Walk This Way

Brewer Tim “Pio” Piotrowski reflects on the path less taken, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and his journey toward opening his own brewery in Madison.

On April 27, 2017, I said goodbye to my parents. I left them with a sealed envelope that read, “Only open in the event of coma or death of Timothy Piotrowski.” 

The emotion that surrounded leaving those instructions—about life support, exactly how to celebrate my life in the event it ended, to whom to give my money (and whom not to give my money to), and who gets to decide all the details—was surreal. I boarded an airplane for a journey that could end in a variety of spectacular ways, including the slight but real possibility that I wouldn’t make it back at all. 

I was flying to Georgia to begin walking on the Appalachian Trail (AT), a journey that would take the next four-to-six months of my life.

I would walk nearly every day, and almost every night I would sleep on the ground. I would climb up (and down) mountains. I would likely have no sturdy shelter from storms—and there would be storms. I would encounter a variety of people, bears, snakes, parasites, ticks, mosquitoes, flies, and moose. Everything necessary to keep me alive and moving I would carry on my back. I was going to walk 2,189.8 miles, through 14 states, to Maine!

I set this personal goal a decade ago. At the time, I read many of the books out on the subject: A Walk In The Woods (of course), A Season On The Appalachian Trail, and a few others. The timing just wasn’t right until last year. After college, I thought that I needed to get a full-time job so I could have health insurance (turns out there were other ways). I didn’t have enough money (that point was true). There were relationships and career goals that kept me from the Trail, too.

Brewing success  

Let’s back up to the last job that gave me a paycheck. I’m a professional brewer. I worked my way up in the industry from education through the American Brewers Guild to packaging cans at Oskar Blues, Assistant Brewer at Rock Bottom in Colorado, to a Head Brewer in Minnesota. Finally, I was hired to build and operate the brewery for the brewpub-in-concept, the Freehouse, in Minneapolis.

We opened the Freehouse in December 2013 and I operated the Brewery for more than three years. We grew, added distribution, hired more brewers, and (by our third year) had the largest production of any brewpub in Minnesota. I believe this was a testament to the strength of our network of restaurants and the quality and variety of beers we offered. My focus was always on the guest experience and protecting beer quality—and, subsequently, reputation—at all cost. 

My Freehouse experience was ultimately validated in October when we were awarded two silver medals at The Great American Beer Festival. Of the 2,217 breweries that entered the competition, 296 medals were awarded, and we were one of only 38 winners that were awarded more than one medal. I am still humbled and honored by the appreciation for the hard work of our team.

I decided to leave the Freehouse after I accomplished what I set out to achieve, passing the reins to two of my talented brewers who would bring fresh ideas and energy while leading the brewery into its next stage. I’m so proud of what they have accomplished already and how they will shape the future.

The long walk  

My last day at the Freehouse was April 15, 2017, and I took my first steps on the Appalachian Trail (AT) just 14 days later.

AT by the numbers: 14 states, 2,189.8 miles, 464,500 feet of elevation gain/loss (equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times), total duration of 146 days with 129 hiking days. Average overall hiking day mileage of 16.98 miles, 18.25 miles average full-day mileage (less “neros,” >8.9mi), 30.3 max miles in one day. Eighty nights spent in a tent, 24 in a trail shelter, and one spent under the stars—plus 32 spent in hostels or motels.

Questions I have frequently been asked about the experience:  

Are you hiking alone?  Yes. Well, I saw people nearly every day. The AT is a very social trail. More than 4,000 people attempt a thru-hike each year (approximately 25% complete it), and then there are section hikers, day hikers, trail angels, park visitors, and townsfolk. I actually walked with another person three times, for a total of 13 days, and one was my friend, Marisa, who I planned a week with in New York. “The Bubble” encompasses the large majority of thru hikers who start their hikes in Georgia between March 1 and April 1. I went to the trail for solitude and challenge, so I avoided the bubble by beginning on April 29th. They had quite the head start!

Did you bring a gun?  No. No! Do you know how much a handgun weighs? About 2.6 pounds (I had to Google that). But really, I was honestly more afraid of meth addicts in the southern Appalachians than of black bears, and I wasn’t even really afraid of the people I would run into. So, no! I even downsized my pocket knife—saving weight—to a blade less than 11/16″ long.

You’re hiking the whole way?  Yes.

How far is that?  2,189.8 miles. It took nearly five months (146 days).

Did you ever want to quit?  No. Absolutely not! I injured my left knee in North Carolina 137 miles in, at “Jump Up,” climbing down nearly 5,000 vertical feet in just 4 miles. I spent two nights at the nearby Nantahala Outdoor Center to see if the pain would pass, and then got a ride to my cousins’ house in Atlanta. The next few days were excruciating, contemplating that, while I hiked nearly three times farther than any previous trip, my decade’s-long goal might be over at just 6% complete. After about a week of rest, recovery, and visits to local breweries, my knee was beginning to feel better and I began planning my return to the Trail, which would wrap up 11 long days off. No, not once did I want to quit, and the thought of the first or a potential future injury ending my journey weighed heavy on my heart.

“How much food did you carry?”  I averaged leaving a town with four days of food. I resupplied 37 times: half buying food from grocery stores or markets near the Trail and the other half was shipped by my parents from Stevens Point. Through this method I was able to utilize bulk purchases from Costco and the allocation of vitamins and vacuum-sealed meals my mom prepared.

What did you eat?  After about 500 miles, I had my menu under control. I would wake up and eat a Clif Bar and drink Carnation Instant Breakfast. After an hour of hiking, I would stop for a burrito of flour tortilla, peanut butter and Nutella. An hour and a half later, I would eat a granola bar. Two hours later, I’d eat some fruit snacks. Then another PB & Nutella burrito. More snacks. And about five miles before the end of my hiking day I would stop to cook dinner—a freeze-dried Mountain House meal packet or home-prepared “Mountain Momma.”  Later, when I was writing my daily blog post on my phone, I would usually eat Peanut Butter M&Ms for dessert, just two-at-a-time, so I wouldn’t eat the four-day bag in one night. On average, I consumed 4,000-5,000 calories per day (and lost more than 15 pounds).

How heavy was your backpack?  When I started the Trail, my pack with four days of food and a half-day’s water was 49.5 pounds! This definitely added to the cause of my knee injury. I’ve backpacked with a heavier pack many times before, but one thing I learned was that I was not backpacking [for a week]; I was long-distance hiking, and the only way to survive was to carry absolutely only what you needed, plus a comfort item or two. In Franklin, NC, I bought a new sleeping bag, water bottles, and water filter, and mailed the old equipment home. At the Quarter Way Inn hostel, I traded out my tent (4lbs-4oz for 1lb-3oz) and sleeping pad. As for food, rarely would I ever carry an item that had less than 100 calories per ounce of weight, and if I did I would eat it the first day out. Excess packaging never made it onto the trail. I cut my pack down to 35 pounds, and that was in no way “ultra-light.” A friend I met from Australia carried just 18 pounds and I met a couple of brothers that lashed their own pack frames from bamboo, carrying hardly anything warm, just the food for themselves and their dogs and very primitive shelters.

What was the funniest moment on the Trail?  Just north of Damascus, VA, the AT shares the Virginia Creeper Trail, an old railroad bed converted to bike trail. The AT came out of the woods to join the Creeper, and I saw this large group of ladies ahead of me preparing for a group photo. As I approached they continued to not notice me. As I got close to the group I made a snap decision to “creep” up on them and photobomb their shot. I was right behind the group when the photographer saw me and motioned for me to step aside. At that point, one woman turned, thinking that I was a bear. She screamed. Most of them screamed! I wasn’t a bear…just a smelly AT thru-hiker. We all laughed and then took some selfies. Many of these brave women continued to follow my blog through the rest of my journey!

What the Trail gave me  

I don’t want to be cliché, but the Trail was life-changing. I hiked for the mammoth challenge and I succeeded. I went for solitude in nature, and I received that, but I also met some incredible people from across the world. Nugget, Chilliwack, Special K, Just Dan, Pappy 12 & Best Wife, Mantis, Lakes, Pearl, Just Jim, Bartender, Disciple, JAX Dad, Screech, and Double T were just of few of the amazing people that touched my life. These are their Trail Names, to protect the innocent or offer a fresh start or to allow a hiker to write their own destiny…and that’s how it is. My “Trail Name” was Pio, and that’s the name I’ve gone by for the past 21 years, since my early days on camp staff. 

I did not hike the Trail to meet people, and those that came into my life affected me, changed me, are a piece of my journey, and a part of my life going forward. When you step out of your comfort zone and accept everything that life has to offer, you are forever changed and you are infinitely better for the experience.

Nearly five months on the Trail also gave me plenty of time to think. I did pass the time (and miles) with music, audiobooks, and podcasts, but I still had a lot of time for reflection. I generated ideas for my forthcoming brewery. I thought about life, and death, and what it means to be a member of the human race. I thought about history, about Alexander Hamilton, about Franklin D. Roosevelt, about Barack Obama, about Bernie Sanders, Martin Luther King Jr., about the Women’s March, and about the morally reprehensible president (and Wisconsin governor) that currently hold office. How did we get here? Why is there a population so misinformed that the justice of humanity (and its responsibility to future generations) could be so sidetracked? I came to terms with my thoughts about our life and times, and to understand more you’ll probably have to buy the book I haven’t yet written!

The last stage of my journey was my favorite part! When I was in the glory of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, I deliberately slowed down. Hikers generally need to finish at Mount Katahdin by October 15 due to early winter weather. After my injury in the South I was worried about getting there by that date. But when I arrived in New England, I realized that I had plenty of time; my pace was incredible. I wanted to enjoy every last day I had on the AT. I took my time, I swam in ponds, I bathed in the glorious Maine sun. I hiked, and I lived every day to its fullest.

I made it to the final summit, having hiked almost every day for half a year. I walked in 10 (of 14) states I hadn’t previously visited. I walked more than 5,000,000 steps—take that, Fitbit!

And when I climbed my last steps to the top of Katahdin, I was not going back. After savoring this mountaintop experience with other hikers, I chose a descent called “The Knife Edge.” The weather was good and I wasn’t done hiking. If I didn’t have a brewery to start back home, I would have headed back toward Georgia, hiking the sections I wanted and skipping the ones didn’t. The Knife Edge, the photo I’m looking at as I write this, was the most dangerous part of my journey—and it wasn’t even on “The Trail.” The views from this ridge literally drop off on both sides. There were a dozen times where a gust of wind could have ended my story, but the weather was great and the trail was destined to be part of my challenge, part of my story.

Following the Trail to transition  

The AT journey is often at a transition point in life for hikers. For some it’s between college and career. For some it’s between career and retirement. For some it’s the escape to deal with the terminal cancer of a partner. The Trail is different for every individual, yet we were all together in that experience.

My journey now brings me to Madison, where I’m developing a craft brewery of my own. Delta Beer Lab is a laboratory for excellence in beer, relationships, and society. My next journey is about creating a better way of living, touching lives, and changing our communities—and the world—in whatever large and small ways we can. We will expand access to the craft beer community through well-crafted products without barriers to gender, race, or sexual orientation. This is directly quoted from my business plan, available to bankers and investors alike. This is my journey. This is the change I wish to see in the world.

The process of developing a new business has not been easy, but I have always been an individual who sets high goals and works tirelessly to achieve them. Yes, it would have been easier if the State of Wisconsin would have offered $500,000 grants to 6,000 small businesses to create 90,000 jobs (instead of $3 Billion for a potential 13,000 jobs at Foxconn). However, I’m not in business for macro economics. I want to make real change.

Delta Beer Lab will not accept tips in its taproom. Employees (front-of-house and in the brewery) will be paid a living wage and all employees will be eligible for a revenue-sharing program. When I managed the Freehouse Brewery, five of the seven brewers were able to, and chose to, purchase a house. This is the change I wish to see in the world. People matter. Employees matter. Delta is the chemical and mathematical symbol for change, and Delta Beer Lab will tirelessly work toward forward change in our communities. It’s in my DNA; it’s in every fiber of this company. 

Stepping out into the unknown opens a person to new experiences, the beauty one can only see by being present, the people we meet, and how they change who we are if we just let them in. These stories are just a part of my journey.

Read Pio’s blog at Pio2017AT.wordpress.com 

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