Local thru-hiker Ryan Bunting is conquering America one step at a time.
Story by Barry Kaufman
Here in the real world, where the day is defined by a schedule and a routine as we all scurry about in the great rat race of modern living, his name is Ryan Bunting. But out there on the trail, where the pathway winds through unfettered freedom and breathtaking scenery at its own pace, they call him “Constantine.”
Based on the Keanu Reeves movie of the same name, the moniker was given to the Hilton Head Island resident by a community he has come to embrace as his own over the last five years. “I still have not seen (that movie) to this day,” he said with a laugh. “Once a trail name sticks, it’s hard to get rid of.”
He has hiked with many people in his journey across the country who bear similar trail names – Chupacabra, Zombie Legs and his hiking partner, Magpie. For a while, Bunting was known as Icy Hot, after an incident on the Ice Age Trail where he staved off hypothermia using hot sauce-seasoned soup. Each was bestowed their name by a community whose bonds are forged in the depths of the wilderness, where the great American frontier still begs to be explored.
“Your trail family – it really is what the fellow hikers out there become. You have your immediate family, the people you hike with during the day, then the extended family who are doing different paces but you still see every other day,” he said. “It’s all dependent on the trail system. On the big three you will see people every day. But on the Great Divide Trail, we didn’t see another soul for twelve days. The closest civilization was 150 miles away, and that was a dirt road 16 miles away from paved road.”
The big three he mentions are the three most well-known thru-hikes in the country — the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. Each stretches for thousands of miles, demanding a physical toll of any who would dare walk from one end to the other. Make no mistake — thru-hiking is not the same as simply hiking. The difference lies in merely enjoying the outdoors versus enduring it.
“A lot goes into it. A lot of blood, sweat and tears. It’s not glamorous at all,” he said. “There’s beautiful scenery, but you have blisters, baboon butt (chafing), you’re fighting hypothermia and dehydration. There’s a term called ‘firefoot’ that will take you out. I have scars on my hips from my pack.”
But for Bunting, the physical toll is worth it for the experience of calling the wilderness his home. Over the last five years, he has put in more than 16,000 miles all over the country, tackling the big three along with thru-hikes on the Oregon Coast Trail, Pinhoti Trail, Pacific Northwest Trail, Arizona Trail, Natchez Trace Scenic Trail, Great Divide Trail, Vancouver Island Trail and the Sea to Summit Trail, among others.
“It started off as an adventure,” he said. “And for the past five years, about half my time has been literally out on the trail.”
Along the way he founded his own ultralight backpacking gear company, Elevenskys, which grew out of his love for the trail and the community that calls it home. And in the coming year, he plans to stake his claim on one of the community’s most challenging records.
“I’ve never done any of the trails I have planned for the coming year, but this year I’ll accomplish a goal I’ve been working on for six years now, to be the first person under 30 to have done all 11 scenic trails as thru-hikes,” he said. “I enjoy pushing my mental strength, but I can already see next year we can do 5,000 miles… It’s not like I have to do them this year, but it would be nice to accomplish.” Follow along on his journey at elevenskys.com.
Five trails you can try
You may not be ready for a grueling months-long thru-hike, but if you want to experience a little bit of trail life, here are Ryan Bunting’s thoughts on a few nearby options.
1. The Palmetto Trail
“I haven’t done this one, but it is thru-hikable. It winds through a lot of different communities.”
2. Table Rock Mountain
“That one is 77 miles and puts you on the tallest mountain in South Carolina. It’s a good blend of what you’d get on a thru-hike.”
3. Pinckney Island
“It’s not a quote unquote hike, but there are enough miles there to get some fresh air.”
4. Clingman’s Dome
“it’s the tallest mountain on the Appalachian Trail. You can actually park close to base and do a few miles up to the top. Get in there at sunrise.”
5. Blue Ridge Parkway
“There are so many trail systems on there, you can park at any trail head and do 2-3 miles. Anywhere you park, you can find miles that will give you great views and give you the feel of a thru-hike.”