A Walk in the Woods

On the Appalachian Trail with Bennet, Click!, MacGyver, Machine, and Yoda.

Each of us had a reason to bail: family, work, bad knees, bad news. To boot, seven of the 20 miles we’d planned to trek during a three-day FitMawrter backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail were engulfed by a 40-acre wildfire. The re-routed hike was steeper and higher but more beautiful, our Blue Ridge Hiking Company guide assured us as we stuffed 30-pound packs at Laughing Heart Lodge in Hot Springs, North Carolina. And we’re Mawrters after all, so we set off on May Day weekend to hike this section that Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) skipped in favor of Virginia’s flatter terrain.

Our guide Caet Cash, a good-humored women’s college graduate who’d thru-hiked the AT and Pacific Crest Trail—solo, in a tennis dress—advised, “You carry your fears on the trail.” Hers was hunger (thus, our food supply included cookies, chips and guacamole, dehydrated mushroom risotto, and pad Thai). We unpacked our fears—bears, bugs, lightning, keeping up—across 21 miles, from just north of Davenport Gap (near the northern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains) to Roaring Fork Shelter, over Snowbird Mountain and Max Patch Summit, following Caet and Irene Segal Ayers ’82, our spiritual guide.

My modest goal was not to whine. As in college, I was inspired by my colleagues: impressively fit, intrepid Irene; Joy Westdorp ’89, whose name describes her outlook; Celeste Provost ’89, a walking podcast of captivating stories; Heather Marks ’91, equipped for any contingency with remedies pulled from a Mary Poppins pouch; day-hiker Abigail Bordeaux ’96, who packed light for her separate trip to Lover’s Leap, leaving her fear of heights behind. We learned to store important things in a backpack’s “brains,” identify wildflowers, filter stream water, pitch tents, and hoist a bear bag. Following a “reading period” of adjusting loads and pace, we were prepared for the final exam: overnight camping in a thunderstorm. 

We survived. On May Day, we descended in misty rain—resilient, with new trail names we’d signed in the shelter’s logbook under our motto, No Mawrter left behind:  Bennet, Click!, MacGyver, Machine, and Yoda.