Chester County Couple Nearing End of Appalachian Trail Journey
By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
Last Wednesday afternoon, Kera Passante paused from the most incredible walk of her life to tell the story of how she and her boyfriend Bill Welch put their entire lives on hold this past March to walk the entirety of the 2,193-mile-long Appalachian Trail, a massive undertaking for the courageous and the willing, that begins in Georgia and ends in Maine.
The phone call was made from a stop on Bald Pate Mountain near Bridgton, Maine - mile 1,928 on the Appalachian Trail – and just moments before Passante and Welch began their descent of a summit that will lead them to several more peaks and valleys on their way to finishing a journey that began five months ago.
For 34-year-old Welch – a West Chester native – and 32-year-old Passante -- who grew up in Kennett Square – the idea of embarking on America’s most famous trail took a serious turn during the couple’s hike through the Pennsylvania portion of the “A.T.” on Christmas Day in 2018.
“It was something that we had both wanted to do since we were kids, and we kept talking about the idea of someday hiking the entire trail,” Passante said. “But that day, our conversation took a giant leap forward. We asked ourselves, ‘How many times are we going to talk about this thing that we want to do? Let’s just do it.’”
Welch and Passante promptly finished the hike, returned to their Malvern home and began what would become a planning process that would take them the next 15 months. Piece by piece and obligation by obligation, they put their life on hold. As winter became spring, they moved out of their house, put all of their items in storage. Welch took a leave of absence from his job, and Passante -- a licensed professional counselor specializing in experiential therapy – did the same.
On March 4, 2020, Welch and Passante arrived at the face of Spring Mountain in Georgia, and with the support of their friends and families at their backs, took their first steps on the Appalachian Trail.
During the first leg of their journey, the weather was not kind. In Georgia, they were pelted with a “bi-polar” flip-flop of continuing weather moments that fluctuated between severe cold and snow to 60-degree temperatures. They trudged through waves of fog that complete obscured vistas, as well as through thunderstorms and hailstorms. In the common vernacular known among Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, they “embraced the suck.”
Averaging between 15 and 20 miles a day, they worked their way northward, coinciding with the similar destinations of what are known as “Trail Angels,” fellow travelers and residents along the trail who provided them with overnight accommodations, food, advice and companionship.
Early in their trip, as they reached Neels Gap near Blood Mountain in Georgia after a 16-mile hike, they searched for a place to camp for the night and heard far-off music and saw a blazing campfire. They introduced themselves to the rest of the travelers as “Bill and Kera from Philadelphia.” The next morning, as they rose from their tent, they met their campfire friends, who had forgotten the names of their companions from Philadelphia, but had resorted to calling Kera “Sunny” and Bill “Always,” in reference to the TV show, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
As Welch and Passante continued to ascend and descend, however, they began to take notice of what was happening on their cell phones, far beyond their wooded and insular cocoon. A global pandemic had gripped the entire world.
Welch and Passante considered shutting their journey down, but the idea of hopping on public transportation back to Chester County and piecing back together lives that it had taken them so long to put on hold “didn’t make sense,” Passante said.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do something like this for myself was to gain self awareness, self reliance, and learn how to exist in equanimity with life, in a world of uncertainty,” she said. “Two weeks into this trip, the entire world got faced with the same exact challenge I came out here seeking. I feel as though everything I came here to face for myself turned into a worldwide challenge, and I got to see my friends and family navigate those challenges at home.
“The voices from the people we care about kept telling us, ‘Keep going.’ We began this more for ourselves initially, and then we found that there were a lot of people who are looking to us to do something really special now.”
Eventually, the last throes of winter gave way to the promise of spring along the Appalachian Trail, as Welch and Passante navigated past the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee; the Jefferson National Forest, Shenandoah National Park, and the famous McAfee Knob in Virginia; through West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the southern ridge of the Appalachian Mountains in upstate New York, and through New England, which saw them hiking through four to five mountains a day.
Passante estimated that she and Welch will reach Mount Katahdin in Maine – designated as the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail – by the end of August. After a few days of rest and transition, “Always” and “Sunny” will embark on a 3,000-mile cross-country bike trip from Maine to San Diego. While there is no firm start date on the calendar, the estimated two- to three-month trip will take off from Bar Harbor, Maine, and include a pit stop in Chester County to see family and friends. Their goal is to arrive in San Diego by Kera’s birthday on Nov. 8.
“Prior to heading off to the Appalachian Trail, we put every piece of our belongings in storage except for our bikes,” Passante said. “We had an idea to bike home to Chester County from Maine after finishing, but we decided while we were out here to decide to go for it, and plan the bike trip.”
For every one of the more than two million courageous souls who embark on their own personal adventure on the Appalachian Trail every year, there are equal amount of reasons for doing so, and even more internal voices that keep pushing their journey forward. For Passante, the most persistent voices have been that of her mother Sandra Passante, who is an essential worker in the medical field, and that of her father Frank Passante, who passed away last year.
“Sometimes when I am out here on the hard days, I hear my father tell me how strong I am, and that really inspires me to keep moving forward,” she said. “When I call home, I hear my mother’s voice. Through the pandemic, she has been working 16-hour days, and when I listen to what she has to go through now, it makes me realize that if she’s that strong, I can be strong enough to climb that mountain of us, or push our way over these peaks.”
With less than 300 miles left to travel on a nearly 2,200-mile trail, Passante said that the journey she and Welch are on is a celebration “about things that take time. It’s an overwhelming feeling to be so connected to nature, one that has allowed me to walk through spring and into summer and see the seasons literally unfold and blossom before my eyes, and to not only track that growth externally but to watch myself grow with each step at the same time.
“It’s a feeling of deep connection to the world around me, and it’s all been a mirror to what’s happening inside of me. Now that we’ve come 1,900 miles, I’ve begun to notice how much my inner peace reflects an acceptance with the world all around me.”
To follow Kera Passante and Bill Welch on their journey along the Appalachian Trail and beyond, visit them on Facebook, “Thru-Hikers 2020 – The Grumples."