A graduate’s journey: From the Appalachian Trail to the Aleutian Islands

A graduate’s journey: From the Appalachian Trail to the Aleutian Islands

Posted on May 14, 2020
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The Aleutian Islands in Alaska (above) are where it is widely believed early humans first traveled from the Eurasian continent to the Americas. Thomas Drennan McLenigan (inset) will be working at the Museum of Aleutians. Pictured is McLenigan on the Appalachian Trail.

Thomas Drennan McLenigan decided to apply to UNC Greensboro’s History MA program in an unusual place—while hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.

Now that he’s graduated with a concentration in Museum Studies, the adventure-seeker is headed to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska where he will work as the education outreach manager at the Museum of Aleutians.

“I want to do something new, something that makes me stop and think to myself, ‘Is this really happening?'” he said.

A journey in time

You may have heard of the Aleutian Islands, a historically significant string of volcanic islands along the Bering Strait. This is where it is widely believed early humans first traveled from the Eurasian continent to the Americas.

“The Islands are in a prime position to witness some of the earliest steps of human history,” McLenigan said.

More recently, the area is known for being a primary fishing port featured on the hit Discovery Channel show, “Deadliest Catch.”

And there’s plenty of other history to keep an enthusiast occupied—from Russian settlers in the 1700s to the only Japanese invasion of the United States during World War II.

McLenigan will create and run tours, school trips and programming. He’ll help with the museum’s Archaeology Days, when members of the public can participate in a local dig. And he’ll perform curatorial work and exhibit design as well.

“It’s work that UNCG has readied me for,” he said. “My graduate school hunting occurred while I was on the Appalachian Trail. I applied to three schools, but UNCG stood out for its project and ‘real-world’ work.”

“You just have to start climbing”

McLenigan completed the Appalachian Trail (AT) in about five-and-a-half months. Here he is atop Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT in Maine.

McLenigan completed the Appalachian Trail in about five months and two weeks, starting in February and ending in July of 2018 during a gap year after earning his bachelor’s degree.

“The thought of hiking the entire trail had been a kernel in the back of my head since high school when I was a Boy Scout. After graduation, I was unattached and finally presented with a time frame large enough to take a shot at it.”

McLengian’s journey up the east coast certainly had its adventures. He shared a night with a pack of dogs. He “discovered the magic” of the Smokey Mountain Diner in Hot Springs, NC. He bonded with a group of fellow hikers. And he managed to dodge two of the largest snowstorms to hit the Smokey Mountains that year, storms that may have left him trapped.

Averaging 20-25 miles per day, McLenigan split his hiking days between silence, audio books, podcasts and occasional days spent traveling with another person, keeping a journal as record along the way.

“The most important thing to learn from the trail is the willingness to push forward and just keep walking,” he said. “It might be raining for entire states (thanks, Pennsylvania!) or the next mountain might be rather large and steep, but it’s not going anywhere, so you just have to start climbing.”

It’s that desire to keep pushing that will undoubtedly help the graduate on the next leg of his journey, to Alaska.

Yet the most difficult step may just be the first one: getting there. COVID-19 has disrupted travel across the globe, and it has left the primary airfare provider to the Aleutian Islands bankrupt. Still, McLenigan has already started remote work for the museum and looks forward to arriving in Alaska at the end of May.


Story by Elizabeth Keri, College of Arts & Sciences