Earl Zook, 90, has hiked the A.T. in every state.
His trail name was Bald Eagle, and when Earl Zook met other hikers, he’d tip his cap to show them why: he is bald as an egg. Then Zook would also pass out business cards soliciting donations to the American Institute for Cancer Research, the cause that spurred him to begin hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2010, at age 87, with no shred of prior hiking experience.
“When you do something for somebody else, it makes you feel good right here,” says Zook, patting his 90-year-old heart. “This hike was not about me. This was a means to an end.”
Zook drew inspiration for the project after volunteering through the Winchester Kiwanis Club at Camp Fantastic in Front Royal, Va., which runs a summer camp for young cancer patients. He found the campers’ resilience and enthusiasm for life infectious; the hiking bit just popped into his head. Before long he was buying boots and a backpack and studying trail maps.
“He was so determined that this was something he really wanted to do,” says Tim Anderson, a neighbor of Zook and a veteran of a 1998 thru-hike.
By the spring of 2010, the pair began day-hiking sections of the A.T. in Northern Virginia. That summer, they set off north from Harpers Ferry, W.Va. for a longer session. Zook, then 87, managed up to five miles per day.
Zook decided to hike sections of the A.T. in each of the 14 states it crosses between Maine and Georgia. Over the next three years, he chipped away at it, sometimes with Anderson, sometimes with other hiking partners, step by step, a few miles a day, day after day after day. He’s not sure how many days. He didn’t keep track of his mileage. He just had a goal, and he worked until it was done.
“You do what you have to do a day at a time,” says Zook, a retired salesman who is convinced that staying active and keeping busy are the keys to a long and healthy life.
In 2011, Zook knocked out most of Virginia – his favorite section of the trail – plus North Carolina and Tennessee. In the spring of 2012, he hiked in Georgia, then spent the summer working through the northern states. By late September, he’d finished some hikes in Massachusetts, the last state on the list; on October 2, 2012, he celebrated his 90th birthday at Baxter State Park in Maine, home to Mt. Katahdin and the northern terminus of the A.T.
Zook was surprised and delighted by the kindness of people he encountered. Among those he met was a cancer patient and a man who’d just lost his wife to cancer. He saw nine bears, beaver dams, wildflowers, and countless other things of beauty visible only from the trail.
So far, Zook’s fundraising efforts have netted a little more than $7,000 in donations to the AICR. His fundraising goal is no less audacious than his decision to take up long-haul hiking deep into his 80s: $5 million, about one dollar for each step it’s estimated to complete the Appalachian Trail.
“I hope that when I’m 90 years old, I can do what [Zook]’s been doing the last three years. He’s a tremendous inspiration,” says Anderson. “He exudes enthusiasm … He’s touched a lot of lives along the Appalachian Trail.”