To read the journal Cheryl McCormick wrote for six months on the Appalachian Trail, and her retrospective thoughts on the experience, go to trailjournals.com/clinker. Her photographs will be exhibited at the Metroparks of the Toledo Area next year (yet to be scheduled) .
June 13 was the worst of the 165 days Cheryl McCormick spent hiking the 2,187-mile Appalachian Trail.
She’d just passed the 800-mile mark in southern Virginia and morning temperatures were in the 90s as she walked up a 3,000-foot mountain. Her plan to enjoy sweeping views at the top while eating lunch were foiled by swarms of biting flies in her face.
The sky grew inky, thunderous, and let loose with torrential rain and lightning, so she scurried down into the woods, stashed her metal walking poles 30 feet away for safety, pulled on her poncho, and waited it out. When the weather eased up, she tackled her second “high bald” (exposed mountain top) of the day. A half-mile across that elevated meadow, another storm rolled in with all the juice of the first. Dashing for cover, her poncho flapping around her head, she neither saw nor heard the five-foot-long rattlesnake in high grass at the edge of the trail. It struck between her pole and her leg, she jumped, and its fangs missed her flesh.
Rain and wind were relentless for the next three miles. She came to a gravel road and clearing trees were horizontal and temperatures had plunged into the 40s. Knowing she faced another high bald, she stayed put. Then, something worse than lightning, crashing branches, and rattlesnakes: A man in a beat-up truck slowed down and stopped.
“I’m shivering and figured I had to get in my tent and get warm [before hypothermia set in] and I’m thinking I can’t put up my tent near this road. The No. 1 rule for a woman hiker is you’ve got to go two to three miles in from a road.” She lifted her pack under her poncho, trying to appear tall and man-like.
The truck came closer; lurched forward and back. “How would you like to come in out of the weather?” he called.
Realizing she was being hunted, she crouched behind bushes. “I’ve never felt so rattled,” she said.
She barely heard it, but heard it again, and then saw the woman who’d gotten out of the truck: “Please, won’t you come home with us and have a hot shower?”
Shaking and drenched, Ms. McCormick climbed in the truck with the middle-aged couple, then had misgivings when she was handed a beer and spotted the picture of a nude woman on the dashboard.
“I didn’t know where I was going.” Forty miles later, they deposited her, not at their home, but a beautiful 1897 B&B they’d restored, where they invited her to make herself at home. She rested there, the only guest, for two days at no charge. It was one of countless kindnesses she experienced from “trail angels” along the way.
After a year of careful planning, Ms. McCormick of Sylvania Township launched her dream on April 5, her 63rd birthday, by striking out on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Using ultra-light backpacking equipment, her pack, with six days of food, weighed only 25 pounds. The goal: to reach trail’s end by early October.
“One of my reasons was to gain a self mastery and discipline, and I saw where I can do that, but it’s in small steps in a huge endeavor.” Whatever life brings, “I think I’ll be able to stick with what has to be done by taking it day by day.”
A former naturalist for the Metroparks of the Toledo Area who completed her first triathlon on her 50th birthday, says she’s happy she did the Appalachian Trail hike, but has some sobering reflections. It was far more intense mentally and physically than she expected. “I thought I’d have more down time to rest in my tent and write and stop at beautiful sites.”
And instead of getting continually stronger, she reached an apex after a few months and then, gradually, seemed to wear down, something she noticed in others as well.
Through-hikers who attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one season, must maintain a rigorous regimen, averaging 15 to 20 miles per day, taking excellent care of their health, and perhaps most of all, being vigilant about safety. With each step, eyes must scan the path for rocks, roots, and ankle-deep mud.
“I just wanted to walk, but it’s not a walk in the woods. You need to make sure you don’t fall. There are constant obstacles, decisions about where to put my feet or how to climb that boulder. It is a total focus of where to put your foot so you don’t slip or trip or fall or hit a nerve on the bottom of your foot.” Of the nearly 2,200 miles, she figured only 40 did not require constant surveillance.
Erosion due to heavy use turned the trail, completed in 1937, into a river of mud in places. And she questioned its layout.
“What I never anticipated about this trek from Georgia to Maine is how each of the 14 states will do their best to show you every single high point in that state so long as it is within 50 miles of the route. Sometimes the trail will even veer in the opposite direction just to hit another peak. At least half of the time you climb a peak and then they walk you 20 paces before they take you back down again,” she wrote in her online trail journal.
Clinker’s (her trail name) days began between 5:15 and 6 a.m. She’d reach outside the tent and turn on the tiny stove to start water boiling. She’d make a hot breakfast, drink several cups of green tea, and be walking between 7 and 8:30 a.m.
“I learned to pace myself. I’d leave camp and go six miles and have my first break, an energy bar, and water. Then I’d plan to get the next four to six miles in before lunch. I’d try to find a nice place to stop with a scenic view and drinking water or, if it was raining, a shelter.”
Lunch would be peanut butter on pita chips, nuts and dried fruit, cream cheese on flat bread, or water and three energy bars (she got really tired of them).
“After lunch, if I was going for 18 miles [that day], I’d aim to get to a campsite, preferably a place with water, before dark.” A cozy fire and marshmallows? No way. She was too tired. “Through hikers don’t make fires.”
At day’s end, she’d find a flat area on which to pitch her tent (13 ounces, including nine stakes; one of her walking poles served as the center pole), often near another hiker or a shelter. Inside, she’d lay out food and overnight equipment, and stay put until morning. Although sitting up for an extended time was difficult (a chair was the thing she missed most), the tent was her cherished, private space.
“I loved having my tent clean, dry, warm, not buggy.” She’d wash up, change into clean camp clothes, reach outside the tent to her stove, and start water boiling for a beverage. She’d heat more water for dinner to which she’d add a nutritious mix, made in hundreds of bags by herself and friends, that included some combination of grains, nuts, freeze-dried fruits and veggies, dried milk and cheese, and olive oil.
“Sometimes that food tasted so good.” But sometimes she had to force it down, as if she were sick. In the tent with her head lamp on, she’d massage her feet, review the day’s hike, study the guide book for the following day’s walk, read a few pages she might have torn out of a magazine (through-hikers don’t carry books), write in her notebook, and craft a haiku. She was asleep between 8 and 9 p.m.
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She reduced her food deliveries, being sent by a friend, from a six-day supply, to a lighter-to-carry three or four days’ worth. The farther north she got, the closer she was to roads that had grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Writing a journal and taking photos for public consumption on her phone, she made regular postings when she was at a grocery store or laundromat, and would recharge the phone. She shed 10 pounds, and gained two back. Every week or two she got a shower. “I’d go into rivers or jump into any body of water I could find.”
‘Pride and celebration’
Her trust in the inherent goodness of people was reinforced by acts of kindness from “trail angels” who’d leave bananas, oranges, toilet paper, sandwiches, cold beverages in ice chests, and insect repellent along the way. She was buoyed by hikers, such as the 23-year-old couple (trail names Oaks and Sweet Pea) who, learning that she had to finish the trail in time for her daughter’s Oct. 5 wedding, prodded her along the last, mountainous 16 days and camped with her at night.
At 4 a.m. Sept. 30, Ms. McCormick rose and prepared for the final assault, pulling on warm clothes and a head lamp, joining her husband, Dan, Oaks, and Sweet Pea.
From her trail journal:
“It was still dark when we started up the trail, and every time a head lamp approached from behind, I knew it was another through-hiker eager to finish this long trek. By daybreak all the young hikers had passed me, and as usual, I was the last trekking. ... My attitude slowly slipped into one of pride and celebration. It was like I had six months of training behind me and I could handle anything this mountain threw at me. In fact, I actually enjoyed the hike, both up, and the return down. This was a surprise, because, I hate to admit, I did not enjoy very many days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail. This day, on this climb up Mount Katahdin, even in my beat-up, tired condition, I realized I had more strength and experience than ever before in my life to lift me over monster boulders, swing me across gaps, and swivel my backpack-laden body around precarious ledges. It was exhilarating!”
The McCormicks immediately drove back to the home on three wooded acres they built together before their two children were born. Friends surprised her with a day at a spa getting her first-ever manicure and pedicure (“I can’t believe women do this,” she said, looking at her paint-peeling nails and wondering how to get it off), and a haircut (she’d trimmed her hair with the scissors on her Swiss Army knife). Then they left for Chicago for their daughter’s wedding. The mother-of-the-bride dress she’d bought before the hike was too big; the shoes too small.
She figured the entire cost at $4,700 for gear, lodging, food, and four pairs of over-the-ankle, lightweight hiking boots.
For much of October, she was physically spent. She’s regaining her energy and says the only negative residual is cranky knees.
“What do I miss about the trail?” she wrote. “I miss my tent. I miss sleeping close to the earth, smelling its richness. I miss the air swirling around my head at night. I miss being only 11 ounces away from the weather and still feeling secure. I miss the simplicity and careful choices of the items I selected to carry each day and to surround me each evening. Those 16 pounds were all I needed to feel confident and comfortable in this world.”
Contact Tahree Lane at: firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6075.