trail stories

The Reluctant Hiker

A determined woman’s grasp on the gravity of the Trail

By Lena Edwards

Lena and Steve with their daughter Trillium, and infant son Silas at Max Patch this past September

My feet were leaden stubs that

dragged my aching carcass one quaking step at a time down the paved half-mile trail that leads from the summit of Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park back to the parking lot. I never felt so tired in my life; and if I looked like I felt, I must have appeared to those around me as Death himself. I remember a chipper, non-perspiring tourist standing somewhere near the visitor center caught my attention. With a sympathetic grin he asked, “Did you just come from the top?” While I may have felt nearly dead, my pride was anything but. “No.” I gasped, “I just came from Siler’s Bald.”

Siler’s Bald is about 5.25 miles down the Appalachian Trail from Clingmans Dome, roughly ten and a half miles as an in-and-out hike. It is also my least-favorite type of in-and-out hike because all the elevation loss occurs during the first half of it. On the return, hikers must summit Mount Buckley before beginning the ascent to Clingmans Dome. Mount Buckley is where I finally broke down. Steve, my loving husband of just nine months at the time and the reason I found myself in this predicament, decided he could no longer walk at such a slow pace and told me he’d meet me back at the car.

When I finally arrived back where we parked, I climbed in and silently buckled my seatbelt. Steve just sat there and stared at me. I’m not entirely sure what was going through his mind in that moment. Perhaps he felt frustration at my incredibly slow pace or humor at my disheveled appearance. I think, however, that he probably felt fear: fear that I wouldn’t want to hike anymore. Hiking was a hobby that I adopted only after dating (and eventually marrying) Steve. I quickly confirmed the worst as I hung my head, burst into tears, and cried out, “Baby, don’t ever do that to me again!” “What do you mean?” he replied. “I don’t want to hike if it’s going to be like this,” I said. “I feel terrible. I hate this. Nothing about today was fun.” “You didn’t enjoy any of it?” he asked, “what about the hike down? That was fun, wasn’t it?” To tell the truth, the hike down was nice, but I was too worn-out to concede anything. I cried out all my frustrations and then promptly fell asleep.

Hiking was not discussed any further until one evening, two months later, when I announced to Steve that I was ready to get back on the Trail. “Really?!” Steve responded, doing a poor job of hiding his excitement. “You really want to go hiking?” Yes, I assured him, I really wanted to go hiking. I did not, however, want to do anything that would require an elevation gain during the second half of the hike. He readily agreed and set to work devising the perfect plan for a perfect day. The following weekend we hiked a nine-mile loop in Elkmont that was absolutely delightful; and a month after that, in late October, I completed my longest and toughest hike yet from the Low Gap trailhead in the Cosby Campground area, along the A.T., and finally to the Mount Cammerer fire tower (I can share these details with 100 percent accuracy thanks to Steve’s Jeffersonian habit of documenting all his hikes in a spreadsheet). The trek up to Mount Cammerer was the catalyst hike that really made me fall in love with hiking. In the following year, we logged 385.6 miles before a bad bout of plantar fasciitis in my right foot slowed me up. Just as soon as I recovered from that, we found out we were expecting our first child.

A quick Google search reveals scores of women who tout the many advantages of hiking while pregnant, assuring the reader that not only is it wonderful exercise (which it is); it is completely possible and very safe right up until one’s due date. One page blithely states, “But some women have that adventurous spirit that you can’t keep down, even with a bun in the oven.” My spirit was willing; but boy, my flesh was weak. Eight weeks of morning sickness, followed by doctor’s orders to stay off the Trail, kept me from hiking a single mile for nearly seven months. I’m sure Steve had all but given up on me. My first hike post-partum was a mere two and a half miles along the very flat, very even, Gatlinburg Trail (I logged over 15 miles in a hike down Sugarland Mountain from Newfound Gap at my peak). Needless to say, I was very aware of how far I’d fallen, fitness-wise, in the intervening seven months.

Fortunately, our daughter was born in the dead of winter; and by the time I was recovered enough to begin hiking again in earnest, spring was upon us. The promise of mountain wildflowers in full bloom was just the enticement Steve needed to lure me back onto the Trail, and we hiked every weekend from March to May. A wiser man, he initially kept the mileage low and slowly increased it over time. Before our daughter or I knew what happened, we were consistently logging around seven miles each hike; and on July 26, almost exactly three years later to the day, we returned to Clingmans Dome and hiked south on the A.T. to the Double Springs Shelter. I still feel a not-so-small pang of pride when I remember how easily I hiked back up Mount Buckley. This time, the hike back to the car was not the death march I remembered. This time, I didn’t slog my way down the paved Clingmans Dome Trail, a shell of my former self. This time I swaggered — with both my hiking poles cradled in my right arm, a conquering hero of the worst mountain I ever climbed.

From top: Trillium follows along at Gregory Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; Lena on the A.T. at Spence Field in the Smokies in 2012

A little over three years after my triumphant return to Mount Buckley, our mileage has significantly decreased. Our now-preschool-aged daughter is officially graduated from the backpack carrier. We’re doing well to log three miles in a single hike, and we stick to trails that offer wider paths and safer water crossings. Her little legs are eager in the beginning but tire out quickly, and her interest in the hike lasts about as long as her legs do. These days, I am not the one complaining when I get tired, my daughter is. I have joined the ranks of my husband as an encourager. Just as he used to encourage me, I am now encouraging our little reluctant hiker 2.0.

Why do we keep hiking? What draws us away from our comfortable home, with all its amenities of modern life, into muggy air, biting flies, mosquitoes, rocky terrain, and blistered feet? Why would we drag our daughter (and now infant son) into the wilderness again, and again? I could expound upon topics ranging from spiritual renewal to physical fitness, but I won’t. Those are good and honorable reasons for hiking, but I don’t believe they are why our family hikes. To tell the truth, it just feels good. It feels good to watch our daughter revel in conquering her own “Buckley” — be it a particularly steep hill or rock-hopping her first stream crossing. It feels good to watch her confidence grow. It feels good to see the Trail through the fresh eyes of our infant son, to notice how the sun shining on a hot day makes the leaves above look like glittering emerald jewels. It feels good to share a beautiful vista, a rollicking waterfall, or a peaceful forest with each other. It feels good to share the Trail with our kids and fall in love with hiking all over again.