outdoors has always beckoned me, from the days of walking to school in Washington, D.C. and taking off-road streets and trails to find new ways to get home, to deliberate searches of footpaths and places to explore. But it was the summer of 1992 when I had organized a group of adults to go whitewater rafting in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia that I was initiated into the lure of real outdoor footpaths. As I passed the road for the turn on Shenandoah Street, I noticed a sign for the Appalachian Trail and on a whim decided to take my group for a short hike the next day to add a “land” experience to the weekend.
Although we only hiked a mile up the steep incline off route 340 heading southbound towards Virginia, something about the deep breathing and sweat was exhilarating. That afternoon, I visited the Appalachian Trail Visitor Center. The 3-D display of the entire Trail along the back wall captured my attention and I was mesmerized. A volunteer at the center offered the last signed edition of a book about a couple who had hiked the Trail, which I immediately began to read. By the time I had reached home, I was already thinking about what it would take to for me to hike the Appalachian Trail.
To assist with my journey, I organized many “walks in the woods” programs to get others out on the Trail through my outdoor adventure organization/company Fresco Adventures (Fresco stands for: Fun Reasons Everyone Should Come Outdoors) where I promoted outdoor programs — first through newsletters and then through the Fresco Adventures website and virtual meet up site. This introduced and excited thousands of people to the world of hiking.
I also quickly began to realize that the A.T. was not only a footpath through the forest, but it had become my therapeutic partner, a place of solace and peace for others, and sacred place to rejuvenate and connect the mind, body, and spirit. Was it just a coincidence that every time I had a multi-day trip planned out on the Trail to knock off some miles that there were major life issues that I had to solve and that being out in nature was just what I needed to get the answers? This became the trend and I began to look forward to my journey to the Trail for the meditation time needed to reflect on the many things going on in my life. Not only was it my aid in problem solving, an inspiration for creativity, and a developer of confidence in my abilities, it provided an unexpected opportunity to explore America in a way I would have never considered. The visits to small towns, the drives up and down the interstates and back country roads, the great food discoveries, and eventual establishment for my favorite stops along the way added to what had begun as adventures of a lifetime.
I have been grateful to be able to share my experience as a member of a hiker community but also to share my skills to influence operations by being part of a support team through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as a two-term board member and part of various committees to help promote need for the Appalachian Trail and as place for everyone. Although I didn’t know much about the Trail on that first step back in 1992, that one step has allowed me to recognize the spiritual connection to the world and others through nature as I continue to live life as an adventure.
first time I remember hiking on the Appalachian Trail was in my early teens, hiking from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That hike was part of a childhood full of camping trips with my family across the country. I was hooked on public lands, and was ready to pursue a career that would keep me high in the mountains. Life is funny, and just when you think you have a pathway — you take a different turn. My turn led to a career in marketing faraway trails and wild places. I would still spend my vacations exploring our public lands, but work led me elsewhere.
I came back to the Appalachian Trail as I came back to public lands. While taking what I thought would be a mid-career break, I began to volunteer for a wilderness designation campaign called Tennessee Wild. The effort to expand wilderness protections on the Cherokee National Forest would include an expansion of the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness, and that would bring me full circle back to the A.T. The Trail bisects the Big Laurel Branch Wilderness and proposed addition, and my life would quickly become about addressing concerns around Trail maintenance in the new wilderness acres.
While considering how to alleviate concerns about capacity for Trail maintenance, it would be an Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) workshop on youth and diversity issues that would provide the “lightbulb” moment I needed. I left the workshop energized and committed to an idea of addressing wilderness stewardship challenges by engaging a younger and more diverse generation. That idea would become Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS), an organization now serving over 80 wilderness areas in the Southeast. SAWS roots will always grow deep in the nine miles of Trail that passes through the Big Laurel Wilderness.
A year ago, I left Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards to follow my new public lands career westward as the executive director of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation. I carry with me in this new role a passion born in the folds of Appalachia, and guided by the partnerships that made my work in the Southeast so rewarding and productive. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is some of the best of the National Wilderness Preservation System and I can’t believe my good fortune to continue my wilderness work for such a special place and successful organization. My connection to a national scenic trail, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), continues with the CDT passing through the heart of the complex.
parents did not hike. I had a teenage boyfriend whom I went hiking with. As he had no money, we even went on night hike dates. This led me to join a local hiking club. I was fifteen, out for a day hike with Reading, Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountain Eagle Hiking Club, when I saw my first thru-hiker. He was a short guy and his huge pack towered over his head. Fresh fruit dangled from plastic bags and swayed as he hustled up the Trail. He had no interest in stopping to chat. Someone in our group called after him, “Where are you headed?” and he yelled back, “Maine!” I was speechless. He was on a mission — on a grand adventure and I decided that very moment that someday, I would do that too. The hiking club was great as I couldn’t yet drive and all I had to do was pay my $1.50 for gas contribution, meet at a parking lot, and have dozens of “hiking elders” teach me everything they knew. I have been a member of that club for exactly 50 years now.
When I finally stood on the summit of Katahdin in Maine back in 1979, I knew that, with enough perseverance and passion, there would be few limits in my life. Hiking 2,000 miles teaches you that, along with a slew of other life lessons. I kept a journal because I read the classic book in the ’70s, Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime, by Ed Garvey, and thought if this was going to be as monumental and life-changing as it sounded, I had better record it. I was a landscape artist with a formal education in the fine arts, so I carried a sketchbook and drew my memories as well as wrote them. I was encouraged to write and illustrate a book, and share this amazing journey with the world. Attaining Katahdin taught me to set high goals and believe I could meet them. My first published book, A Woman’s Journey, has been in print for 38 years. But my story is really about what came afterwards, because my A.T. hike influenced my life path more than anything else. It gave me a life — a husband (thru-hiker, Todd Gladfelter), an occupation (writer/author), a lifestyle philosophy, a way to raise and educate our children, and a hugely satisfying way to give back to the world. I wanted my A.T. thru-hike to be the beginning of an entire lifetime of adventures. Why stop at one?
Our life on the A.T. revealed to Todd and I, that freedom and independence were paramount to our happiness. We did not need material things, but we did need to be in charge of our days. Hard work was not something we avoided but rather embraced. Since we could not remain on the Trail forever, we designed a life that delivered the same gifts: a simple lifestyle, a connection to the natural world, exercise and health, and a sense of community.
After Todd and I completed the Pacific Crest Trail, we moved close to the A.T. in Pennsylvania and ran the Eckville Shelter. While we hosted hikers, we were on an immobile journey — building a log home from raw trees. We toiled for four years to create a work of art, teaching ourselves how to do every construction job over and above the logwork.
Since our children have grown, Todd and I began a non-profit, River House PA, where we share our love of nature and knowledge of the Trail with challenged veterans in rehab. Working closely with the local VA hospitals and their recreational therapists, we lead vets down the Trail on their path towards healing. Some of their stories, hiking both long distance and short, will be shared in my newest book: Walking Towards Peace- Veterans Healing on America’s Trails. In recent years, Todd led the Blue Mountain Eagle Hiking Club in building two log A.T. shelters and is currently busy building moldering privies at four of their A.T. shelters. And so, our adventure continues.