By: Joanna Henning with Debra Dylan
Barbara Allen has been a hiker and backpacker for 30 years. She says, “I have been fortunate to experience many beautiful and exciting places in this country and in foreign countries.” In 2012, at age 71, Barbara became one of the oldest women to solo thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. She headed north from Springer Mountain, GA in March and continued to the trail’s terminus on Mount Katahdin in Maine in September.
Why hike the Appalachian Trail?
Living in the moment is enjoyable, but I need something to look forward to. I had thought about a long distance hike for many years, but the time never seemed appropriate. Upon returning from a trip with a group to Patagonia, I was feeling lonely and missing the outdoor adventure.
It seemed that this was the appropriate time to attempt a long distance hike, and in November I started thinking seriously about the Appalachian Trail (AT). In February I thought about what needed to be implemented before leaving home for six months.
Have you always been physically active?
Working in public health I have always been conscious of the importance of a healthy lifestyle. For many years, walking has been a big part of my life. Working out in the gym, riding my bike, canoeing and kayaking are also activities that keep me moving. I have always worked hard physically.
I realized that at age 71, I was slowing down and had concerns about how my body would perform on such a long endeavor. Did you train for this hike? Since I am physically active, I did not train for this adventure. Mental toughness is probably more important than the physical aspect. I was conscious of staying positive each day, as the trail does not change to meet your needs.
What kind of shoes did you wear?
Starting the trail I wore LL Bean Cresta Goretex lined boots, as I thought I might experience snow at the higher elevations early in the season. As it turned out, I did not need the boots and my feet were always wet from sweat, even though I wore wool socks and sock liners. On Easter Sunday morning at I-26 “Quiet Paul” was cooking breakfast for hikers and I stopped to eat with him. While sitting there he says “Young lady, you need to get rid of those boots.” He told me I needed trail runners which weigh less, are dryer on the feet, and water runs out of the shoes easily, as I would be in water a lot, and that I would need more flexibility on the Pennsylvania rocks. I took his advice and purchased trail runner shoes in Damascus, VA, and have I never gone back to boots except in winter hiking.
What about food?
Early in the hike I used a 2 oz. alcohol stove to cook my food, but I sent the cooking gear home in Damascus, VA. I ate good meals when I went to town for resupply. One day I ate an entire blueberry pie with ice cream. Otherwise I ate whatever I could find in the stores that did not have to be cooked, like dehydrated beans for burritos plus a fresh onion, bell pepper and cheese. I ate a lot of cheese. Couscous rehydrated in cold water with half a chopped apple and walnuts. I used dates and nuts or any dried fruit I could get. I also ate pepperoni, cream cheese, and boiled eggs, which can usually be found at convenience stores. I always left town with a couple cups of yogurt and fresh fruit. I also ate energy bars, granola bars, Snickers, peanut butter, and Gorp. The longest stretch without resupply was the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine, but I did that in six days. Five thousand to 6,000 calories a day are needed to sustain a long distance hike. Overall, I lost 30-35 pounds.
What were some of your biggest challenges on the AT?
Although my backpack never weighed more than 30 pounds, just hiking over very steep, rough, rocky, and muddy terrain with that attachment on my back was very tiring. The only time I didn’t carry my pack was for one day when I was recovering from Giardia [intestinal parasite]. On that day, I left Woods Hole Hostel and a guest there delivered my backpack to Pearisburg, VA, where I met her and picked up my pack.
Mice also chewed up my socks early in the hike in Georgia, which taught me to take care in avoiding those little critters. Two or three days of continuous rain can also take a toll on your emotional well being. When I experienced difficult times or felt really down, I would encounter something whether it be a pretty flower, beautiful scene, pretty butterfly, or small red spotted newt that would make me smile, and I would know why I was on the trail.
What was the most frightening experience you had?
Storms were definitely a fear, as well as high winds. It was very unnerving when, on two occasions, a tree fell in the woods a few feet from me. On Albert Mountain, I crouched low on the ground on the balls of my feet as lightening came down around me, and I refused to climb higher until the storm had passed. I was fortunate in not having a lot of snow in 2012.I had two very cold nights on the trail where I could not get warm.
What was the most difficult section of the trail?
The AT has numerous very rocky sections and much elevation gain and loss. I reached the boulder area [on Mt. Katahdin], which is about 2 miles from the finish…and I am stopped in my tracks. These boulders are car size and house size, and I can’t get up onto one of the large ones. I stood there and wanted to cry.
A young man approaches and asks, “Mamaw, do you need some help?” With him standing behind me but never touching me, I am able to get up onto that boulder. I have encountered this psychological factor previously where I cannot do something when alone, but in the presence of someone, the object is surmountable or the fears overcome.
What were some of the most memorable experiences you had on the hike?
I don’t believe anyone has ever had as much fun as I did hiking the AT. I never felt threatened or in danger on the trail. Although I hiked the trail alone, I hiked with other hikers a lot of the time. Rainbow, Nutter Butter and I [Mamaw B] hiked [intermittently] together from Northern Virginia to Vermont and Maine respectively before separating. [We] had so much fun that sometimes we had to separate in order to hike, or otherwise we were on the ground laughing.
Since you carry everything you need on your back, you do not have many clothes. Putting on damp or wet clothes at 5 a.m. is not a pleasant experience but one gets used to it. I was staying in a motel in Virginia and put my clothes in the washer with the soap and the washer later malfunctioned. The repairman…didn’t show up. I ended up walking a half-mile down a busy four-lane highway to do grocery shopping and to eat dinner in a restaurant in my long underwear. I would never do that at home, but on the trail you adapt.
What about wildlife?
Hiking near the Blue Ridge Parkway, I picked out a small log to sit on, and I did look before sitting down. A man comes along and stops to chat, and I notice he is not looking at me but beside me. He said, “Don’t be afraid but you have company.” I look and there is the biggest, black snake crawling out from under that log. I don’t know how he could have been there and I didn’t see him, but he was beautiful and we enjoyed playing with him before we let him go.
I encountered seven bears on this long adventure, but they were not really a danger. One day, I saw something move up ahead of me and then recognized it was a very large black bear. I get out my camera, and I am trying to find him in the telephoto lens, and I see him get up and move down the trail towards me. He moves closer and finally moves off the trail. I finally see him rise up above the vegetation, and I raise my camera up high to get a photo. I swear this bear hissed at me, and I knew that was my warning that I am a threat to him and need to move on.
How did this hike change you?
I can’t say I experienced a great epiphany, but I am sure that I am changed for having enjoyed this experience. I have developed arthritis since I hiked the AT, and I currently have some trouble walking. In 2013, I tried to hike the Continental Divide, but my legs became a problem and I left the trail. What advice would you give to others regarding aging and fulfilling goals? I enjoy trying to inspire others to live their dreams. I leave you with this thought from Albert Einstein: “The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been.”
Photos courtesy of Barbara Allen.
© Joanna Henning, 2015.