• Mary Anderson

End of the Trail

The ability to loco-mote is an amazing skill, and being able to walk is really a miraculous thing. It takes a lot of body parts working together to make it happen: brain, muscles, bones, nerves. Truly it is a miracle equal to most feats of engineering that so many creatures are able to walk. I am grateful to be one of them. I hope I never take it for granted. Having spent some time in my life unable to walk, I want to tip my hat to those who loco-mote using wheelchairs or other assistive devices. The difficulties I faced on the trail are nothing compared to those you face in everyday life. Just trying to get over the humps on so-called wheelchair-accessible ramps, or to reach the shower handle that is too far off the ground in a supposedly accessible shower equals climbing the biggest of mountains.

One amazing thing about walking is what can happen one step at a time. I seldom cover more than two linear feet with one of my steps. Often it is less. Yet, by continuing to put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again, I eventually find I have covered over 3,000 miles of some of the most spectacular land in this country. If you add up all of my hiking miles it is well over 16,000. How does that happen?

It started for me with a connection I made with nature as a two-year-old girl. By then I already knew that the trees and flowers and sunsets were what was keeping me alive. I was being abused at home and had no person I could turn to. Praying didn't seem to do me any good. I was certain even God had abandoned me. The only thing that stopped my pain was the beauty of the sunsets, the gentleness of the flowers, and the strength of the trees, which I hugged for comfort. Experiencing these things gave me a spark of hope that maybe I was not all bad and could continue to live.

I was 13 years old when I first heard of the Appalachian Trail. I met two people hiking it from Georgia to Maine, and a dream for me was born. I would do that someday.

“Someday” came when I was a confused college dropout. I had no sense of direction and was totally lost. I was on the verge of suicide after once again failing to please even God by dropping out of Mother Teresa’s convent. I was overwhelmed, living in an infamous transient hotel in New York City, trying to do what I could for those less fortunate than I. I tried my hand doing mission work in Harlan County, Kentucky, and although the people were kind and generous, I still felt totally lost and alone. So I turned to the trail.

I first hiked the Long Trail in Vermont from north to south by myself. Then I completed my first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. It was then I learned about the Pacific Crest Trail and the beginnings of the Continental Divide Trail. I vowed to do those as well.

I returned to college, and using my hiking experiences, I pieced together a degree in psychology, environmental education, and elementary education. I married a man who liked to hike. Hiking and the fact that we had both lost a parent at a young age and were lonely and lost were some of the very few things we had in common.

I endured a stint as a navy wife and worked in the early 1980s in schools with kids with special needs. Then my first husband and I set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. En route to the trail, I was injured and required back surgery. I was told I had to give up hiking. Ignoring that medical advice I did my own rehab and within a year of the surgery I had hiked the AT a second time, through the entire winter. I followed this up with a hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, buying and running a farm, and having a baby. Any one of those events would have stressed a good marriage. Mine toppled into tiny pieces, and I spent the next bunch of years as a single parent trying to figure out what I had done wrong and how not to repeat those mistakes. When I left the farm I was afraid for my safety, and I took very little with me. I first lived with my son in a homeless shelter and then in some pretty scary, cheap apartments.

I loved being a mom, though it was made difficult by the fact that along with being a poor single woman I was in the throes of really coming to grips with my painful childhood. I learned about posttraumatic stress and dissociation and saw how it affected me. Focusing on raising my son kept me alive. I homeschooled him, and we did a lot of hiking together. By the time he was ten he had a few thousand miles under his feet.

My son went off to college, and I went down into the depths of my pain, determined to clear it out or die. I did not want to live with it any longer. I thought I succeeded. I learned to let down my walls and make real connections with people, even when it terrified me. I married a second time and together we built our dream house. Board by board, nail by nail, we did it all. I was happy. Although he liked to hike, he had no interest in the Continental Divide Trail, so I gave up my dream of hiking it. I hiked what he wanted to hike and let it be enough.

Then I arrived home to a house that looked like it had been robbed. He was gone without even a note. He completely emptied our main bank account. I got shutoff notices for electricity and insurances and endured a conversation with his very unpleasant lawyer threatening me and calling me names. I was floored by the extent to which this threw me back into my childhood trauma. I put a rope over a beam, the other end around my neck, and I prepared to jump.

“But wait,” some voice told me. “You have not yet hiked the Continental Divide Trail.” So with some reluctance i removed the rope and began planning for my hike. Despite obstacles put in my path by lawyers I persevered. I hiked the southern 1,550 miles of the trail in 2020, crying much of he way. When asked my trail name, I replied that I was just an old lady hiking. “No way,” the twenty-somethings would reply. “You are badass.” They thought it amazing that I was hiking solo in my mid 60s. Most of them couldn’t fathom hiking the AT in winter, nor doing the PCT before there was GPS. I showed some of them how to use a compass. “Badass” was their reply.

And so I was named Mary Badass. But it was only a name. Even by the end of that 1,550-mile hike I still felt like a broken old lady swamped with emotional pain and wanting to die. I made a deal with those devastated parts. I would first finish hiking the northern half of the CDT. And I did want to write a book.

I returned home and was introduced to a writing group at the Kimball Library in Randolph, Vermont. How that happened is a story to be found elsewhere. It was a kind of backwards miracle, a result of an extremely difficult event that turned out better than I could have imagined. Sara Tucker, the leader of the group, took me under her wing and supported me throughout the entire winter as I wrote and wrote. It was another way I was saving myself. The words poured onto the page, and the first draft of a book was done in time for me to plan part two of the hike. Determined to support me, Sara raised some money so I would have the gear I really needed. Other people chipped in to pay for the satellite device and ensure that I could remain in contact with people. They did not want the second half of the hike to be as isolating as the first half had been, when I would go for up to 12 days without talking to another person. I also was able to purchase a mini iPad to carry with me. This would enable me to write while on trail. I was forced in first grade to write with my right hand, and to this day I have difficulty writing with a pen or pencil. I have to focus so much on forming the letters that I am unable to really write from my heart. Plus, most of what I write by hand is illegible even to me. Even though it weighed close to a pound in its protective case, I was willing to carry the iPad. It was a gift that allowed me to share my journey with all of you.

Which takes me to the real reason for this final piece of writing. As much as I was the one putting one foot in front of he other, there are so many people who helped me along the way, and I feel the accomplishment needs to be shared. I am grateful to those who conceived of and built these trails. I pray that protection of wild spaces continues to be a priority in this world.

I am grateful to those who gave me encouraging words, to those who fed me and opened their homes to me. I was given new clothes when mine fell apart. Some contributed to gear. Others to helping me be less alone through the satellite device. Some sent me food. Others gave me help when my body was in pain, talking me through exercises via the phone or in 160-character messages on the satellite device. Some gave me rides into and out of town, others took the time to read my blogs and let them mean something. One person played beautiful music for me that he composed and played on his trumpet. I was honored to be given food, conversation, and hugs by a family of six adopted kids who were all on the Aspberger’s spectrum. One friend made sure I knew where the fires were at all times and helped me plan routes around them, even though she was in Vermont. Others watched over my house in Vermont, and one friend was on call to send me supplies, like my second pair of boots, which I needed soon after Glacier. One person looked after my car and dealt with the insurance company after the deer damage. He and another friend took turns supporting me by car when I made my way along the trail using crutches. Those who housed me and contributed so that I could stay inside when in towns gave me a great gift. It allowed me to catch up on my writing and send out the blogs for the next section. It lessened the stress of being in town and enabled me to dry out my damp gear; to calorie-load; to recharge my phone, iPad and satellite device; and in the end to get a break from sleeping in below-freezing temps. All of this made such a difference. I am grateful to each and every one of you. Thank you for sharing this journey with me. Please feel free to stay in touch. My email is maa7591@gmail.com.

I don't know what is to come. Some have asked me if I will keep blogging. I don’t know, but I suspect for now I will take a break. To be honest it will take all my focus to transition from trail life to something else, whatever that ends up being. I am trying to take my lessons from the trail, to live by my own words. So for now, I am allowing myself to just drift in the moment without stressing about it. I have no idea what the future holds for me. I’ll let you know when I find out, one step at a time.

—Mary Anderson


Korongo wishes to thank Mary for sharing her story with us: Mary, you are one badass blogger! And to Mary’s friends, old and new: Thanks for joining us here. We hope you’ll stay with us as we continue to post Mary’s writing and photos from the CDT (she has a backlog!) and to update our readers about the progress of her book.

Below: A few of the many "trail angels" who supported Mary before, during, and after her hike.

Above: ”End of the Trail“ (30-sec video).

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