wolf.
My most recent documentary, OVEREXPOSED, fulfills two dreams. One, I finally hiked the CDT from Canada to Mexico. Two, I finally produced a video in high definition, which truly is a stunning medium. The project took 7 years and $20,000 to complete. But never has a video cost so much in terms of wear and tear on my body.
I don't want to ever stop dreaming of better ways to travel in the woods.
All of this comes back around to the bewildered teenager who
went to college to become a doctor in order to "help people." I'm helping
people have a pleasant experience in the woods. And the woods bring people
closer to God. Isn't that what life is supposed to be all about?