Scientific Observations and Exploration of the Unexplained Phenomenon of “Steve Miles”

By Stephen D. Bowling

Since the inception of the Sheltowee Trace Association in 2009, legends and lore of the trail have helped bring a certain charm and individuality to this storied woodland path.  Common “characters” and a few weirdos (some present company included) have helped to increase the mystique of the trail.  One anomaly has developed in the eleven years since the STA was formed that has defied explanation and has so intimidated researchers that no definitive study of this subject has been completed.

On the trail, constant discussion and debate as to the actual distance of a weekend hike is blurred by an elusive and unexplained term commonly known to hikers as a “Steve Mile.”  The phrase is widely used to identify a numeric variation of the distance reported for a hike based on published maps, digital trackers, experience, electronic geographic aids, and, more importantly, the directions given by STA Director Steve Barbour as compared to the actual distance hiked by Sunday afternoon.

In one instance of the use of “Steve Miles,” a planned outing listed in pre-hike information on a 12-mile Sunday walk when, in all actuality, the hike measured about 14.6 miles.  Occasionally, 14 miles turn into 22-plus miles.  Hikers have reported numerous similar distance issues in recent years.  This effort is an attempt to shed some light on this phenomenon and to offer possible explanations.

STA Director Steve Barbour has dedicated years of his life to the development and growth of the Sheltowee Trace National Recreational Trail.  He continues to serve as the Executive Director and coordinator of the Sheltowee Trace Challenge.


The phrase “Steve Miles” developed over a period of years finding its primary usage in Kentucky and Tennessee.  The phrase is applicable to the information that Director Steve Barbour provides during the annual STA Hiker Challenge.  The exact source or individual responsible for the introduction of the phrase is currently undetermined.  “Steve Miles” found widespread use beginning in 2012 and flowers in the American lexicon primarily in the first eleven months of each year.

A strange link does exist between the use of the term and the continued extension of the Sheltowee National Recreation Trail from Morehead to Rugby, Tennessee.

Below are several attempts to analyze the “Steve Mile” condition as performed by a variety of professionals who are currently involved in the research efforts.

Treatise 1 – Cartographer

According to the map, the average hike for the 2020 Sheltowee Trace Challenge is about 23 miles per weekend.  However, Challenge coordinators divide the 353.5-mile distance into manageable routes that provide comfortable camping and assess to roadways for mobile water supplies.

Based upon an analysis of “Steve Miles,” a cartographer has determined that distances can be distorted by a wide variety of causes.  Possible explanations could include the continued use of outdated maps and the variations produced by frequent reroutes of sections of the trail.  Mileage totals can increase or decrease based on the number of stops, forest breaks, and extra steps that a Challenge participant takes in camp.  The total distance quoted (especially for the second day) can and will vary widely and just might be distorted intentionally for a purpose.

Steve Barbour always takes a photo of departing teams.

 Treatise 2 – Physician

There have been no lasting effects of the “Steve Miles” beyond a week or two.  The short-term effects of added mileage do impact those who are carrying too much weight in a backpack or not enough water or food.  Medical science has identified preparation as the most effective means to prevent issues related to these frequent mileage discrepancies.

Short-term effects include but are not limited to sore feet, legs, back, and shoulders.  The condition alleviates itself readily with frequent preparation walks and general conditioning during the weeks between the Challenge weekends.  Hikers also reported sore faces and stomachs from the pleasant and often hilarious fellowship in camp on Saturday nights.  Several cases of wanderlust have also been reported as Challengers pass through beautiful forests and rocky valleys.  Lakes and all forms of natural beauty mixed with a healthy dose of road walk can also heighten the effects of the “Steve Miles Syndrome.”

Doctors report many positive results from added or unanticipated miles although they require the same energy and kinetic processes as regular trail miles.  The only heightened impact might be miles added at the end of a long day or during a thunderstorm.

Treatise 3 – Meteorologist

After testing in both the field and the laboratory, a blind case study determined that “Steve Miles” experienced on a day when the temperature exceeds 85 degrees are actually longer miles.  Based on the current calculations, the heat causes the Earth to stretch inexplicably and the average mile of 5,280 feet actually is about 7,123 on hot days.  The exact cause of this effect is not currently known but is believed to be sun-related.

Heat and especially humidity tend to make the trail feel longer and to zap the energy hikers have to move over a greater distance.  Researchers theorize that the variations in the distance caused by the heat of summer and early fall’s stretching of the Earth might be the key to understanding the “Steve Miles” phenomenon but noted more study is needed.  (One side note indicated that the mile up Thunderstruck Hill is actually 10,214 feet long during the months from July to September).

Forget Ted- we enjoy our Steve Talks.  He provides information and a description of the “Steve Miles” ahead.  This view is from the 2019 January Challenge hike.

Treatise 4 – Mathematician

When “Steve Miles” were explained to a prominent mathematician, he scribbled a few notes.  After more than 32 minutes of quiet calculations, I saw tears stream down his face.  He stood up, threw his pencil and paper into the trash, and walked out saying “Some things just defy the laws of science and mathematics.”  The last I heard, he resigned from his university job, sold his house, and headed for the Northern Terminus of Sheltowee Trace.  No final report is available.

Treatise 5 – Psychologist/Psychiatrist

Failing to find any explanation from a variety of other professionals, a group of psychologists and psychiatrists were consulted to determine if there might be a mental component that creates a “Steve Mile” perception or bias.  These professionals are well equipped are to diagnose and equip hikers to cope with life issues and disorders.  After walking around their office and avoiding the couch, they determined that all of those on the Sheltowee Trace Challenge suffer from an outdoor disorder for which the only treatment is to walk long distances.

The professionals did not understand how people who joined an STA Challenge to hike long distances could complain about being presented with the opportunity to walk a little farther.  The counterintuitive thoughts baffle those who heard the “Steve Miles” complaints.  They suggested that hikers embrace the challenge and the mindset that the hike is just an opportunity to walk that you have accepted.

Several other suggestions included (as your friends have already armchair diagnosed) a possibility that anyone wanting to walk from Kentucky-Tennessee has more than one issue.  They noted that this trek requires hikers to sleep on the ground, eat meals out of small plastic bags, get drenched from sweat and rain, take care of business in the woods, endure cold and heat, and then go back to work on Monday.  The exploration of the issues related to a desire to do all of these things must wait for further scientific study into that form of lunacy.


After much review and analysis by these and many more professionals, there is no current solution or treatment known for the disorders that “Steve Miles” are believed to cause.  One suggested treatment is to “walk it off” but current CDC testing has not endorsed this experimental treatment.  The threat from the disorder does seem to be alleviated about the first weekend of December annually.  A serious re-infestation of the “hiking disorder” does occur frequently and, in many instances, is a life-long condition.

Steve Barbour at Clear Creek with a team during the 2019 Challenge.

Scientific Conclusions

Based on scientific analysis- yes, Steve Barbour may have a small issue with mileage.  His numbers are not always exact and will vary (widely occasionally).  The distances that he often gives to us at the beginning of the hike, in trail notes, and at the end of each day will vary greatly from hiker to hiker.  Every Fitbit and Garmin will find a different tally.  Occasionally, the distance comes in wonderfully shorter than communicated.  No one complains then.  Most often, however, they are longer than advertised to keep the hike on track and to allow hikers to truly be challenged.

Very quickly, participants in the Challenge discover that the central point that Steve Barbour asserts constantly is correct- the Sheltowee Trace Challenge is not and never will be about the distance.  The point of the Challenge is the trail and, more importantly, the people.  You could very easily walk 353.5 miles in the parking lot at Wal-Mart or around your block in the next year.  In December, you will find that you have walked the distance but completely missed the beauty that nature holds and the friendships that you could have developed.

After November and every day for the rest of your life, one thing is guaranteed- hikers will never once think about the added distance of a “Steve Mile.”  You will think about the friends who shared this experience, about the support that Steve and the others provided, and about the challenge that you completed one step at a time.  You will smile every day when you remember the Challenge and understand that a true “Steve Mile” is not measured in distance but in the pure joy the hike offers.

Really, is there much difference in a 12-mile and 22-mile day?  It’s all just numbers.

Join the Sheltowee Trace Association and find out more about volunteer opportunities: Sheltowee Trace Association.



About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Hiking, Sheltowee National Recreation Trail and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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