I wish I could have met Emma “Grandma” Gatewood. “Most people are pantywaist,” she said. “Exercise is good for you.”
Last year, I had to remind myself of this when I was hauling a 35-pound backpack, in 90-degree heat along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, with gnats just about eating my eyeballs out and sweat pouring down my legs.
I loved every single minute of it. Well, most of it.
Unlike Grandma Gatewood, I’ve only hiked a very small section of the AT. She did all 2,185 miles of it. Alone. At age 65. With a stuff sack over her shoulder and a pair of canvas sneakers. Then she did it two more times in her 70s, in addition to hiking the 2,000-some mile Oregon Trail to the west.
It’s not marathon running. It’s not a gold-cup game of some sort. But make no mistake: hiking and backpacking are definitely a means of physical fitness that can push anyone to their limits.
When I think about the happiest times in my life, they’ve always happened outside. Playing in spring downpours, sledding in winter, tubing and water skiing in summer, and what seemed like endless days playing in the woods behind my house in fall. I’ll admit that I don’t particularly love to exercise. Routines bog me down. Prescribed fitness programs are a total chore. Put me in a gym and I’m sure to fail. But stick me on a hiking path, and off I go.
For me, hiking and backpacking are the perfect solutions to being active without feeling as if I have to complete that dreaded routine work-out. Even the same trail, on the same day, provides a new experience each time, and nothing is routine when nature is calling the shots.
A great thing about hiking and backpacking is that it can be as easy or as difficult as you like.
Here in Northwest Indiana, I’ve strolled along the easy trail at Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve in Chesterton, and tackled the Three Dune Challenge at the Indiana Dunes State Park. Out East, the AT welcomed my footprints with its rocky terrain; bugs, bugs and more bugs; and the chance to take in our nation’s history at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, after spending the night camping riverside on the Shenandoah.
Like Grandma Gatewood, I prefer to backpack and hike alone, although I do enjoy short day hikes with family and friends. It’s great to meet people along the trail sometimes, too. Everyone has a story; we’re all fascinating in our own rites.
Someday, I’ll hike the AT from south to north in one fell swoop. It will take some planning. And some money (they say about $2-$4 per mile, not including gear). And probably a bit (okay, a lot) more training, because I’m not at my physical peak. But the good news is, there are lots of places to do that right here close to home.
I have a lot to learn. The trail has a lot to teach. Class has begun, and as Emma Gatewood said, “I want to see what’s on the other side of the hill… then what’s beyond that.” Me, too, Grandma Gatewood. Me, too.
Becoming Odyssa – by Jennifer Pharr-Davis
Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail – by Ben Montgomery
A Walk in the Woods – by Bill Bryson Wild – by Cheryl Strayed
Stacey’s favorite local trails Indiana Dunes State Park – Trail 8 – Three highest dunes in the park. Difficult.
Indiana Dunes State Park - Trail 10 to Trail 2 (although the boardwalk on Trail 2 is under repair now). Easy.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Cowles Bog Trail – Moderate
Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve – Easy Stacey’s favorite southern Indiana trails
Buffalo Trace (also mountain biking), French Lick – Moderate
Knobstone Trail, Clark County to Washington County – Moderate to Difficult