Before I turn the page on the adventure in Wales, I need to display this photo taken by hiking pal Susie McNeely (triple crowner, i.e. CDT, PCT and AT). We had just climbed through morning mist out of the town of Knighton where the Offa’s Dyke Path HQ is located. It was a steep, relatively short climb to the grassy ridge where we came to the spot in the photo which had a sort of Mediterranean look to it. The inquisitive sheep added whimsy to the moment.
My friend Jay Dement who will soon be prez of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club observed that the Welsh word for Richard is “BAAAAAAA.” Clearly, I command little respect among my companions, nor do I give a sheep’s butt if I do. Jay and I spent several days swapping sheep jokes before we exhausted our repertoire. Wandering along the Wales/England border certainly provides a sheep jokester with plenty of inspiration.
I am moved to note that the agricultural element of the British Isles is a big part of the joy of the experience. We hiked through fields of corn, sugar beets and all manner of other cultivated vegetation. At other times we hiked through dark forests and across windswept moors covered in purple blooming heather. In other words, there was variety of experience. Each day stood out as an individual memory.
At the end of each daily hike, we bent over — testing our aging, aching vertebrae — and scraped mud and sheep/cow/goat excrement from our boots and trail runners. It’s just what you do there, and it isn’t as bad as it sounds. I’ve experienced the same thing in Ireland, the Balkans, South Africa, Nepal and myriad other adventure venues. Sheep and other livestock — even yaks — are part of the deal. You enjoy their curious countenances and live in the moment. Stay vertical, you all, read THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, and keep walkin’!
I hiked the past couple of days with Susie McNeeley. Susie deserves to be loved and appreciated for putting in a career as a special education teacher. But beyond that, she is a spectacularly gifted and accomplished hiker.
She and I have spent lots of time talking about the old days of thru-hiking the AT. We thru-hiked SOBO in the 70s — me in ’73 and she in ’79 — back when there were still dinosaurs out there. She later thru-hiked the PCT in the early days of the 80s. Then, last year, she went out and took on the Continental Divide Trail. “Anyone who plans to do the CDT should have already thru-hiked one of the other big trails,” she says. “The logistics and route finding on the CDT are way more difficult than the other trails.” She stresses that finding reliable water sources and getting resupplied are Herculean chores out there.
Susie battled illness and minor injuries during her trek, but she managed to do her share of 35-mile days and did most days over 20. I could not have done that when I was 21 years old, much less at Susie’s (I’ll phrase it delicately, and add that she is younger than I) more mature age. But I think I understand what makes her tick. I hiked with her on the rugged Peaks of the Balkans Trail a few years ago. There, I learned that she has constant good humor, an indomitable positivity and energy that just goes on and on. She couples this with a remarkable level of physical stamina unlike any other I’ve witnessed. Any hiking group is improved by her presence.
It’s my guess that of the of 200-or-so Triple Crowners in the world, Susie is among the ones who have the longest gap between first and third thru-hikes — if not the single longest. Apparently, she will not be slowing down. I hope to have a chance to hike with her in future years.
Meanwhile, she is one of those rare, fortunate mortals who can eat all they want. The CDT left her stick-like, and she can scarf down great quantities of food as often as she wants.
Susie exemplifies what I love about the hiking community. If you enjoy being out there, you belong. You check politics and other opinions at the trailhead and enjoy people for who they are out there in the wilderness. Anyone hiking with Susie learns from her example. Stay vertical, Susie, and keep walkin’!