Outside of Vernon, N. J., a rickety, wooden suspension bridge opens its mouth to a dirt path that snakes up and down the vibrant, moss-green Pochuck Valley, leading directly toward the rocky Wawayanda Mountain. This is a part of the Appalachian Trail where rolling hills emerge between dense, undisturbed woods, allowing hikers to view the marked trailheads for only eerie, short distances ahead. Once hikers pass a cow patch, the dirt trail abruptly unfurls into steep slabs of stone that wind up the rocky mountain.
Popularly dubbed the “stairway to heaven,” this particular path is warned to be an advanced, uneven hike for some people, but hiking “a few rolling hills” by himself posed nothing close to a threat for William Wells, a recent University of Alabama wildlife and land management graduate.
For him, this was just a normal day for the Georgia to Maine “thru-hiker.” With loud headphones and no sign of human life for miles, the crisp air and fast pace had 22-year-old Wells’ blood pumping and energized in a comfortably focused daze. After hiking for four months, this was exactly the kind of verdant June day he loved.
Or at least, it was, until he turned and made immediate, gut-wrenching eye contact with a 300-pound black bear, standing motionless and very possibly hungry about 30 yards away.
Seconds crawled by in beady-eyed silence.
He knew escape was impossible. Panic dripped like sweat from his neck, and though his research claimed that black bears weren’t known for charging, he also knew that he wouldn’t stand a chance if it did. Out of instinct, Wells began backing up unsteadily over rocks, unable to rip his eyes from the “terrifying, yet beautiful,” bear.
That tiny movement was all it took: The hefty, sharp-clawed creature suddenly charged full-force in his direction. The massive bear cut the distance between them in half with quick, heavy strides. It’s generally suggested that hikers fight black bears, but Wells knew for a fact that there was absolutely no training that could have prepared him for what looked to be his last excruciating moments to live.
“All I could think of was that quote by Jack Kerouac,” Wells said, recalling the incident with a bewildered smile. “’Pain or love or danger makes you real again.’ Also, I was wondering if I would die.”
With just as much nightmarish enthusiasm, the bear abruptly cut off to the side of Wells at the last few yards and pounded into the dark woods, leaving Wells shaking and in a new kind of silence. He could still smell the bear’s musk breath near him.
“At that point, I kind of finally realized, oddly enough, that I was out in the woods. I’d felt so comfortable out there by then. I actually felt more uncomfortable in towns. But after that, I said to myself, ‘You’re not the top dog here,’ and the fear put me back in my place,” Wells said.
When the bear didn’t return, all there was left for him to do was continue. With shaking hands, he made it rock by rock to the blistering hot boulders at the top to meet his mileage for the day.
“For some people, it’s hiking the Appalachian Trail; for others, it’s starting their own business, but this is what stirred the pot for William,” said John Miller, a former teacher and research project advisor for Wells, as well as the assistant director of the University of Alabama’s New College. “It made sense for William to approach it this way.”
Just like that obstacle, Wells went on to finish the hike in its entirety on July 23, 2014. After 142 days, approximately 2,180 miles and 3,000-foot drops, along with eight sightings of 300-pound bears, the daily burning of over 7,000 calories and after one whole year of intensive planning, Wells finished hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“It forces you to challenge yourself. You get more confidence, and you learn a lot more about yourself, probably too much,” Wells laughed. “But you figure out what you want to focus on in life.”
Since then, instead of attending the university’s Outdoor Recreation Center trips like he did in college, he gets to lead a group of nature-hungry kids to follow his backpacking adventures through forests. He teaches eco-friendly and safe ways to improvise on the trail for survival.
“Some people, they were living to work, instead of working to live. So, that’s why they had to come out there,” Wells explained. “Like this one guy from Germany, he started hiking alone. He just comes over from a whole new country without speaking any English. He has no connection, nothing. This was right before he was going to start a big career, and he struggled to communicate with us what he needed. We had to help him, but he was the one who had to figure out how to live.”
Wells’ mental determination to keep pace at an estimated 10 miles a day became easier and easier as he went along, especially as he found groups or even other lone hikers. Wells met people on the trail aged all the way from 8 to 67. Some of them spent their lives hiking back and forth, shuffling from shelter to shelter, rooted deep in the mountains.
“When we got to the end, we didn’t celebrate or anything, like a lot of people do. We just got to the sign that marked the end and stood there,” said Wells. “All I remember thinking is, ‘Now what?’ ”
Wells’ next adventure consists of a speed hike on the Pinhoi through Alabama and Georgia. After that, he plans to trek the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington in May.
“See, people always tell themselves they don’t have the time, or they’re not in shape, or they’ll say they don’t have the money. But, seriously, do it. If you just go do it, then you’ll fall in love with it.” and you won’t ever want to stop,” Wells said.

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