October 19, 2019
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The Long Walk: An Appalachian Trail journey strengthens mother/daughter bonds

Rachel Willis | BDN
Rachel Willis | BDN
Nancy Averill of Hampden (right) and her daughter, Rachel Willis of Portland, on a section of the Appalachian Trail in 2017.

Forty years ago, Nancy Averill of Hampden hiked part of the Appalachian Trail with her mother. Last year, at the age of 66, she decided to do it again with her own daughter, Rachel Willis of Portland. Both mother and daughter say it was an experience they will never forget.

“It kind of came out the blue,” Averill said. “She started talking about it the year before, so I thought it would be a great way to pass the torch.”

The duo started their southbound journey last August at Abol Bridge in Millinocket, along the portion of the trail known as the Hundred Mile Wilderness. According to many sources, this particular section of the trail is considered one of the most challenging and difficult to traverse along the 2,190-mile journey from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. To prepare for their adventure, Averill, an avid swimmer, increased the frequency of her workouts in order to build up her stamina.

“The first 20 minutes out, I wasn’t used to carrying my pack. We were on a boardwalk over a swamp and I fell backwards into a bush and I thought, ‘Oh gee, maybe I’ve taken on more than I can handle,’” Averill said.

It wouldn’t be the first or last time Averill questioned her decision to hike the famous Appalachian Trail.

“The first night it poured during the night and we thought we’d drown,” Averill said. “But the tent held up very well. The next five days the weather was perfect. We were there during the eclipse and we had a shield so we could watch it. That was fun.”

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, thousands of hikers known  as “2,000-Milers” have attempted to hike the trail in its entirety over the years, yet only about one in four are able to complete it. One such completer was Emma Gatewood, known as “Grandma Gatewood.” Gatewood is recognized as the first solo female thru-hiker. The 67-year-old mother of 11 and grandmother of 23 first hiked the AT in 1955, with subsequent successful hikes in 1957 and 1964.

However, the hike’s rugged terrain was reason enough for Averill and Willis to stick strictly to a section hike along the Maine portion of the trail.

“The terrain is outrageous. It’s all roots, rocks, and mud,” she said. “The muddy spots you can usually step stone-over-stone, or some had boardwalks. But with the roots you have to constantly look down and make sure your feet are going where they should go or you’ll trip. Scrambling over the rocks was a real challenge. A lot of them were bigger than me.”

While “Grandma Gatewood” became famous hiking the trail wearing Keds tennis shoes and carrying a small knapsack, Averill opted for something more practical. With a trekking pole in each hand and her sturdy hiking boots, she was able to negotiate over some of the most difficult spots on the trail.

“The trekking poles were really helpful. We stayed at a lot of campsites with our own tent, a little tent that folded up into a package that I could put in my backpack. And my trekking poles worked as tent poles,” she said.

Navigating each step of the hike was left up to Averill’s daughter.

“I enjoy navigating, not that it was difficult to stay on trail,” Willis said. “But I was able to encourage my mom knowing how far we’d gone that day and what we had to do to get to a good tent site.”

As Averill followed her daughter’s lead, she was mesmerized by her child’s finesse.

“She’s a ballet teacher and she’s in top notch shape. She scrambled over the rocks like a Billy goat, like they were nothing,” Averill said with a laugh.

Not long into the trek, Willis also became her mother’s guardian angel.

“I fell many times, sometimes forward and sometimes backwards. She was wonderful and saved me so many times,” Averill said. “But my body was really complaining. I was having a lot of pain in my knees. So we decided to cut it short and end at Gulf Hagas, but we didn’t make it that far. We made it as far as Nahmakanta Lake. It was the first place we got reception with my cell phone, and my daughter texted my brother to come get us.”

While the journey ended earlier than either of them anticipated, the experiences from their trip crept back into their daily lives over and over again.  

“My feet hit the ends of my boots [while on the trail] and caused my toe nails to get real black and blue. They fell off a few months later,” Averill said.

The mother/daughter duo traveled approximately 25 miles over their five day journey. Willis is proud of how well her mom did and the quality time they got to spend together in the Maine outdoors.

“It was interesting to be traveling southbound for what turned out to be a short distance, while crossing the path of northbound hikers on their last leg of what had been months of grueling effort,” Willis said. “Overall, it was a great experience and a good show of my mother’s perseverance and my patience.”

Neither of them have any regrets—just lots of memories to share for years to come.

“She was able to do it with her mother [back in the 70s], so it was nice to give her that experience again,” Willis said.

“The Hundred Mile Wilderness is really too difficult, and they tell you that in all the books. Looking back now, I was naïve thinking I could do it, [with] no problem. I should’ve done more in the gym like squats to strengthen my knees,” Averill said. “But I’m glad I did it anyway. It was beautiful and memorable and being with my daughter was the best part.”



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