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Southbound on the Appalachian Trail

Hiker found solace in solitary walks, which led to grand undertaking

October 23, 2016

Nearly a dozen years ago before she took the first step of a 2,160-mile, 131-day walk, Heather Machelle had commenced a long, rewarding journey of a far different sort ~ the birth of a daughter.

The young mother had developed a bond with her child in utero, and for the first three months of Makayla Dawn’s life, Ms. Machelle reveled in their new life, watching her daughter awaken to a new world and the love of those around her.

Three months in, however, that journey ended abruptly, Makayla Dawn a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. And Ms. Machelle, who was 19 at the time, essentially buried the shock and sadness. “I kind of ignored it,” she recalls. “I wrapped it up and put it in my pocket. I didn’t really handle it.”

She filled the ensuing years with classes at Arkansas Tech, jobs in Wynne and in west Little Rock, and — three years ago — a move to northwest Arkansas to manage the bar at Mellow Mushroom in Rogers.

Separated from friends and family, and working long hours, she found solace on the trails in nearby forests. Sometimes her walks, in the company of Nasher, her 75-pound German shepherd/lab/pit bull mix, stretched over days. She relished the solitude of nature.

“I’d spent eight years not really processing what what had happened,” Ms. Machelle says. “Finding trails and finding the outdoors helped me kind of re-cope, or open that up, kind of process all of it.”

During those Ozark walks, Machelle resolved to one day push herself farther than she’d ever gone before. The goal was the Appalachian Trail, one of the world’s longest continuously marked footpaths, and for two years she planned and saved. About 3 million people annually walk portions of the “A.T.,” but she wanted to be one of the few to hike the entire mountainous path through 14 eastern states.

hike-3More than 15,000 people have completed this “thru-hike” since the trail opened in 1937, according to the non-profit Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Of those, thirty-five hikers were from Arkansas as of January, according to Laurie Potteiger, information services manager of the ATC.

Ms. Machelle began, by herself, near the hardest part of the trail — the especially rocky, mountainous terrain of Maine. She was attempting to become the fourth Arkansan to hike the trail north to south. Such hikers are known as southbounders.

Beginning on June 1, she had to summit a four-mile mountain, traipse through 100 miles of wilderness and go her first 11 days without a shower. “It broke me down,” she recalls. “On day three, I couldn’t walk and had to go down to four miles a day. I was walking with a trail pole like a walker essentially. So I got the trail name ‘Grandma.’”

Appalachian Trail tradition holds that long-distance hikers give each other such names. Often, in the wild, these monikers are the only names by which walking partners know each other. Trail names can change, too, which is what happened to Ms. Machelle when most of her new friends — folks like “Stitch,” “Sonic,” “Sarge,” and an 88-year-old retired dentist named “Mountain Dew” — dubbed her “Lavender” in a nod to the essential oil she carried.

Hospitality provided by “trail angels” is another cultural cornerstone of “A.T.” Locals along various points of the trail offer hot baths, hot meals, or simply good conversation. “Southern hospitality lives everywhere,” says Ms. Machelle, who contacted trail angels through phone numbers listed on cork boards at trail heads and signs in nearby libraries.

Ms. Machelle recalls a potluck at a church near the border of Delaware and Pennsylvania, and says other trail angels offer their homes or free transportation. “They’ll even cut your hair for you,” she said, referring to a woman in Hanover, New Hampshire, who did just that.  Ms. Machelle says she learned to lean on and trust others more than ever before.

She lived frugally, spending most nights in her tent in the woods near shelters, and eating Pop-Tarts for breakfast and Ramen noodles for dinner. But hiking a path that roughly equates to walking up and down Mt. Everest 16 times is tough work. Burning up to 5,000 calories a day, Ms. Machelle says she often thought of nothing more than making a beeline for the nearest restaurant buffet.

When no trail angels were available and cell phone reception allowed it, Ms. Machelle used the dating app Tinder to summon car rides off the trail and into town. On her profile, she laid out to prospective right-swipers exactly what she needed, and actually got six rides to or from town.

Once there, she and her new-found hiking friends had a clear objective: “All you want is food, and you want lots of it.” On the hike, she recalls, “I went to a Chinese Buffet twice, ate like five to seven plates of food. Miserable afterward.”

Similar feelings occurred at the “Half Gallon Challenge” roughly halfway through the hike, at the Pine Grove Furnace General Store in Pennsylvania.

The hike compelled Ms. Machelle to adapt to other kinds of pain. She gritted through tendinitis that developed in the mid-Atlantic states, and learned to enjoy stopping for conversations with random people along the way instead of fixating on how fast she could complete the trail. “I had to open my heart, stop, and slow down.”

And occasionally — not all the time, but sometimes — she thought of her daughter. “Nature helps with healing so much, I think, because you have this open area to kind of feel anything you want to,” she says. “It was that which kept me going back out.”

After Ms. Machelle’s journey ended on October 9, she returned to Bentonville, where she has a large network of friends, and is back at work, bartending, at Scotch & Soda on the square, and thinking often of her $3,000 adventure, which was money well spent. As she recently wrote on Facebook: “I miss every single ache, chafe, bug bite, rash, hunger, cold night, hot day, cold food, hot food, snake, bear, wind, rain, dirt, mud, grass, hill, mountain, silence, tear, laughter, hikers, etc.”


Heather Machelle at Springer Mountain, the end (or beginning) of the Appalachian Trail.

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Another story from the Appalachian Trial

In September 1990, Earl Swift was a southbounder on the Appalachian Trail. In September 2015, Outside magazine published his story about two other southbounders he met in “a cautionary tale,” as Mr. Swift writes, “without lesson.”

From his story: “Twenty-five summers ago, I pulled into what was called the Thelma Marks shelter, near the halfway point of a southbound through-hike. I met a stranger in the old lean-to, talked with him under its low roof as we fired up our stoves and cooked dinner.

“Eight nights later, a southbound couple I’d befriended early in my hike followed me into Thelma Marks. They met a [different] stranger there …”

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