I set out at 2 o’clock with my camera and a pen and paper just to see what would happen. I left our campsite, crossed the single-lane bridge, and walked toward the coffee shop in Damascus, Virginia. This is a popular spot in town with a gear shop, coffee shop and Subway all in a row. It's the spot to get everything you need as an Appalachian Trail hiker- rest for the weary legs, gear, caffeine, and cheap food!
As I was opening the door to go inside, two ladies came out. Sporting colorful bandanas, I knew they were hikers.
“Are you thru hiking?” In an exhausted tone, they answered, "No, section hikers. We just finished."
"You just finished?!? Can we chat?"
Turns out, I crossed paths with these sisters at the perfect timing! Deb, 58.5, and sister Karen, 60, had just finished a 24 day section hike of the Appalachian Trail walking 231.1 miles from Davenport Gap, Tennessee to Damascus, Virginia. Sa-weet! Nice job ladies!
They had time to kill while waiting for their much deserved bed and breakfast to come get them. We all took a seat at the table and they let me have it recounting their entire month together on the trail. We talked for over an hour.
Here I was sitting with these two powerhouse women during the moment they had finished their goal. I was in heaven listening to their stories. I kept thinking, "I want to be you when I grow up!"
The most shocking moment in the entire conversation was when Deb said, "My husband didn’t care as long as I wasn’t dragging him along!” Bahaha! These ladies ditched their husbands for a month to set off on their own adventure of what they love to do: backpacking. Go girls!
The two had hiked together with their husbands for five days on the Ozark Highlands Trail last year. Once it was over, the guys made it known backpacking wasn’t their thing. The sisters, on the other hand, loved it and wanted more! They set a date on-the-spot for May 1, 2016. They wanted to take off on a long hike. It wouldn't be about the miles though. Karen said, "We wanted to find out about ourselves wherever our strength would take us."
Their three main missions:
1. To test their strength as backpackers and see when they’d get their “trail legs” on a long-distance hike;
2. To get experience being fully self-contained if the either of them ever want to do a solo backpack in the future;
3. To experience the beauty and variety of the woods.
Over the 24 days, they accomplished everything they set out to do.
First, they set out to test their strength and see when they’d get their trail legs on a long hike. Did they get their “trail legs?” Deb said ”I don’t think so. I can’t climb 2,000 vertical feet and still not know it. I'm still sucking air.” But, both agreed they got stronger. They could go longer and weren’t as stiff in the mornings as the month progressed.
Second, the ladies wanted to test their backpacking skills by being totally self contained. They each carried everything they would need without sharing the load. These ladies have their gear down to a science with Deb’s pack never being more than 25 pounds including the food and water inside. However, when considering if they’d do a solo trip in the future, Deb said, "I don't think so," and Karen chimed in, “It’s just so nice to share the experience and views with someone else."
Third, the ladies totally immersed themselves in the wilderness and watched spring unfold on the trail around them. Their timing was perfect. They started on May 1 as planned. The trees were leafing. Before fully emerging, the buds were brown and orange creating the feeling of fall. Then, as the days progressed they were starting to see all the leaves unfold. The wild flowers bloomed showcasing the colors of springs with the greens, whites, and pinks. Karen rattled off the names of the flowers they'd seen. "We saw trillium, delphinium, geranium, irises, azaleas, magnolia macrophylla..." My fingers couldn't keep up with her extensive list. Can you guess Karen's trail name? Flora!
In order to really experience the beauty, the sisters realized they had to be very intentional and protect their main goal: the experience.
They noticed there are three types of folks on the trail:
1. People who are focused on the beauty and the experience
2. Hikers who are focused on finishing the miles each day
3. Folks focused on the social aspect of the trail
They realized you risk experiencing the beauty around you when you focus on the miles and the numbers. At breakfast, they would hear hikers say, "I'm feeling 27 miles today. I'm gonna do it." The sisters realized when you focus on the numbers, you miss the beauty around you.
To protect their mission and not be rushed to race through the days, they gave themselves ample time to complete the 231 mile stretch so they could stick to an enjoyable pace. They averaged about ten miles a day finishing several days ahead of schedule. Way to go!
They were happy they gave themselves enough time, because they were amazed by several landscapes guide books didn’t warn them about. The most surprising view on the trail: Laurel Falls in Tennessee.
Then, the conversation moved to Deb's most frenzied “out-of-her-comfort-zone” experience on the trail. I wondered, "Was it with a bear? A snake? A spider?" No, it was with people in the shelter on Mt. Roan!
The shelter is the highest shelter on the entire AT. It sits on top of the mountain and has four walls like a cabin. Most shelters on the AT only have three walls. It was the sisters' only night choosing to stay in a shelter, because the weather was calling for freezing rain over night and it would be even colder since they were on top of a mountain. The sisters were the first ones there and took the loft area in hopes of having some privacy. As the night progressed, more and more people started showing up and settling in. As more people came in, Deb's discomfort rose. More hikers meant more sleeping bags and less space. It was getting so cramped other hikers were setting up their sleeping bags only a few feet from her pillow! She didn’t know what to do. The panic was setting in. Karen chimed in, "She was so worried she was rocking back and forth." Deb replied, "I know! How could I sleep so close to a stranger and his wife?”
As the older sister, Karen was laughing but tried to comfort her sister. She offered to switch places. She even offered for the two to leave the cabin and set up their tents in the freezing cold outside. Tight quarters didn't bother her from her experience in the Army. Deb was tempted by her sister's offers. She wanted to get out of there and be in the comfort of her own tent. But, she couldn't let her discomfort cause her sister to freeze. So, she overcame the moment and lived through a night in the shelter.
However, one of the other hikers had his last straw with the trail that night. He couldn't handle the freezing cold and cramped shelter, so he called his wife and bailed from his thru-hike under the same circumstances.
Deb's story had me rolling. I was imagining her sitting back reading and relaxed for the night. Then, I could just see her eyes getting wider and wider as strangers starting claiming spots in the loft inching closer and closer to sleeping bag. What should she do?
I know the claustrophobic, panic stricken feelings of sleeping shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers on both sides. I've spent the night on roach infested overnight Thai ferries and New Zealand backcountry huts. You feel like you have to close your eyes tight, crawl into a ball and collapse within yourself just to get through it. Your worst fear is waking up and staring into an unfamiliar face inches away from your own. Or, realizing you are spooning or being spooned by strangers. Ah! What a nightmare!
I think Deb had the upper hand on this experience. After smelling some of these AT hikers coming off the trail who haven't seen a shower in a week-- Oh! The smell-- it's so sour! Just thinking about so many hikers hunkered down in one small cabin has me gasping for more air.
So, Deb who chose to walk and live in the woods for a month pushed through what so many people would never do. Most folks would never choose to hike 10 miles for 24 days all while sleeping in a tent in the woods with rain, hail, bugs, bears, spiders, steep mountains and using the bathroom behind a tree. I’m one of those! I think after Day 7 I’d even say, “Okay. I’m good! Where’s the shower?”
This shows no matter our experience or age, there's always room to push our limits and grow.
Cheers to Deb and Karen! Congratulations! You did it!
Thank you for letting me jump into your big moment of finishing and for sharing your inspiring story. I’m amazed at how intentional you were in setting your goals to push yourselves further, and how you prepared yourselves to do it. Way to go!
Now, what's the next big adventure?
I sat across the table amazed at these two. "What do I want to challenge myself in? I wanna work towards my own big adventure!" I know you're feeling the inspiration from these ladies, too. Share Deb and Karen's story with your friends on Facebook or Twitter. And, leave a comment below to let them know your thoughts and cheer them on:)