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’!
Here’s a fine looking pair of healthy American youths. To the left is Andrew, a former naturalist at the Len Foote Hike Inn. To the right is Leigh (trail name Starcrunch after the tasty Hostess brand snack), another former LFHI employee who is also an AT thru-hiker. They are shown near the halfway point as they head NOBO on the Pacific Crest Trail. Since that photo was taken, they have made great progress and actually passed the Columbia River which means they are well into their final state — Washington.
A couple of thoughts about these two: First, they appear trim and fit but not emaciated. Hikers in the 21st century are more fully aware of nutrition. They can carry food that packs far more into their stash — ounce for ounce — than was once the case. When I hiked the AT 44 years ago, I grabbed what was cheap in whatever grocery store I could hitchhike to. I did not know a fat from a protein from a carb. I snatched boxes of store brand mac & cheese and whatever else looked inexpensive, light and flavorful. I ended up looking like a scarecrow at the end of my trip. Fortunately for me, a 21-year-old body is forgiving. I felt fine even though my family doctor told me I was medically malnourished.
As for point number two, this hiking duo look fit, properly fed, svelte and very happy. I suspect some of the happiness is derived from being together and experiencing the kind of loving partnership many experience on the trail. They are living much of what I described in THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story. I hiked mostly alone in 1973. There were few young women thru-hiking in those days. When Starcrunch was working at the Hike Inn and we discussed thru-hiking, I used to kid her saying, “where were girls like you when I was out hiking?”
I was talking to Andrew a month or two before he embarked on his PCT trip. He was saying that his original plan was to hike the AT, but Leigh had talked him into hiking the PCT with her. He seemed a bit conflicted about his decision.
Being the wise old sage that I think I am, I said to Andrew, “Let me get this straight. You have two choices. Hike the AT alone or hike the PCT with Starcrunch. I’m having trouble seeing the problem.”
Andrew smiled sheepishly and replied, “Yeah, it really is a pretty easy decision.”
A couple of years ago, Susan Caster took off on a PCT thru-hike. With characteristic indomitable spirit and enormous levels of good humor, she averaged twenty miles per day, a feat people half her age would envy. Along the way, she was dubbed with the trail name “Rewind” due to her propensity to occasionally double back on the trail to retrieve lost items or see something she missed. As one of the laziest long-distance hikers in history, I marvel at anyone who is willing to add a single step over and above what is required in the daily grind of a thru-hike. That’s no problem for Susan, however, because she has a curious mind and high levels of energy far beyond that of normal mortals.
I took a walk with Susan the other day to catch up on her activities, and it was a delight to hear her enthusiasm for all the places she’s been, all the people she’s interacted with and all the dreams she is working furiously to bring to reality. After her PCT hike, she spent time traveling and exploring in New Zealand and Australia spending much of the time working on organic farms.
Now she is back in Roswell, Ga., but that will not last long. Her next step is toward Northeast Georgia where she is developing something she calls Little Toccoa Creek Farm. Her dream is to develop a small farming operation to supply local produce to farmer’s markets and restaurants. Her challenge is to decide where to plant, how to plant, interacting with her neighbors, developing outbuildings and constructing a small home — all the while keeping everything environmental sustainable.
Susan is a retired educator with a track record of success. She has great kids. She has suffered through the pain of losing a spouse. She is a cancer survivor as well which makes her PCT accomplishment even more amazing. Through it all she has spent much of her spare time dedicated to a variety of volunteer activities — many of them devoted to environment education. Frankly, if I were her, Little Toccoa Creek Farm would be a place where I would kick back in a rocking chair and watch bees pollinate. But Susan is not a contemplator so much as a “doer.”
I wish this whirling dervish of a friend the best, and I really look forward to visiting her new digs near Toccoa.
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’!