At a glance, you would probably gather that Wil Weldon is an outdoorsy sort of person.
He rides his bike to campus, wears Teva sandals and keeps his long black hair tucked back under a faded hat. He sticks to a vegetarian diet, graduated as an English major and loves film and video.
He's one of those people you wouldn't think has a cell phone (though he does) but has kept a journal (which he has). He does seem like a hiker--he's got the muscular legs and the laid-back, earthy attitude--but still, the news that this 29-year-old Trinity '96 graduate and current instructor in the Film and Video Program hiked the entire 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail and was able to catch it all in his upcoming documentary, Northbounding, raises him to a whole new level.
Weldon, who grew up in Thomasville, N.C., took a lot of short backpacking trips as a kid. The idea of being a "thru-hiker" on the AT, as the Appalachian Trail is commonly called, came to Weldon while on a trip in southern Virginia's Mt. Rogers Wilderness, where he encountered a man who said he was hiking all the way to Maine.
"It was the first time that I thought, 'Wow, that's really cool, I'm gonna do that some day,'" Weldon recalled.
What started as a boy's faraway dream became reality when fellow Duke graduate Jeff Volk called up Weldon to say that, after completing the Pacific Crest Trail just a year earlier, he was ready for more. Weldon was up to the challenge, but was unsure of how to gracefully leave his job at LookSmart, a search directory based in San Francisco. Then, in January of 2001, Weldon was laid off with a nice severance package, and things fell into place.
And that is how, on April 15th, while most people were celebrating Easter Sunday, Weldon and Volk began their six-month journey at Springer Mountain, Ga. Averaging 15 to 16 miles per day, they hiked through 14 states and finally reached Mt. Katahdin, Maine, on Oct. 14. As expected, it was anything but easy.
"There were several places where I really had doubts that I would finish for various reasons, places where my body started to give out, and then there were some times when I wondered if I would be able to hold up psychologically and physically," Weldon admitted. "It finally all became a reality in Maine."
It is rather remarkable that Weldon even finished the trail--only about 10 percent of people who set out to hike its entirety actually complete it. Those who do make it out there learn a lot about themselves, and about America, Weldon said.
"In a large sense the trail represents America, historically, culturally, and present day--without all the urbanness that we generally think of as American," he said.
Aside from this vision of America, the documentary also explores the reinvention of self. Weldon said that before setting off on the epic hike he was unhappy with his place in life.
"I wanted to get out of San Francisco and I wanted to reinvent myself," Weldon said. "[The documentary] is about me, my journey. I shot it, I edited it, I directed it, put my money into it, and that all is really gratifying."
Weldon did not quite know what he had planned for the documentary when he started off; he just took his camera with some batteries and relied on picking up mail every few weeks in towns he passed through. "I didn't have any idea whether I would finish the trail, or whether my camera would make it... but I thought it would be fun to see how it all turned out. And it worked out as well if not better than I ever could have hoped for," said Weldon.
He ended up with 16 hours of high quality footage, which he whittled down to a two-hour documentary that will premiere at 7 p.m. Friday in the White Lecture Hall on East Campus. Although 16 hours is a relatively small amount of footage for most documentary films, Weldon said he thinks most of the "good stuff" was captured in the documentary.
The film explores Weldon's concern that America's water sources are seriously degrading and that there are too many roads. It also shows another thru-hiker's burning of his foot with boiling water, and the many people who joined Weldon along the way, including fellow Duke alumni and family members.
"[The documentary] is as faithful to the trail experience as I think is possible given the constraints I had. I think it's primarily a montage of my impressions, ruminations, experiences, and it reflects the ways that I changed," Weldon said.
It also is not a "beat-you-over-the-head" environmental piece, or National Geographic nature film, he added, but rather a compilation of seriousness and fun that can only be experienced by thru-hikers like him and Volk.
Weldon said he is not convinced that he is completely finished with the documentary or ready to close his experiences with the AT, but he is ready to move on to bigger and better things.
"I really want to hike the Pacific Crest trail," he said, unfazed by the daunting task. He said he knows that many people will not believe anything until they see it happen. He also knows that in the eight years since he graduated from Duke, he has learned a great deal about himself.
"You think you have to go do something glamorous when you graduate. But you don't, because the most important things... happen six to eight years from graduation. And you can't be told; you have to experience it."
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