trail stories

Trail Passion

A special variety of grit is behind an unyielding burn to tackle the Trail

By Robin Luthanen

Above: A foggy hike near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Some who possess a passion

for the Appalachian Trail cannot plan thru-hikes. They lack support resources, they lack the pure physicality or conditioning necessary for the 2,190-mile hike from Georgia to Maine. But that passion still burns deep, like the embers of an evening campfire smoldering at dawn.

Such am I. Too short to stand in the five-foot section of a swimming pool, my 153-pound frame might be the envy of an eighth-grade football player, but not most 61-year-old women. Despite two repaired shoulders, a duck-footed walking gait, and a lifetime lack of camping experience, this passion has smoldered. When the tune “Shenandoah” played at my father’s funeral in 2011, the emotion of the moment combined with the exquisite gentleness of the notes to create a music so beautiful that it hurt; it lit something inside me — a desire I never knew that I had.

Long after those particular moments, I faced the realization that I would turn 60 years old. Small, but active and in reasonably good health, I read an article in a Sunday newspaper magazine discussing hiking the Appalachian Trail. Now I could identify the desire lit within me years before — I could nurture that spark. I recognized that my spark would need to be fanned with research before action — lots of research. To begin, I contacted my son, Jon, in Bellingham, Washington. Having worked three years with the Montana Conservation corps, he proved to be a wealth of knowledge regarding backpacking. I also pored over websites discussing backpacking and camping equipment. The public library provided additional resources with books on camping, the Appalachian Trail, and so forth.

To plan requires a dream — to implement requires money. During the course of two years or more, I slowly acquired necessary gear using a variety of sources such as REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Gander Mountain, and Walmart. Training for this hiking involved multiple workouts each week at the Perry Fitness Center at the local high school. In addition, I practiced using equipment by testing Merrell hiking shoes from Gander Mountain on nearby hiking trails in metroparks. I also swam laps to help improve my aerobic capacity.

However, the necessary surgical repair of my right rotator cuff temporarily sidelined my training for this hiking. During this period of unplanned convalescence, I clarified my goal from “hiking on the Appalachian Trail” to “hiking 100 miles on the Appalachian Trail before I turned 65 years old.” This could be achieved with multiple day hikes two or three times a year.

Now I needed to learn how to use the equipment that I had collected. Breaking a tent pole the first time, I tried to set up a tent proved to be a bad way to begin. Church friends, Doug and Joyce Zinn, invited me to camp with them at the nearby Thompson/Grand River Valley campsite, a KOA campsite not far from home (Perry, Ohio). So, at the tender age of 60 years, four months, and 20 days, with their help, I set up my Northwest Territory nine by seven-foot tent and spent my first night outdoors. This gracious gesture allowed me to test and refine equipment and food ideas in preparation for my Appalachian adventure.

A week before my 61st birthday, Joyce and I drove to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Staying in a hotel seemed safest for this first step in fulfilling my dream. Our first day, we hiked from the Econolodge hotel on Washington Street to the West Virginia-Virginia state line up the Appalachian Trail south on a day hike — a
strenuous 735-foot elevation change in a two-mile stretch. At one point, I sat alone on a log as the fog transformed the forest from huge trees to dark sentinels — water drops glistened like diamonds on leaves — the quiet surrounded me like a blanket — and I felt God’s pleasure in the sacred creation that He had made. This made me hungry for more.

Robin reaches the border marker between Virginia and West Virginia during her first hike on the Trail (just before turning 61)

Another day, another state, and my girlfriend, Bev and I sought the Appalachian Trail in Falls Village, the second smallest town in Connecticut. We were using our cell phone map features to find our way when the screen suddenly went blank. “Bev!” I said. “There’s no WIFI here near the Appalachian Trail! Who would’ve thought it?” Well, as we drove I spotted the familiar white rectangle on a telephone pole. Here was the Trail. We parked, then meandered a few miles up and down hills, as showers occasionally permeated the forest top to cool us. Afterwards, we ate lunch at Toymakers Cafe — famous for serving A.T. hikers — and I listened intently to conversations around me: “Think I can get another 18 miles today…” “The water at that free shower was freezing! I’d rather go without…” “It’s only been five days since I showered anyways. I don’t think I need to stop today…”

My September plan with my oldest son, Matt, fell apart. Despite long-held reservations at Big Meadows Campground in Shenandoah National Park, despite preparations including packaged meals, despite Automobile Association of America’s Trip Tik, the plan fell apart. Who could plan for my mother-in-law’s death? Love of family trumps camping, even though Shenandoah would have been the climax for the 2017 season’s hiking. But Shenandoah National Park will not go away. Nor will Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, or Pearisburg, Virginia, two more planned hiking spots.

So today, trekking poles in hand and pack strapped to my back, I hiked along the trails of Lake Erie Bluffs, continuing to build endurance, test equipment, and maintain physical conditioning. And fanned that spark of passion — that spark with its slow, slow burn.