AVL filmmaker immerses himself in Appalachian Trail

Karen Chávez
The Asheville Citizen-Times

Chris Gallaway fought off swarms of mosquitoes like something out of a Biblical plague, black bears trying to get at his rotisserie chicken, and the general exhaustion and agony, anguish and heartbreak of anyone thru-hiking the 2,180-mile-long Appalachian Trail.

Although Gallaway, 32, of Black Mountain, began the journey in 2013 as a solo hiker, he was never really alone. Armed always with his video camera on the seven-month-long odyssey, Gallaway created the ultimate moving selfie — a documentary film called “The Long Start to the Journey,” which debuted in Asheville on May 30 at the Asheville Community Theatre.

The photographically stunning, 76-minute movie — set to original music, funded by crowd-sourcing and produced in Asheville — blends Gallaway’s personal hiking story with the history of the Appalachian Trail’s origins to tell the story about “why wilderness is something essential for people in the modern world.”

But at its core, like the heart of wilderness, “The Long Start to the Journey,” is a love story of Frost and Sunshine, two of the essential elements that create natural beauty and happen to be the trail names bestowed upon Gallaway and his wife, Larissa “Sunshine” Gallaway.

The Frost-Sunshine love story started in 2010, when Gallaway met his future wife, a nurse at Mission Hospital, through friends at church.

Sunshine had already thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail twice by herself, in 2004 and 2005, a feat that amazed Chris.

No slacker himself, Chris grew up camping, paddling and backpacking, but with a degree from Florida State in creative writing, he was more of a Robert Frost than a Bear Grylls. But he got started in filmmaking, and quickly immersed himself in his subjects.

His award-winning 2007 documentary, “The Green River Movie,” followed his own journey to train for and race in the extreme downriver race held each November on the Green River in Polk County. The 1-mile kayak race down treacherous waterfalls has gained cult status as one of the world’s most difficult paddling races.

Gallaway did the same with his latest project.

“I’d always been an outdoors person, but hadn’t done a lot of backpacking until 2009 when my older brother, Ben, decided to do a weeklong hiking trip in Smokies,” Chris Gallaway said. “I became an impromptu guide and spent a week with him on the trail. It was in April and that was my first interaction with thru-hikers. That was the first time I realized how many stories there were on the trail.”

A natural born writer and storyteller, Chris knew a good story when he felt it, and decided to once again insert himself into the blood and guts story of hiking the longest trail on the Eastern Coast, along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, with enough elevation gain to equal climbing Mount Everest 16 times.

“I was at a point in my life where I was envisioning a life with Sunshine, and at the same time trying to capture one of America’s great outdoors treasures — actually one of the greatest treasures in the world. I like the idea of living a good story and telling a good story.”

Snowstorms & Nutella

Chris Gallaway’s story started on Feb. 11, 2013, the dead of winter, at Springer Mountain, Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Most thru-hikers start in April and head north to the ending point at Mount Katahdin, Maine, to avoid the worst of the winter in the high-elevation Smokies and Western North Carolina.

But Chris wanted to avoid the crowds. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages and keeps tabs on the trail, which is officially a unit of the National Park Service, estimates 2-3 million people hike a portion of the trail each year. That number is expected to grow this year with the popularity of long-distance trail stories such as “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and the movie “A Walk in the Woods.”

Chris avoided the crowding, mostly having the woods and shelters to himself, but instead found a lot of company from snow and bitter cold.

“The first week and a half were the occasional snowstorms. In the Smokies I remember looking across Fontana and seeing bare ground. But I didn’t check the forecast and it started snowing for five days, deep drifts, really cold. One hiker got frostbite. By the time we got to Clingmans Dome I was played out, super tired.”

Sunshine would meet Chris on the trail as her work schedule allowed, bringing him food, Nutella and her famous smile of encouragement. She would also take his video cards home, download and erase them, then bring them back to him at their next rendezvous.

Using a Nikon D800, SLR-style camera, with a 14 mm super-wide angle lens, Chris shot 90 percent of the film on his own. He tried rigging up a selfie stick (before there were selfie sticks), but found it was easier to hold the camera out in front of him with his long arms when he needed to.

A friend and filmmaker, Spencer Cooke, met Chris on other parts of the trail and shot footage of Chris hiking. Everything — other than occasional interviews of hikers he met on the trail — were one-shot takes. He had to keep moving.

“I wanted to be a hiker first and a cameraman second,” he said.

Highest highs, lowest lows

As in so many tales from the trail, Chris got the full onslaught of outdoor explorer life, from frostbite on his knuckles in the Smokies, balloon-like blisters and foot pain in Damascus, Virginia, trying to keep eating enough calories to fuel his 6,000-calorie burn each day, and perhaps the nastiest — record rain when he hit the Northeast, bringing disgusting swarms of mosquitoes that forced many hikers to quit.

“If anything could have made me stop, it was that — the bugs. There were hundreds of thousands of them. I put on so much 30-percent DEET that I got chemical burns. I wouldn’t wear a shirt because it was so hot.”

But chemical burns, unfortunately, were not the worst part of the trek. Three days into Maine, and so close to the finish, Gallaway got the awful news from home about the tragic death of a family member. He took a couple of weeks off, but then paid his tribute by finishing the trail.

The horrible loss was tempered by his favorite moment on the trail — hiking with Sunshine and looking forward to her trail drop-ins, spring weather, and eating wild ramps out of forest.

The highest highlight — and one that was too sacred to appear in the film, Chris said — was when he proposed to Sunshine on the trail as it crosses Max Patch in Madison County. The two were married in fall 2013, shortly after he finished the hike.

Even though she had thru-hiked the AT twice on her own and fell in love with the trail, Sunshine said she did not want to go on the complete thru-hike with Chris.

“A lot of people start the trail as couples, but I’ve seen hardly any of them finish as couples. The two exceptions I can think of were married when they started,” Sunshine said. “And I was trying to protect my heart a little bit. But I met him as often as I could.”

In her “unbiased” opinion, Sunshine said the finished product is a beautiful movie, even for those who weren’t in it, have never thru-hiked or have never even hiked.

“I feel like I’m going to love it forever because it’s so much our story. I’m so thankful that he made it. If I take myself out of that and was just someone who loved the outdoors, it’s so beautiful, the photography is spectacular. And the trail offers so much as far things to film. He has such an attention to detail. He’s such a storyteller.”

Finding an audience

Someone with a really unbiased opinion is Mary Dossinger, program manager for the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem, which screened “The Long Start to the Journey” earlier this year.

“The audience reaction was incredible. Both screenings we had sold out — we had to turn people away,” Dossinger said. “People mobbed Chris and Sunshine after the show and wanted to ask them a million questions about the film and the hike.”

Warren Doyle, who runs the Appalachian Trail Institute, and is in the midst of his 17th thru-hike, was interviewed for the documentary.

“I’ve been hiking the trail for 43 years and I’ve seen a lot of narratives and a lot of films about the trail, and his is the best I’ve ever seen,” Doyle said.

“A lot of people hike the AT for different reasons,” Chris Gallaway said. “A lot of people are drawn to the trail for living that authentic journey. The common thread is doing something from start to finish — like a pilgrimage.

“I think it does relate to what our lives have become. We live these urban, modern lives — bills, Internet, news —it’s superficial in many ways. Getting out in the wilderness, even for three or four days — it presses a reset button on your life and that all can just fall away. It changes your priorities.”

Chris, who runs Horizonline Pictures from his new home in Black Mountain, said he is now working on some commercial projects while he searches for his next documentary immersion project. He plans to submit “The Long Start to the Journey” to the Sundance and Banff Mountain film festivals.

“Certainly a thru-hike is not for everyone (according to the ATC, some 4,000 hikers will attempt a thru-hike this year, but only one in four completes it). This movie is an opportunity to see, from the trail level, what it’s like,” Chris Gallaway said.

“I hope everyone is inspired to get out and hike. I believe how healthy and good it is for us to get out and be a part of nature. Every time I make time to go out and hike, it does wonders for my creative perspective. I want to show people what value these trails hold for us. Like John Muir said, wilderness is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”