A boomer’s discovery on the Appalachian Trail

Okay, so someone in his eighties isn’t exactly a baby boomer. But this is a story about an older guy who acts like one and outperforms most. It comes to us from Clare Garfield of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and it’s about who’s hiking the arduous Appalachian Trail.

The anticipation built as my friend Marlene and I waited at the top of a steep hill on the Appalachian Trail. We were waiting for “Greybeard,” a.k.a. Dale Sanders, to appear. Every time we heard rustling in the woods we got excited. Was it really him? At 82, Dale is the oldest hiker ever to complete a “thru-hike” of the Appalachian Trail, meaning he hiked all 2,091 miles of it in less than a year. This was only days before he finished his historic journey less than a week before Halloween, and we were fortunate enough to meet him on a section of the trail near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where we live.

Dale Sanders, oldest man to hike the Hiker Clare Garfield meets the oldest man to hike the Appalachian Trail.

We had been following Dale’s progress for months, which was pretty easy because he wore a GPS tracker while he hiked. But it was still thrilling to finally see him, with his long white beard, heading up the hill. He was happy to be greeted so warmly. Often, the younger thru-hikers, many of whom are attempting to complete the trail in about five months, do not take the time to stand around chatting— they are focused on maintaining their pace and reaching the northernmost point of the trail, which is Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Dale, however, was delighted to talk. Trotting to keep up, we accompanied him for about three miles to a spot where a friend of his was meeting him to bring him lunch.

Clare’s hiking friend Marlene Mahoney with Dale Sanders.

In his lilting southern drawl, Dale told us about some of his previous adventures, including paddling the entire length of the Mississippi River in one trip as a youngster… when he was only 80. Dale also shared with us not just the physical, but also the psychological challenges of undertaking such a long solo trip. He said, “No one can explain to you how hard this is.” There were times when he had to take breaks due to illness or fatigue and when he doubted his ability to complete the trail, but he kept returning. There have been many articles in the news in the past few years about how important it is to cultivate resilience in ourselves—clearly Greybeard possesses a great amount of it.

Clare with friends.

My friends and I started “section-hiking” the Appalachian Trail ourselves a couple of years ago and have completed it in five of the fourteen states that the trail traverses. We have had our own challenges due to sprained ankles, food poisoning, discouragement on especially difficult climbs and descents, and hiking in the snow and rain. We wonder sometimes if we will be able to finish the trek before we are no longer physically able.

But the next time we hit the trail, I know that we will be inspired by the memory of Greybeard climbing the mountain towards us with a spring in his step and a smile on his face. We will keep pursuing our path.

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12 Comments

  1. I love this – how I wish for this kind of vigor and personal passion, now, let alone at 80. Congratulations, Clare, on pushing yourself to such physical feats as well – it’s terrific on so many levels. Great article!!!

  2. Clare,
    Your story certainly helps me replay in my mind this most wonderful moment.
    So glad I was hiking with you and we were able to do some of Greybeard’s last miles of his through hike.

  3. Clare, you certainly have a gift for story telling. I hope that you tell us more about your time with Dale. I bet he told you many interesting and inspiring stories. Thanks so much for giving us a taste of such a special adventure.

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