Leg by Leg
In the fall of 2019, my Aunt Frances and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail from one trailhead parking lot to the next for as long as the trail would allow. This choice came with immediate hurdles: a hazy understanding of what section hiking would require, no clear plan on how to coordinate our schedules while living four hours apart, and a worldwide pandemic.
Regardless, one crisp October morning we found ourselves at the top of Springer Mountain, at the beginning mile of the NoBo (Northbound) A.T., and we promptly went the wrong way. Luckily, other hikers were coming up from Amicalola Falls and turned us in the right direction. Once rerouted, we hiked our first real miles on the Appalachian Trail.
It was a year and a half before we added leg two to our adventure. Covid had shut down the trail and infected both of us on its global tear. Undaunted, in the fall of 2021 we hiked from Hightower Gap to Cooper Gap, taking up our slow plod north once again.
Those beginning sections of the trail allowed eight-to-10-mile hikes between parking lots, making the hiking less arduous than the driving. We spent more time parking a car, driving to the start point, and then driving back to the original location than on the trail. The acronym USFS meant a windy, often poorly maintained gravel road, and an eight-mile drive could take the better part of two hours.
The real fever hit during the summer of ‘22: Gooch Gap, Preacher’s Rock, Blood Mountain. We hiked them in a frenzy, anxious to cover more territory, to cross off all the Georgia miles of the A.T.
Each section we hiked added another layer of determination to our commitment. I purchased a daypack. For a two-day stretch in which I couldn’t find childcare or a dogsitter, we coerced my 12-year-old daughter to hike with us. I bought a baby carrier for my Peekapoo, strapping him on to navigate the switchbacks of Hogpen Gap.
The challenge of hiking the A.T. in this way is in the logistics. The magic is always in the walking. Passing through mile after mile of lush forest, weaving in and out of shade and sun, we look up to admire a beautiful view or search for a white blaze, enthralled by the trail’s mystique.
And, of course, we are together. With each gap, knob, and swag our momentum increases as our wills unite. The years fall away. There is no past or future. There is only one foot, one leg, another foot, another leg until we blur together as one, connected in perseverance.
It is out there, in the wilderness, where life seems so livable. The worries and hurts fade away. Trees, wildflowers, exquisitely delicate ferns, rocks, mosquitoes, poison ivy all grow side by side, unabashedly transparent and real.
My aunt Frances is 65, yet she is nowhere near that age. She runs, walks, hikes, and kayaks endlessly. Fierce, relentless, and beautiful, she is my amazing childhood hero. Yet, it is on the Appalachian Trail that we have truly found each other. There is no one else for this journey. It is ours.
At the start of most hikes, we talk about family, our daughters, responsibilities, our faith. Somewhere near mid-leg, we drift into a silence that is more than words. We keep moving and rarely stop.
It is with great care that we plan our hikes. We have recruited an amazing shuttle service that is willing to drop us off in the dark and be there when we drag ourselves off the trail at a section’s end.
We continue to get lost. We search for A.T. trailhead parking lots for hours. We start out on the wrong trail. We miscalculate distance and time.
We battle heat and humidity, lightning and rain, bugs and spiderwebs, rocks and roots, brutal sections of downhill, yet every second, every step is worth it. Each moment is unique, and somehow they are all the same.
I’m 48 and have exercised all my adult life. I have felt the deepest of hurts begin to recede in miles of marathon training. I have felt strength resonate within me through pushups and planks. On the A.T. with my aunt Frances, hiking is more than physical exertion. Together our spirits are renewed through sweat and release, the journey an elixir for our adventure-starved souls.
It is our trail now. The miles behind and ahead swirl around us in a blur of anticipation. Crossing off Georgia, getting to 100 miles, and now 200, the question of what brought us here has shifted. Will we hike the entire trail? There’s no way to know. As long as we can, as long as we have: leg by leg, we hike on.
Cover photo: The author and her aunt. photo courtesy of the author