“Letters from the Trail,” written by Peggy Alden Stout and illustrated by Rainy Brooks, 2013, XLibris, 235 pages, paperback, $19.99.
When Peggy Alden Stout has a big idea, she stays quiet. She mulls it over, thinks of the possibilities, weighs the pros and cons.
“I’m not the one that talks things out ahead of time,” said the Searsport native. “I really don’t care about what others think about what I’m going to do.”
Well, she cares what her husband, Marty Stout, thinks. But he’s usually supportive.
So when Peggy Stout started thinking about hiking the Appalachian Trail after celebrating her 50th birthday, she kept the big idea to herself for a while. She didn’t need anyone else’s opinion. After all, she would be the one walking 2,170-plus miles through the woods and over mountains from Georgia to Maine.
And when she decided that was exactly what she wanted to do, she let people know.
Many family members and friends reacted with shock, even horror, and the general response of “Are you nuts?” But her husband supported her, and she had already made her decision. That was that.
Peggy Stout began following the white blazes of the AT in 2000, and she kept at it for the next 10 years, completing sections until she had hiked every mile of the famous trail. And though family and friends joined her along the way, she chose to walk much of the trail alone.
“I’m my own best company sometimes,” she explained. “In my regular life, it doesn’t bother me to be alone as a woman in an odd place. I never feel really nervous about any of that; so I would have been surprised if I felt nervous on the trail.”
She shares the experience in “Letters from the Trail,” a recently published book of the letters she wrote to friends and family while on the AT.
Peggy Stout, a Searsport High School graduate, divides her time between Maryland and Maine, where she spends the summer on the shore of Swan Lake. A retired English and special education teacher, and a daily journaler, writing has always been a big part of her life.
But on the trail — between the hiking, finding or building shelter, firing up her personal stove, locating water, navigating, resupplying, chatting up fellow hikers and enjoying nature — she had limited time to write and had to choose between journaling and writing letters to keep in touch with the outside world. As a compromise, she asked those who received her letters to send them back so she could keep them as a journal of sorts.
“I didn’t think I was going to do a book at all,” she said. “I just wanted the letters to remember. Then, all the sudden, I had 200 letters and I finally thought, what the heck.”
While her letters mainly tell about her challenges and triumphs on the AT, she organized it to also be educational about hiking. Rather than arrange her letters in chronological order, she grouped them by topics, such as “Why do I hike?” and “What is day-to-day life like on the trail?” And at the end of the book is “Blueberry’s AT Vocabulary Glossary of Terms.”
“Blueberry” is Stout’s trail name, the name she uses on the trail to preserve her anonymity and make it easier for other hikers to remember her. On the trail, Blueberry met Peter Pan, Slughead, Dirty Bird and Wholesome, along with many other hikers who went by trail names that were usually tied to a personal characteristic.
“You could be a CEO of some big company, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference out there,” she said. “And that’s what I really liked about it, just being equal with everyone else.”
She found that the AT mantra, “Hike your own hike,” rang true out in the wilderness. Everyone she met on the trail — whether thru-hiker, section hiker or day hiker — treated her with kindness.
“I never felt like I was shunned or didn’t fit in,” she said.
As a section hiker, her times on the trail spanned from a few days to a few months.
In 2000, she solo hiked for two months from the New York-Connecticut border to the northern end of the trail, the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. And in 2004, she hiked for two months from central Virginia to the southern end of the trail, Springer Mountain in Georgia, that time with her niece, who adopted the trail name “Friend.”
“The thing I came away with [from the AT], big time — and it’s not profound — is that things always work their way out,” Stout said. “On the trail, it’s easy to see it because things aren’t so complicated.”
“For being 65, I’m very fortunate that I don’t have trouble with my knees or feet,” said Stout, who believes that her tendency to plan ahead — a mindset she developed later in life — may have put her at an advantage on the trail.
“I will always continue to hike on the AT, that’s for sure,” she said.
She has two friends who are working on completing the AT by hiking sections of the trail each year, and Stout plans to accompany them each spring and fall.