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The lightweight backpacking course I attended was wonderful, but I needed to find a way to practice my new skills. The nearest parts of the AT were at least 5 hours away: too far for someone with a M-F full time job.
Where could I hike near home? More research revealed a gem: Kentucky has a long trail of its own! The Sheltowee Trace is a 300+ Mile trail that runs diagonally through the Daniel Boone National Forest from Morehead, KY into the Big South Fork in Tennessee. While mulling over how to shuttle and who to rope into hiking with me, I stumbled on a program called the “Hiker Challenge”, run by the Sheltowee Trace Association (STA). The Challenge divided the trail into 11 monthly hikes from January to November. Hikers would park at the endpoint and the STA would arrange a shuttle to the beginning of that month’s hike. Anyone participating in all 11 weekends would complete the whole trail over the course of a year, becoming an “end-to-ender”. For this, one earned both bragging rights AND a cool patch! These were not guided hikes, but since a group of people were going, there was a bit of a safety net. I eagerly signed up, and to my surprise, my husband decided he would like to attempt it also.
January 2013 arrived, and I prepared for the hike. There had been an ice storm a couple of days before the hike and there was still ice in the trees. Also, the overnight temperatures were predicted to be in the 20s, which was intimidating for an inexperienced backpacker. Still, I layered up, quadruple-checked the recommended great list, and went for it. It was cold, beautiful, and rugged, with long miles and a challenging elevation profile, and I was hooked! I met about a dozen new people with varying degrees of backpacking experience. We all got through it together and enjoyed the accomplishment. I was excited to be taking steps toward becoming a “real” backpacker. My husband had work commitments and had to hike the following weekend with a second group. They had cold and heavy snow that made their hike extra difficult, but they all came back for more (and still enjoy recounting their stories of that crazy experience!).
For the rest of the year we continued to backpack one weekend a month with the group. Challenge weekends were not weather dependent. We headed out in cold, drizzle, pouring rain, blazing heat, humidity, and occasionally, even perfect hiking weather! Though I was from Utah and my husband from California, we came to love and appreciate Kentucky as we experienced its amazing beauty in every season. High ridges, sweeping hillsides full of trees, tumbling creeks, rushing rivers, dramatic limestone cliffs (sometimes covered with walls of icicles), colorful wildflowers, sandstone arches, amazing waterfalls, and forests of dazzling fall leaves graced our hikes. We came to appreciate the beauty that you could only see by getting out of civilization and its comforts. Our newfound hiking buddies became the best of friends as we shared these sights and experiences, and we continue to enjoy hiking with them.
We celebrated our completion in December 2013. I had come to truly love the trail and eagerly signed up for the following year’s Challenge team. While my husband had loved the sights, challenge, and friendships, he was very relieved that I did not expect him to sign up again as well. While he enjoys hiking and backpacking, he has many other interests that compete for his free time and he prefers shorter day hikes to 15 + mile excursions followed by sleeping on the ground.
My dog Aurora, a husky/cattle dog mix, became my new hiking partner and together we explored and hiked all over Kentucky and Tennessee on the Sheltowee trace, in the Red River Gorge in Slade, KY and in the Big South Fork near Oneida, TN. We participated in the Hiker Challenge to some degree over the next 4 years, and she earned a badge of her own for hiking the entire trail (minus one section with a long hot road walk that is attached to a State Park that doesn’t allow dogs on trail). She galloped along, enjoying the forest, keeping a watchful eye out for chipmunks, and sharing trail snacks. Then, she would contentedly curl up in the tent with me at night after a long day of hiking. After about a year-and-a-half of practice, I even went solo backpacking for the first time. I found it an amazing and freeing experience.
I reflected back on my first week on the Appalachian Trail and the hiker named Sunshine who was confident hiking alone and efficient with all of her gear. It was exciting to realize that I was beginning to develop some confidence and efficiencies of my own. Each hike was an opportunity to learn so much. I refined my layering system for cold and rain and got better with bear bag hangs, learned to use a map and compass properly (thanks to Nature Reliance School in Winchester, KY), slowly worked on acquiring lighter gear, and learned how to plan details for my own overnight hikes. I dehydrated some meals for myself and became more comfortable with back country cooking. I even got to develop some problem solving skills for dealing with injury and sometimes hazardous trail conditions.
Over time, my hiking experience expanded beyond Kentucky. My sister arranged permits for a four-day backpacking trip in Yosemite, including a summit of Half Dome. I brought my two youngest children as well as my daughter’s best friend. After completing Half Dome, the two girls felt so empowered and excited; it was a beautiful thing to see! Also, I became a guide for Adventures in Good Company, the women’s adventure travel company who had taught my introduction to lightweight backpacking course/trip. I was privileged to meet and guide amazing women from all over the country on hiking and backpacking trips in Utah, Vermont, Arizona, California, Georgia, and Virginia.
I was still working full time as a physician assistant and used most weekends and vacations for hiking. To really get ready to hike the AT, I needed more than a three day stretch of time. After much negotiation, I was able to arrange a 3-week break from work so I could hike on the Appalachian Trail. Gina, one of my Sheltowee friends, and my faithful Aurora pup headed south from Damascus, Virginia in late October of 2017. While climbing our very first hill out of town, we were schooled in the importance of not bringing too much food. Wow, those packs were heavy!! We encountered some challenging and even dangerous weather along the way and learned much about the supportive AT community and local hostels and shuttle drivers. We reveled in the beauty of Watauga Lake, Hump Mountain and Roan High Knob. We met several southbound thru hikers and heard their stories. After a week, I asked my husband to come down and get Aurora as the weather was becoming quite cold. Gina also decided that she needed to head home, and I continued as far as Newtown Gap in the Smokies before weather, my job, and homesickness for my husband and dogs pulled me back home as well.
I had become a backpacker. My husband no longer considered my dream to be just a daydream, but instead became my biggest supporter. He started telling his family, friends and co-workers that I would be hiking the AT soon. Now I just had to figure out how to make it happen.