Trails End and Texas Oil Fields
“The coolest part was I saw a lot of bears in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia while on the Appalachian Trail. I was going through that section in 2013 when the government had one of their shutdowns, which means that the national parks were shut down. No one was allowed in there. But I was at a point I was about to enter it and wasn’t going to stop and wait. The government doesn’t know when you’re entering a park. So, I kept walking. There were no tourists in the park, and it was a great experience to have an entire national park all to me and a couple of other thru-hikers. I think that was why I saw so many bears. There were no cars or people. Shenandoah National Park is one of the most heavily trafficked national parks.”
“I realized the shutdown was over when I woke up, and there were cars were in the park. I had night hiked Skyline drive, which crossed the trail along the way and saw cars and knew the shutdown was over.”
“By the time I reached South Virginia, I didn’t have cold-weather gear yet. It was the end of September, the beginning of October. I hiked to town and found a nice outdoor store, as well as a Goodwill. I needed more clothes. So, I went to Goodwill and found turquoise women’s extra-large long johns for about $3. Why spend more? They did the job. Frugality is part of the mindset on the AT. Live with less. The ladies’ long johns did the job.”
At Hot Springs, North Carolina, Harrison was held over for a couple of days due to a snowstorm. He realized he needed to cover the rest of the trail by doing 17 to 20 miles per day so that he could make a deadline for being back in New Hampshire to fly to Texas to be in a friend’s wedding. It was just after Thanksgiving Day, he set out to hike the Smoky Mountains. Harrison was the first person to ‘cut the trail’ that day. His mom, Kimberley, had made him freeze-dried meals for the trail, which is how he celebrated the holiday. Every few days, it would be cold with rain and ice, but he made it. He finished in time.
Harrison ended his journey at Springer Mountain in Georgia, where his mom and dad joined him to hike the last mile of the trail. Harrison officially signed off on his trek at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
“I have my tag, my certificate, my patch. Every year on my trailversary, I remember it. My birthday is June 20th, and I started the day before my 23rd birthday.”
“What happened when it was over? I’ve read about trail fever that makes you want to get back on the trail.”
“At the time, I was excited to have it be over because I was worn out. I had to snap back into real life and didn’t have a lot of decompression time. I went straight from the trail and drove home to New Hampshire, got on a plane and flew to Austin, Texas, for a wedding. Flew home for Christmas, then I had to pack up and load a U-Haul and drive back to Texas to start Texas A&M in a couple of weeks. I had reapplied for school, going for an economics degree.”
“The transition was tough. Once I got over hot meals and a bed to sleep in every night, there was a yearning. I wish I had appreciated it even more.”
I would have thought that hiking the AT would be plenty of adventure for a lifetime. “You leave the trail and go to Texas and work on an oil field. That’s quite a change.”
"I had a scholarship to Texas A&M and wanted to finish up my degree but had lost my scholarship. I decided to get a job, get a Texas residency, and get in-state tuition. I was paying out of state tuition. A friend who was working in the oil fields said it paid good money. It was the Permian Basin oil field in West Texas. I got the job and learned how much money I could make, so I stuck around for over two years. I ended up saving up a bunch of money, so I could go back to school and paid off the last year of my tuition. It was good money.”
“I worked with the drilling mud on drilling rigs. When you’re drilling, you need fluid continually pumped down the hole. The fluid lubricates your drill bit. It keeps hydrostatic pressure in the hole and keeps it from collapsing in on itself. It carries out all of the dirt and rock that you’re cutting with the bit. As that mud came out, I was treating it, making sure to get all the solids out, filtering it, and then getting it ready to be pumped back down the hole. You need to keep lubrication. You need to keep the pressure on in case you hit gas. There’s pressure coming up from the earth, and that mud keeps that gas down. It needs to weigh a certain amount. You’re constantly adding chemicals to the mud to make it weigh more, or you’re stripping chemicals out.”
“It sounds dangerous.”
“Sometimes, it was dangerous. We wouldn’t get any oil. We just drilled the hole, and then we would put in a metal casing like you’re drilling a water well. Another team would come in and do the fracking and the extraction. We would pack up and move on to the next hole.”
“It’s boiling in August in Texas. It would be 110 degrees, and I was wearing full coveralls, a hard hat, and steel toe boots and working around equipment. The mud is 120-130 degrees coming out of the ground. It’s hot.”
“Once the mud comes out of the ground, it goes over screens and shakers getting rid of stones and rocks. Then it goes into a series of settling tanks. We would pump it through centrifuges, getting rid of small particulates. The mud goes back in the hole. I would operate a small excavator like a backhoe, and when I had a load, I would call a dump truck, and they would come out, pick it up and take it to disposal.”
“Do you think fracking is causing earthquakes?”
“I don’t know. Possibly, knowing how far the wells go down. Most wells would be 10,000 feet deep, and then there would be another 10,000 feet horizontal. You drill down, make a curve, and then you go out. If you think of an 8 ½ inch hole going that far, then maybe. There is an environmental impact. We would sometimes do one to two holes every two weeks. Maybe 50-70 holes in the time I was there. The Permian Basin is private land. All of Texas is private land.”
“How does that compare to walking the Appalachian Trail? From one type of life to another type of life?”
“From an environmental standpoint, it's different. It’s not living off the land. But it’s an adventure. At the time, I was living near Houston, and I was working seven hours away so I would drive out into the middle of nowhere, and I’d stay out at this man-camp for two weeks and then drive home and get a week off. Sometimes I would work a month and take two weeks off. It was long days, and you get into a grind, a rhythm, but it was truly an adventure. I kind of miss it now because I work in an office and I miss being outside, working with my hands. But now I’m on a better career path. Now, I’m working on electrical production planning and scheduling for an electrical manufacturer. The oil fieldwork was complicated. It was a combination of having to take specific gravities and having to do chemistry things. Also, I was running an excavator and swinging a hammer and turning wrenches.”
“What’s next for you, Harrison?”
“I’m planning a trip to Colorado to go snowboarding in March. I got on Air BNB this morning and got a wicked good deal. I snowboard every weekend, and my dad comes up occasionally. I like doing my own thing in nature. I have a lot of interests. But I know a wife and kids are in the future at some point.”
He tells me that as we end, and I know his mom will be happy to read that last part.
You can see Harrison’s official listing as a completer of the AT and learn more about the trail at www.AppalachianTrail.org.
Harrison signing the official AT book at trails end.