Retired principal conquers Appalachian Trail after conquering cancer

LOUDON COUNTY - Of the approximately 3,000 people that attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail every year, only one in four finish. Retired Lenior City High School principal, Steve Millsaps, joined that elite group earlier this month at age 57.

Despite a nagging injury, wildlife and wildfires, he managed to average 18 miles a day since October. He started the trail in July in Maine and headed south. It’s the opposite direction most thru-hikers travel.

“During the course of the trail I realized I’m not sure any of us really accomplish anything on our own. I had so many prayers, so much support, so many words of encouragement from people. So many random acts of kindness while I was on the trail,” Millsaps, said, “I took the steps but there were a lot of people helping me.”

In the first few weeks of the hike, while he was still in the Northeast, his feet started bothering him. He had to hitch a ride the nearest town twenty miles away where he met a couple who empathized with him. They, too, had hiked the trail before.

“They got me in their car, took me to a shoe store, got me a place to stay a hostel there, they told me if there wasn’t a place there they would take me back to their home,” Millsaps said.

Once he had better shoes with proper support, he was ready to tackle the trail.

He dedicated most days to people who had battled or are battling cancer by posting their photo and a caption on Facebook. His friends and family started sharing his posts and gained followers, many who asked that he dedicate a day to their loved ones.

Millsaps was inspired to cross this item off his bucket list after he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2015. Thanks to a colonoscopy, his life was saved. His goal was to encourage others to get the necessary cancer screenings.

He had another setback when he entered the homestretch: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He reached the park the night before the wildfires spread rapidly on November 28th. Thankfully, he hadn't entered the area yet and was never in danger. He was able to bypass the closed area and make it to Springer Mountain, Georgia by early December. 

Millsaps was disappointed he had to bypass the closed trails, but plans to return to hike it again. The Appalachian Trail organization said he didn't have to go back to complete that section and that he would still be recognized as completing it.

Now that he’s back home in Loudon County, he’s grateful to have plenty of food and hot water. He’s also glad to see people.

“I hiked probably 90% of the trail by myself,” he said. “Seeing my mother, you know, for the first time in 6 months, she said, ‘You don’t look near as bad as I thought you would!’”

Millsaps lost 40 pounds and says the 18-20 miles per day took a toll on his body.

“During the course of the hike I was like man, I would never do this again. My next trip is going to be an AARP bus tour. But since I’ve gotten off the trail I’ve been thinking I’d like to do this again. Instead of doing the same trail, I’ve been researching other trails,” Millsaps said.