BRISTOL — Of the people who begin hiking the Appalachian Trail with the intention of covering the entire thing, only one in four complete it. Most are young, recent college graduates, students taking a gap year, all with young joints and plenty of energy.
Not many 56-year-old women attempt the nearly 2,200-mile, 14-state trek, let alone complete it.
Mount Abraham guidance counselor Deb Van Schaack did just that, and completed the nearly five-month walk this past July 28. Clearly a person of strong will and healthy body, she said she could not have done it without the support of those along the trail.
“The whole Appalachian Trail subculture — people giving rides, feeding you, all the support back home — there was kindness every step of the way,” Van Schaack said.
The Starksboro resident has always been an outdoorsy person.
“Hiking has always been an interest of mine, but I never got into backpacking until 2005, when I started to hike the Long Trail,” Van Schaack said.
She and a friend hiked the 272-mile Long Trail (which runs along the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border) in three sections over three summers, finishing in 2007. Invigorated, Van Schaack set her sights on a bigger prize.
“I wanted something larger — the Appalachian Trail was that next step,” Van Schaack said.
At first, Van Schaack sought a hiking partner. Her husband, John Miller, had a bad hip and could not withstand the journey, and the friend she hiked the Long Trail with was unable to join her. Years passed and Van Schaack still had no plan — she wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail by the time she was 55, and by 2012 she had reached that age. Then, Van Schaack made a decision — she would hike the trail alone.
“I realized a lot of people hike the trail alone,” Van Schaack said. “You hike all day at your own pace, and it’s often better to be by yourself. I’ve always been interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail, I just never had the confidence to do it on my own.”
The Appalachian Trail runs 2,185 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail was gradually constructed throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and Earl Shaffer became the first person to through-hike the trail in 1948.
Van Schaack, who has worked at Mount Abraham since 2000, took a leave of absence from the school last spring to attempt the long walk. She flew to Georgia March 7 and began her trek the following day. She met up with a group of women around her age that she had found on a hiking forum. Only a quarter of all hikers are women.
See Van Schaack's photos from her journey here
It became clear very quickly how arduous hiking the Appalachian Trail would be. After two nights, five of the women in Van Schaack’s group dropped out. Van Schaack hiked with another woman for eight days until that woman injured her knee and had to quit.
But Van Schaack emphasized that one is never truly alone on the trail.
“There’s such a fluid hiking community,” she said, adding that she would meet up with different people or groups and hike for long periods of time.
Van Schaack said the hikers on the trail come from all walks of life, though the largest demographic is recent college graduates. She said a subculture exists on the Appalachian Trail. For example, every hiker has a trail name.
“You have to give one to yourself or see what people come up with for you,” Van Schaack explained.
She opted to choose her own, Lady Grey, after her love for tea. Others she encountered went by Mr. Frodo — a man who wore a ring around his neck — Maineaic (he was from Maine), Wild Blue, Rainbow Braid and Dragonstick. Hikers would use these names at all times when on the trail, even when signing trail logs.
“It’s all part of the trail etiquette,” Van Schaack said.
The use of pseudonyms in fact made it difficult for Van Schaack to connect with trailmates afterwards.
“I’d get these friend requests on Facebook and I had no idea what these people’s real names were until then,” she said.
Van Schaack averaged 15-20 miles a day, depending on weather and terrain. She did one “marathon day” of 26 miles. Hikers also take “zero days” to rest up.
New Hampshire and Maine were the toughest parts of the trail, Van Schaack said, owing to the steep, rocky landscape.
“I loved Virginia — the trail goes through 500 miles there, and people get what’s called the ‘Virginia Blues,’” she said. “My favorite was the spectacular views in the mountains in Maine.”
Van Schaack had never been to Georgia, Tennessee or North Carolina, and said she enjoyed the beauty of them all. But it wasn’t all meadows and butterflies — she recalled the stretch in Pennsylvania with a mixture of scorn and disappointment.
“It’s filled with rocks, there are no good views, and there are ticks and rattlesnakes,” Van Schaack said.
It was near Hot Springs, N.C., that Van Schaack had her closest brush with danger. She departed in the rain, which quickly turned to freezing rain.
“Soon I was soaked, and I was not well prepared,” Van Schaack said. “My fingers stopped working, but the next shelter wasn’t for 11 miles and I had to push through it. I wasn’t thinking clearly and I may have been borderline hypothermic.”
Van Schaack learned from the mistakes she made — not immediately changing into proper clothing — and vowed not to repeat them.
She had another close call when she was nearly caught in a thunderstorm while summiting New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, but managed to get below the treeline before the maelstrom.
“Wet rocks are the most persistent danger,” Van Schaack said. “One slip and you could be done.”
While hiking by herself for fivemonths, Van Schaack said she had no bad experiences with people or wildlife.
“I got tired of people asking me, ‘Don’t tell me you’re hiking alone?’ or, ‘Is your husband OK with you doing this?’” she said. “I was polite to them but I was irritated — the whole time I never had any unsafe feelings, never had any scary people encounters and I only spent one night alone.”
Van Schaack said she wanted to dispel the myth that it is unsafe for women to hike alone.
“The odds of you being unsafe are greater in a city,” Van Schaack said. “The trail is a pretty safe place to be.”
Since Van Schaack had already hiked the Vermont and Massachusetts sections of the Appalachian Trail, she skipped them on her hike this summer.
Throughout her journey, Van Schaack kept a trail journal online. She wrote a new entry most days on her iPhone, and would post to the site whenever cell service permitted.
“Because I was a woman in my 50s — not the typical demographic for an Appalachian Trail hiker — the journal took on a life of its own,” Van Schaack said. “I got comments from all over the country, and I didn’t want to let readers down.”
Van Schaack also kept in touch with Megan and Casey Ogden, two 2012 Mount Abraham graduates who were hiking the trail ahead of her.
Van Schaack said that texts from friends and family kept her spirits up. She also cherished “trail magic” — random acts of kindness performed by hikers and those who live near the trail.
Van Schaack recounted how a couple in Waynesboro, Pa., put her up and fed her and other hikers for several nights.
Despite all the well-wishes, Van Schaack said the urge to quit was constant.
“For the first part of the trail, once I day I thought ‘I could be home on my recliner watching Netflix,’” she said. “You think you’re going to find all this inspiration on the trail, but mostly you’re just thinking survival thoughts, like when your next meal is going to be.”
Van Schaack said on the trail your body learns what it is capable of.
“Once you know you can do it, you want to see it through,” she said.
She described the percentage of time she was having fun as “less than half — it’s mostly sheer perseverance.”
On July 28, Van Schaack reached the peak of Mt. Katahdin to complete her journey, just in time to return home for her husband’s hip surgery. Her trail log tells about the flood of emotions that her final ascent brought forth:
“At that point the tears started, although I held it together as I crested the top with the group of day hikers looking on. One of them said ‘congrats, you made it,’ and that’s when the tears started again. I told them I’d come from Georgia and this was the end of a long journey and then there was lots of cheering and questions. One of them said, ‘Did you bring a beer to celebrate on the top?’, and I told them I hadn’t, but I had carried up a Maine whoopie pie!”
Van Schaack encourages others to attempt the Appalachian Trail or other long distance hikes, and offered some advice.
“Just do it — it’s important to go in knowing what to expect,” Van Schaack said. “Do smaller hikes and test your equipment. It’s not just all fun.”
Van Schaack said the most important thing she learned is the importance of setting big goals for ourselves, no matter what we choose to do.
“You’re capable of more than you think,” she said.
View Van Schaack’s trail journal at www.trailjournals.com/location.cfm?trailname=14041.