trail stories

A Place for Everyone

Creating a path for all women to fall in love with the A.T.

By Anna Huthmaker

From left: The Maryland Chapter of Trail Dames lead by Kylena Cross (far right) at the Ed Garvey shelter in 2018

“Mom, do you think I could ever

try to do this?” I held up a battered and worn copy of Jean Deeds, There Are Mountains to Climb, one of a dozen A.T. books that I owned. It was the year 2000 and that one small question was like the proverbial butterfly who flutters her wings one extra time, creating tsunamis around the world. In my case, that initial question came out of a secret, scary dream that I had — one that became a thru-hike attempt which, in turn, became a national movement.

You know, Tolkien wrote, “It’s a dangerous business going out your door … You step onto the road, and … there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” I would have to say the same thing is true about dreams. They come along simply and silently, seeming quite harmless. But if you are not careful, if you feed them, they can grow into the most extraordinary things. And they will take you places that you never dreamed.

It was 2003 before my dream grew into a reality and I found myself standing on Springer Mountain. At five feet tall and 262 pounds, I was definitely not your traditional thru-hiker. However, I was determined to make my mark on this amazing trail. Six months, 700 miles, and a million experiences later, I left the Appalachian Trail, having done exactly that. During my season on the A.T., it didn’t take long to notice that no one out there looked like me. I ignored the curious looks that I got, and the feeling of not quite being “right” for the job. I was a bit of an anomaly, but that didn’t stop me from huffing and puffing my way up mountains and enjoying every experience that the Trail had to offer. It also didn’t stop the history and allure of the A.T. from climbing into my heart and taking up permanent residence. Somewhere in the middle of the months of hiking, climbing, and camping, I found a new dream. I knew that one day I had to find a way for other women like me to fall in love with this trail.

Returning home, I found that I had acquired a few extra things in my months of hiking. Of course, I had stronger legs, bug-bite scars, and a pack steeped in hiker funk that never did end up going away. But I also had a new-found bravery and confidence that was overwhelming. Now, when a dream whispered in my ear, I jumped into action buying plane tickets to Africa and booking hostel stays in the Arctic Circle. The next three years flew by as I merged my regular life of career, friends, and family with exotic travel and volunteer work. All the while, my idea for helping other women fall in love with the Trail waited patiently until one spring morning, I woke knowing that the time had come to make good on this goal.

I can tell you that I had zero experience in starting any kind of a club, much less a non-profit or a national movement. However, one of my overwhelming personality traits is the ability to jump into a dream with little to no regard for its accessibility or my level of preparedness. And it was with this naivete (a.k.a., cluelessness) that one April morning, I found myself and 20 other women, standing on top of Springer Mountain. It was the Spring of 2007 and Trail Dames was born.

That day, I discovered that my favorite sound in the world is the sound of women laughing up and down the Trail. And since then, not a month has gone by without that laughter and joy happening somewhere on a Trail Dames hike. That was also the day that it all began. Word started to spread, chapters sprang up and Trail Dames grew. And grew. And grew! We started with several chapters scattered around the East Coast, and then we became a national non-profit. More chapters followed, bringing with them the creation of a board of directors, by-laws, policies, procedures, handbooks, and a hike-leading curriculum. The memory of those days is still every bit as exhausting as living them was. The learning curve was steep, but the women who joined us had a world of talent and were not afraid of the hard work that it took to make all of this happen.

During those first ten years, we also started the Summit, the country’s first hiking and backpacking conference for women. Through this, not only could we offer all kinds of specialized education, but we could foster the sense of community that the Trail offers to us all. From that first Summit, the classes, seminars, guest speakers, vendors, and attendees have all been amazing; and this summer we will continue that tradition by meeting in North Carolina and once again having a truly magical time.

My favorite part of the Summit is the awards ceremony. While hiking, I may have noticed that there were no women that looked like me on the Trail, but it was after I got off the Trail that I noticed that there didn’t seem to be any recognition for the women out there that were doing extraordinary things. So, we decided to do just that. We began awarding women for advocacy, adventure, and over-all excellence. Women like Laurie Potteiger of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), Sanne “Ready” Larsen, Susan “Hammock Hanger” Turner, and “The Great Old Broads” (a national grassroots organization, led by women that engages and inspires activism to protect wilderness and wild lands.). All of these women, as well as the other award recipients, deserve to be applauded and recognized for their contributions.

Somewhere in the midst of all of this, we realized that we were missing something. All our focus was on motivating, serving, and inspiring. We wanted to show women that they belonged on the Trail and that we could help even the most inexperienced one find her place and feel comfortable in the outdoors. But we also wanted to make a difference by providing outdoor education for women and supporting other like-minded organizations. Thus, the Trail Dames Charitable Foundation was born. We had been given so much, and it was time to give back.

You know that old saying “you gotta dance with the one that brung you?” Well, the foundation gave us that opportunity. And as for “who brung me” to the dance? Well, that would be the ATC. Where would I be without this amazing organization? So, when we got the official paperwork for the Trail Dames Charitable Foundation, I knew exactly who was getting our first donation. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I made out a check to the ATC. It was small, but I felt like I was finally able to come full circle and say thank you for bringing the Appalachian Trail to us all.

(left to right) Laura Donavan (head “Dame” for New York), Anna Huthmaker (“Grand Poobah”), and Kelly Hamilton at Hog Pen Gap on the A.T. in Georgia

That day, I discovered that my favorite sound in the world is the sound of women laughing up and down the Trail.

Another wonderful thing that Trail Dames offers is the chance to make connections. We introduce beginning hikers to experienced ones, avid readers to new outdoor writers, and arm chair travelers to world-wide trekkers. Nothing is more fun than introducing these women to each other and this spring, Steve Adams and the Hiking Radio Network offered us a chance to do that on a larger scale with a new Trail Dames podcast . We are now several episodes in and have had the opportunity to give voice to amazing women like Carla “Zipper” Robertson of Living Wild and Precious, Summer of Fat Girl’s Hiking, Sue of FiftySense and Bunny Kramer of the Appalachian Trails Women’s Group. The future line-up of guests is so exciting, and I can’t wait to see who else we are going to get to meet.

From the very beginning, it was important to me that all “Dames” not only knew about the Appalachian Trail, but that they wholly embraced their place on it. Because the A.T. is a place for everyone. This amazing Trail can be enjoyed in a million ways, and I wanted women everywhere to be able to experience that.

And that is why every spring, the Georgia chapter makes its way up to Springer Mountain for our birthday hike. When you think about it, Springer Mountain is not the greatest place for a day hike. We have a long drive, followed by a slow, dusty trek up Forest Service road 42. Being April, the parking lot is normally packed with aspiring thru-hikers, and once you start climbing, you barely have time to get your rhythm going before you are at the top.

But none of that matters, because once you are up there, if you close your eyes, you can feel it. The collective energy of a million dreams. Dreams of Benton MacKaye, and the Trail creators who worked with him. Dreams of the ridge runners, Trail maintainers, and the ATC volunteers who have stood there. Dreams of day hikers who look north, scarcely able to imagine a foot path that goes all the way to Maine, and the dreams of the thru-hikers who can not only imagine it but are determined to attempt it.

And one day every April, the air is thick with an additional energy. The energy of our dreams. The dreams of women together, experiencing the Trail and sharing the knowledge that we have a place there. Each year, we stand there, a little sweaty, and a little out of breath. And we make a toast to Trail Dames and the Appalachian Trail. We laugh and share in the total joy of being on a mountain. And not just any mountain, but Springer Mountain. It has been 11 years since we first stood up there and it is our hope and intention that those dreams will continue to join all of the others up there for many years to come.