ALBANY, Ga. -- When Ashton Pace looked up and saw the big brown sign, he could hardly believe his eyes. It read: "KATAHDIN -- Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail."
Just like that, it was over.
After 173 days -- from Feb. 12 until July 25 -- 2,181 miles north and 47 pounds lighter, he'd finally reached the end of the trek of a lifetime by walking from Georgia to Maine, conquering the length of the Appalachian Trail.
"It was definitely a weird feeling to see that big sign with nothing behind it." Pace said Thursday after returning home. "I walked up and touched it, then wondered, 'What in the heck do I do now?' "
Pace's adventure began in early February when he and lifelong friend Patrick Miller decided to "pretty much throw ourselves out there" and hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail.
The two friends started their quest in mid-February at the trail's Southern trailhead at Springer Mountain, Ga. Miller lasted 107 miles and 12 days before calling it quits at Franklin, N.C.
Pace was on his own.
"Patrick said this wasn't for him and he left." Pace recalled. "This kind of trip is not for everybody, but he became my biggest supporter and we texted and talked by cell phone when we could.
"But I was still nervous about being alone. I didn't know what to expect."
What happened next is Pace hooked up with a fellow hiker named Chuck -- he couldn't recall his last name.
"On the trail everybody has a 'trail name.' Chuck's was 'Availability,' which proved to be a fitting name at the time," Pace said, adding his own trail name was "Stillwater."
Availability and Stillwater hiked together for more than two weeks before Chuck broke off just as the pair were nearly into Virginia.
"By that time, I had settled down and had gotten comfortable," Pace said. "But by the time Chuck left I knew I was going to be OK."
At the start of the journey, Pace said, he averaged six to eight miles per day. After several weeks, he pushed it to 10 to 15 miles. Before finishing the hike, he was averaging 18-22 miles per day.
The roughest part of the trip, Pace recalled, was the Smoky Mountains in early April.
"What I remember about the Smokies was consistent, knee-deep snow and thigh-high drifts," Pace said. "Then the sun came out, the snow melted. The temperature dropped to 13 degrees that night and all the sludge froze into solid ice.
"But by the time we got into Virginia, the snow quit and it was pleasant from there on out."
Along the way, Pace met people every day on the trail. Many are now friends who share a common bond.
"What's funny was that when we left Georgia in February, there was a group of 12 people who left at the same time," Pace said. "I ran into them again in New York when we just accidentally ran into each other. We stayed up until three in the morning laughing, talking and telling stories. That was a memorable night."
During the 173 days on the trail, Pace was nervous just once.
"Right after Chuck left I was in the Smokies and it began to snow hard," said Pace." It was at night and hard to see. I thought I was lost and walking around in circles. I got a little scared and just decided to camp in the middle of what I thought was the trail.
"It started to rain in the morning and it woke me up and I scrambled to get all my stuff up before it got soaked. Then I noticed I was just 200 feet from a shelter. I almost had to laugh."
Pace's father, Jimbo, said there was never a doubt in his mind that his son would finish the journey.
"He's a pretty determined young man," said the elder Pace. "That's what he wanted to do and once he set his mind to it there was no doubt that he would give it 100 percent.
"His mother (Kay) and I are very proud of him."
Would Ashton do it again if he had the chance?
"I would absolutely do it again," he replied.
And what about advice for would-be trail hikers?
"I would tell them to go hard or go home," Pace answered, then smiled, "and make that pack light."