A Woman Hikes the Appalachian Trail Alone


(This column was first published in the March 4, 2002 Buffalo News.)


Meeting her for the first time, no one would ever guess that Ellen Gibson is an Appalachian Trail hiker.


She's petite, no more than an inch or two over five feet, any pounds over one hundred not showing. And, although you'd never guess, she's old enough to have retired as head of the University at Buffalo law library.


But she is indeed an AT hiker, known better to other hikers by her trail name, "Two Hats".


The Appalachian Trail is 2100 miles long, running from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Hiking for a total of 14 weeks over three years, Ellen has covered 860 of those miles. She has completed the trail in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina and has made her way well into Virginia. In another five week hike this coming April and May, she hopes to complete Virginia, the tiny Maryland section, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, ending at the New York border.


Notice that I have used the singular pronoun in that record. Indeed, almost all of those miles Ellen hiked alone. Her husband Jim is also a hiker but he had his fill of backpacking in the army. He has, however, accompanied Ellen on some AT day hikes, especially in bear country.


Ellen and I met for lunch last week and she brought along some of her records and equipment. Hikers will appreciate her cooking tools. Her complete set must weigh no more than a pound or two. The main reason: she doesn't carry one of those propane or white gas cook stoves. Instead she uses Esbit cubes, a hotter burning replacement for the Sterno that didn't work for me.


She also no longer carries a tent. Like my friend Jim DeWan, she sleeps under a thin tarp, hers just 8 by 8 feet.


Even with those savings, however, Ellen's trail pack weighs 35 pounds, at least a third of her own weight. So she's already preparing for this year's hike. She uses exercise equipment and is working up to her weight load on local hikes. She's already carrying 20 pounds.


At my request Ellen described her usual day on the trail. She awakens at about 5:00 a.m. to enjoy the dawn chorus of birds and frogs and insects. Not an early riser she crawls out of her sleeping bag at about 7:00, heats coffee and on some mornings cereal, packs, and sets off. Although her hiking is goal directed -- she carefully organizes her itinerary beforehand and mails supplies to post offices along her route - she enjoys side trips, especially to waterfalls. Thus she often finds herself a few miles off schedule.


She stops for lunch and then again at about 4:00 p.m. for a bracing snack of coffee enriched with one of those vanilla or chocolate "total breakfast" drinks. That jolt carries her well into the evening. She finally stops to eat and camp, on good days as late as 9:00 p.m.


She also described hiking problems. Ellen's April and May trips invite cold and rain -- the Smokies having contributed their usual gloom. Blackflies, no-see-ums and mosquitoes irritate. Foot problems develop and require treatment. But she slogs on.


To many that will sound like hard work and little fun. To Ellen it is instead a voyage of discovery. Her enthusiasm lights up her eyes as she describes the beautiful views and the wildflowers, birds and even snakes she encounters. And she also carries with her the lasting friendships she has made with other hikers.


This elegant woman, Ellen Gibson, is a perfect advertisement for long distance hiking.-- Gerry Rising