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On the Trail

Retirees Mel and Jeanne Church are having an Appalachian adventure
Kalamazoo residents Mel and Jeanne Church
Kalamazoo residents Mel and Jeanne Church are in the middle of a 2,189-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail.

Some people take to the rocking chair in retirement, while others seek out new adventures. Mel and Jeanne Church of Kalamazoo are doing the latter as they hike the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail.

They began their journey April 17 at Springer Mountain, Georgia, at the trail’s southern starting point, and will hike toward the trail’s northern end, at Mount Katahdin, Maine, before the trail closes in October. By the end they will have passed through 14 states.

This isn’t their first Appalachian Trail outing. Mel, who is 61, hiked the entire trail twice with his son, Matthew, and wanted to do it again. Jeanne, 68, has hiked 200 miles of the trail, but she wanted to do all of it this time. Mel admits his devotion to adventure began 15 years ago after experiencing the loss of his 74-year-old father and both of Jeanne’s parents over the course of a few years.

“I needed to do stuff while I still could,” he says.

After leading a life indoors as a surgical nurse for 30 years, Mel heard the outdoors calling his name. Being out in the woods seemed like fun, and he had read a lot about hiking, so he took it up. “You eat, walk and sleep,” Mel says of hiking. “That simplifies life.”

He finds hiking “utterly fascinating” because the landscape changes every day and he meets interesting people along the way. In addition, he has become a member of the hiker counterculture and, as such, has grown his “trail beard.”

While Mel would have gone on this trip alone, Jeanne didn’t want to be home without him for six months. Besides being his hiking companion, Jeanne will also be Mel’s “ride bride” for a “hitch” into a “trail town.” Motorists tend to pick up couples more readily than a single man.

Jeanne is also documenting their trip, posting stories on her blog. “I like to write and tell stories,” Jeanne says. “I want to let family and friends know what we’re doing and where we are. The blog is also an opportunity to give other seniors the courage to go on outdoor adventures.”

She is an experienced blogger, having written a blog about Mel’s 2013 solo bicycle trip from Portland, Ore, to Yorktown, Va., in which he rode 4,200 miles in three months.

“I decided to do the bike trip because some friends of mine had done it, and it encouraged me to do it myself,” Mel says.

“I thought he was kidding,” says Jeanne, who experienced the trip via Mel’s cell phone and emails.

Being away from Mel for three months during that ride made Jeanne want to go with him on this six-month hiking trip.

The couple began preparing for the hike a year ago, collecting information from such websites as Whiteblaze, which gives advice on equipment, preparation, food, health and safety, shelters and lodging facilities for hikers. The Churches increased their daily walking routine gradually while breaking in their hiking shoes.

They plan to hike 10 to 15 miles a day, depending on the terrain, and have had their clothes treated with Permethrin Insect Shield to protect themselves from ticks and Lyme disease. In addition, they have brought with them Body Glide (an anti-chafing treatment) and Nexcare waterproof tape for the inevitable blisters, they are having extra pairs of shoes mailed to them at strategic points on the trail, and they are carrying hiking poles, which come in handy for balance, especially in rocky areas.

They’ve also become adept at packing light. In 1989, when Mel and Jeanne made one of their first backpacking trips on the trail, Mel carried 45 pounds and Jeanne carried about 30. For this trip he’ll trim his load to 25 pounds, and she’ll carry only 20 pounds. Mel and Jeanne’s packs include a set of clothes to sleep in, lightweight warm clothes (including a winter hat and mittens), rainwear, tent, sleeping bags, sleep mats, food and water.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make on the trail is bringing too much stuff to carry,” Mel says. “Too many are unaware of what to expect or how to prepare for the long journey. Some people even quit after the first day.”

All along the trail, especially near its starting point, one can find a lot of items left behind by hikers who were carrying too much weight, he says.

“It’s a learning process,” says Mel, who read as much about equipment as he did about the trail. “Besides, I need to carry a lighter pack. I’m not as strong as I used to be.”

The Churches will mostly sleep outdoors, venturing into a trail town to sleep in a hostel or a motel only occasionally. Trail towns provide an opportunity for the hikers to take a rest on a “zero day” (a complete day off) or a “nero day” (nearly a zero day off) as well as the chance to get a shower and a hot meal, do laundry and buy groceries.

Cell phones work intermittently along the trail, but cell coverage and Internet access are available in trail towns. While food and other supplies can be had at the towns’ gas stations and grocery stores, some hikers use “mail drops” — having food and supplies sent to local post offices along the trail.

Because hikers burn so many calories and because carbohydrates provide the fat calories needed for hiking energy, hikers often seek junk food. Mel has been known to eat large pizzas and still lose 40 pounds on his hiking and biking trips.

There are risks to such a long hiking trip, and the couple say their real fear is not the snakes, bears or ticks they may encounter or the “shelter mice” that might crawl across their faces, but the possibility of twisting an ankle or getting hurt. They admit the mental challenge to keep going regardless of the weather, aches and pains, and homesickness for friends and family will be difficult as well.

“I do enjoy a challenge and being successful at doing difficult things, but I know the mental part is the hardest part,” Jeanne says. “Six months of hiking in the woods is a long time, but you have to keep in mind that it will always get better.”

One bright spot is that the trail is well marked by “white blazes,” 3- by 6-inch vertical rectangles painted on trees. “It’s hard to get lost,” says Mel, who still brings a compass.

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About the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail, also known as the AT or the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, is 2,189.2 miles long and passes through 14 states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The trail is preserved and managed by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

According to the conservancy’s website, the idea for the Appalachian Trail caught fire after a man named Benton McKaye, in a journal article in October 1921, proposed a series of work, study and farming camps along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, with a trail connecting them. The camps, he suggested, would be a refuge from work life in industrialized cities. Hiking was incidental to McKaye’s proposal but became the focus of those who took up the cause. The Appalachian Trail, running from Georgia to Central Maine, was completed on Aug. 14, 1937.

The trail was later threatened by impinging development, but it obtained protection when President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Trails System Act (NTSA) on Oct. 2,1968. This law created within the national park and forest systems a new class of public lands called national scenic trails. The AT and the Pacific Crest Trail were the first two trails designated under this law.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, according to its mission statement, strives to ensure that the trail’s “vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come