(Editor’s Note: First, sorry for the title, I just couldn’t resist. Ever since Gov. Sanford’s little excursion I’ve been waiting to use that line! Second, I need to explain this guest post. Cary Segall is a friend of mine who is currently hiking the Appalachian Trail – for real. During his hike he’s run into some interesting people but the dispatch below is the most fascinating and I couldn’t resist sharing this family’s story with a broader audience. Plus, Cary qualifies as an honorary legal geek. He’s a former lawyer and reporter who is also a running and hiking geek. And, as I’ll cover in future posts, there are legal issues tied up in both running and hiking but, for now, you just need to read this piece about a mom and her two amazing kids.)
Somewhere on the Appalachian Trail, July 2014, by Cary Segall: When hikers see Lisa Murray and her 4-year-old twins on the Appalachian Trail, they smile. Then, they gape in astonishment when they learn that Murray and the twins, who were 3 when they started their hike on May 4, are backpacking nearly 1,020 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Harper’s Ferry, W.V. “So many people will say, ‘You’re just out for a day hike.’ They’re seeing me from the front and not seeing my pack,” Murray says. I say, ‘No, not actually, we’ve come from Springer.’ Then, there’ll just be silence. They’re like, ‘Oh, really?’ I always hear in the distance: ‘Did you hear how far that woman came?!” On Wednesday, Murray, 46, of Naples, Fla. and her fraternal twins, Tess and Cole, who are quickly becoming legends on the trail, had come about 724 miles, and were approaching the city of Daleville, in southwest Virginia. This reporter, who’s also backpacking the trail, hiked with them for two days to see them in action for himself.
Murray, who’s 5-foot-10 and weighs about 145, says she doesn’t know, or want to know, how much her backpack weighs. But she’s carrying equipment and supplies for three, and her pack is obviously one of the heaviest, if not the heaviest, on the trail.
After she bought five days worth of food from a grocery store, and somehow crammed the supplies into her pack, it was hard to even budge off the ground. The pack seemed to weigh more than twice as much as the 30 to 35 pounds of a typical fully-loaded pack on the trail. And it will be even heavier, if Murray needs to carry another gallon of water, which weighs 8.34 pounds, because many of the water sources in Virginia are drying up.
But, she says: “My pack doesn’t bother me — the weight of it. It’s manageable. Only on extreme uphills; then it bothers me. Or when carrying an extra gallon of water swinging on the back.”
Tess, who weighs 37 pounds, and Cole, who weighs 40, wear daypacks that weigh about five pounds each. They carry sleeping pads; water; the blankets they’ve slept with since they were babies; two toy cars for Cole; and an “Aristocat” doll for Tess.
The twins celebrated their fourth birthdays a day late on May 20 at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, 137.3 trail miles from Springer. Murray says they all had two full meals in the center’s restaurant; then dessert with candles, and everyone in the place sang “Happy Birthday.”
Tess and Cole seem to be having a great time and hike quickly over a trail that’s often rocky and has steep climbs and descents; up and down mountains. So, even though their feat seems incredible, when they’re seen in action, it’s easy to understand how they and their mom, who all wear running shoes, usually hike 10 to 14 miles a day. “Up and down, up and down. Rock steps,” Tess says with a lilt in her voice. “Tunnel,” they both say, when the trail is enclosed by rhododendrons. “Slide,” they yell, when one or the other occasionally slips and falls backward onto the trail. Then, they get up and happily hike onward. They often stop for the butterfly wings and bird feathers they collect, and stuff them in the back of their packs.
Tess says her favorite part of the trip has been “seeing the horses” at Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia, where there are wild ponies. Cole says he loves “the flat,” referring to the few times when the trail’s not going either up or down.” Lisa says all three of them like the open spaces when they hike through an occasional pasture, prairie, or mountain bald. Cole, who walks with kid-size hiking poles, “must fall 20 times a day,” says Murray. “Cole’s always falling, because he has to look at everything else but where he’s going, but never hurts himself.”
Tess, who doesn’t use poles, falls about twice a day, Murray says. “They just kind of bounce because they’re so low to the ground,” she says. But she adds that Tess did get hurt once when she banged her lip while she was scrambling over rocks on a strenuous mountain climb and somersaulted backward before Murray caught her. “They’re little daredevils,” says Murray, who keeps them well back from cliffs that provide beautiful views, and is afraid of heights herself.
That fear, though, as well as the age of the twins and the many people who advised her not to attempt the trip, didn’t keep her from trying to tackle the trail she was inspired to hike after seeing a National Geographic special about six years ago on the AT, which stretches 2,185.3 miles from Springer to Katahdin in Baxter State Park in northern Maine. It runs through 14 states and is administered by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for the National Park Service. “I filed it in the back of my mind that that was something I wanted to so someday,” says Murray, a single mom who has a master’s degree in education, but cleans houses, instead of teaching, because she wants to care for her kids full time. She brings them with her on the job. She says she thought of hiking the entire trail this year after seeing how much the twins loved hiking many miles along the Gulf Coast beach in Naples, in southwest Florida. Murray says she brought Tess and Cole hiking with her because they got too heavy to push in a stroller, and she needed exercise. They did six miles at first; when they started doing 10, she says, she started thinking of taking them on the trail. “That’s how I judged that it was a rational thing that could happen,” she says. “Then, we would walk in dry sand to make it more intense. We did six, and then ten. It was still working. Murray, who had camped with the twins, but never backpacked, says that in February she called the conservancy, which is headquartered in Harpers Ferry, to get the names of parents who had hiked the trail, or large parts of it, with young children, so that she could get their advice. She says all of the children had been 10 to 12, except for one 8-year-old who had hiked the entire trail in one year, which is called thru-hiking.
Murray says she didn’t know then about the youngest person to thru-hike the trail. He’s Christian “Buddy Backpacker” Thomas, of Crested Butte, Colorado, who was 5 when he hiked the trail with his parents from April of last year to January. He and his parents hiked the trail in a variety of directions for the best weather, called flip flops. But, unlike Murray, they didn’t always carry all of their equipment in backpacks. The parents used their Jeep Cherokee to move some camping equipment and food to the many spots where the trail crosses a road.
Laurie Potteiger, information service manager at the conservancy, said last week that she knows of no children as young as the twins who have hiked a large section of the trail.
“It’s certainly quite unusual,” Potteiger says.
She says two-6-year-old boys have also hiked the entire trail in a year, as part of a family.
But she says the conservancy doesn’t publicize such young hikers or promote such hikes because it doesn’t want to encourage people who might be unprepared to try the same thing.
“It should only be undertaken by parents who are very experienced in backpacking,” Potteiger says. “With children, you don’t want to take the same risks that adults would take. We encourage families with young children to explore the AT, but start off small with day hikes.”
Potteiger says the trail can be dangerous for young children and for anyone who isn’t prepared for the weather, the rugged terrain and the remoteness of some sections.
“It’s remarkable how many people hike the AT with no experience,” she says.
Potteiger says 2,500 people who planned to hike from Springer to Katahdin started the trail this year and that 1,194 had reached Harpers Ferry by July 8. About half of those are expected to make it to Katahdin. A much smaller number hike southbound from Katahdin and others do a variety of flip-flops.
Many who plan to start at Springer quit on the strenuous 8.8-mile approach trail from Amicalola Falls State Park, says Dave Levy, who drives people who fly into Atlanta to the park in northwest Georgia, and drives them back to the airport when they drop out. About 20 percent quit after climbing and descending the eight mountains in the 31.7 miles between Springer Mountain and Neel Gap, Levy says.
Murray says nearly everyone she called for advice told her not to do it. “When I told the people I called the ages of my children, all of them, except one, expressed major doubt about 3-year-olds on the trail,” she says. The one is Dennis Pendleton, of Delray Beach, Fla. who thru-hiked the AT with his son when he was 10, Murray says.
“He was super positive,” she says. I think he’s just that way. He really encouraged us to give it a whirl. ‘What do you have to lose?’ he asked. ‘You can always come back.’ ” She says Pendleton became her mentor and advised her on every detail during several phone conversations. In April, she says, she decided for sure to do the hike, despite the doubts of her friends and relatives. “I had a bunch of doubters,” she says. “They already knew I was out-of-the box. I’ve always surprised people with my choices. The one who was most worried was my 20-year-old son.” But they couldn’t dissuade her, she says, and she bought a backpack, sleeping bags and pads, a tent, backpacking stove and other necessary equipment.
Then, she convinced her ex-husband, who was also worried, to let their 10-year-old son, Tuck, hike with her and the twins until he had to start a sailing camp taught by his dad. The twins’ father is out of the picture.
Chad, the 20-year-old, drove the four of them, along with Murray’s two chihuahua-mix mutts to the Springer trailhead, on a remote National Forest Service road, so they didn’t hike the approach trail. He then hiked with them for three days to Neel Gap before hiking back for the car, and then meeting the hikers to get the dogs.
Tuck hiked 467 miles to Damascus, Va., and was upset when he had to leave, Murray says. “Tuck was crying when he left us,” she says. “He didn’t want to go. He could go the whole way. He was slowed down by us.”
She says there were about 20 people planning to thru-hike who left Springer with them, and they didn’t expect them to keep hiking and make it to the next shelter, often about eight to 10 miles apart along the trail. Many of the hikers stop each night to either sleep in a three-sided shelter, or in a tent or hammock nearby. There are more than 250 shelters along the trail and nearly all of them are close to a water source, such as a spring or stream.
“At the end of every day, they were surprised that we would make it again. They were astonished,” she says. “A lot of them were college kids who were kind of surprised we were still hanging with them. Humbling, I guess. Starting in mid-May, I think they expected us to show up every day. But then they got their trail legs and took off.” Nearly all of the hikers either give themselves a trail name, or are given one by others. Hikers dubbed her “Mama Bear” and the twins the “Cubs.”Cole named himself Strong Man, while Tess chose “Little Butt,” before recently changing it to “Strawberry Shortcake” because she loves the character, and strawberries, too. Murray says one hiker she met at Springer, called “Puddin,” “had a belly like Santa Claus.”
“He said he was going all the way and we said we were out here for at least a few months,” Murray says. “We sized each other up the first day. We looked at each other and thought, no way.” When they all reached Damascus together, after seeing each other nearly every day on the trail, Puddin’s belly was mostly gone, she says, and they laughed about their initial impressions. She had planned to go all the way with the twins, too, she says, and figured she could make it by mid-October, when all but the last of the thru-hikers have climbed Katahdin, by averaging 15 miles a day on days the trio hiked, and also taking occasional days off, what hikers call zero days. “In theory, the math makes sense,” she says. “But, in reality, when you’re on the trail, you realize how hard it is, at least for us, to keep that pace day after day.” So she’s set her sights on Harpers Ferry and says she’s enjoying the experience.
“It’s a challenge,” Murray says. “I enjoy seeing new things every day and not knowing what the day will bring. I enjoy meeting the people and the small towns.” She also says she thinks the hike has been great for the twins and she doesn’t think it’s been dangerous.
“Really, when you think about it,” she says, “it’s more dangerous when you put kids in a car and take them to a mall, or on vacation.”
And she says she thinks the twins will remember the hike, despite their age. “I think they’ll remember, only because it’s such a large chunk of time; and the photos; and people will talk about it,” she says. “It teaches the children that they can experience things that aren’t the norm, and persevere.”