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‘I did this’

October 18, 2019 by Emily Koester

The word retirement brings thoughts of relaxation to mind, enjoying days with no particular schedule, cups of coffee while watching the sun come up, reading books for leisure, and in some cases exploring new places. Retired elementary school counselor Joanne FitzPatrick, 56, of Minocqua, has done all of that and more, all just during her time on the Appalachian Trail (AT).  

“I was retired and thought it would be a really good opportunity to do this,” said FitzPatrick, who retired in spring 2018 after 33 years as an elementary school counselor at Arbor Vitae-Woodruff School.

FitzPatrick started her trek at Springer Mountain, Ga., on March 19, and 159 days later, completed the final stretch to Katahdin, Maine on Aug. 24. The AT reaches about 2,190 miles, connecting 14 states between Georgia and Maine. On average, it takes a thru-hiker five to seven months to complete the entire trail in one go, and FitzPatrick was right on track with just over five months.

This wasn’t her first time on the trail, as she hiked the northern terminus 33 years previously with her husband, Kevin, hiking from “Katahdin all the way down to the Kennebec River.”

“I had been a counselor at a camp in Maine, so that was part of the impetus of going out and hiking in that part of the country,” FitzPatrick said of the earlier hike. “So at that point years ago, I just said to (Kevin), ‘someday I’m going to come finish this.’”

More recently, a friend loaned FitzPatrick the book “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” and the interest in the AT was sparked yet again.

“I thought, ‘if this 67 year old lady can do this, you know what, I can do this,’” FitzPatrick remembered. “I just thought, if I’m going to do it it’s gotta be now.”

So after studying up on the trail, through the internet, books, and personal experiences from others, FitzPatrick felt ready. She already owned most of the equipment she would need, from past backpacking experiences and school outings, and after reading “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” in January, by March FitzPatrick was out on trail. 

Throughout her time on the AT, FitzPatrick’s family joined her for sections, starting the hike in Georgia with Kevin and two of their children, Delaney and Kav. They started at Springer Mountain around 7 a.m., her family hiking part of the mountain, and FitzPatrick had put in about 10 miles before noon. With hardly anyone else on the trail at that point, FitzPatrick decided to continue on to the next shelter right away.

Thru-hikers are advised to hike about 8 to 10 miles per day the first week or so, to “get your trail legs,” and then gradually gain more miles along the way. 

“I went 17 miles, but I think that was because I was just so excited and wanting to be on the trail,” FitzPatrick said.

This excitement to hike was what got FitzPatrick her trail name of “Birkie.” A group of hikers she met at the second shelter on the trail were shocked by the distance she had gone in just the first day. FitzPatrick explained to her fellow hikers she had just skied the American Birkebeiner in Hayward, otherwise known as the Birkie, one of the longest cross-country ski races in North America. 

“I do that every year, so I felt I was in really good physical shape to go,” FitzPatrick had explained. From then on out, to the others on the trail she was known as Birkie.

Those you meet on trail

FitzPatrick said although she went into the thru-hike by herself, she was rarely alone on the trail.

“I did meet up with a lot of people, a lot of really interesting people,” she said. “I’d say maybe 15% of the time I was out there, I was alone, so it wasn’t a ton of time. It was enough time for me to have peace and quiet and solitude that I was looking for, but I think being a real people person it was really fun to hike with other people.”

FitzPatrick admitted to at first being nervous and unsure about hiking alone, especially after a murder on trail in May, “but once I was out on the trail I really never felt nervous about being out there, with the people I was with.”

Along with the many hikers FitzPatrick met along the way, a four-legged friend also became part of the trail family. 

“One day we (FitzPatrick and trailmate, Strider) came to a place on trail where there was an old school house — and there was a museum there as well — and when we came down the trail I could see this dog at the end of the trail,” FitzPatrick explained. The dog, who became known as Mr. Noodlehead, warmed up to the two hikers and joined them for eight days of their hike. When it became clear the pup had no home — no one on the trail claimed him and a trip to a veterinarian let the hikers know Noodlehead did not have a microchip — he joined them permanently, even earning himself a collar and leash, his own backpack, and a puffy jacket for chilly nights when he wasn’t allowed in hostels. After those initial eight days on trail, he was sent home to Strider’s boyfriend to join their family.

Another unexpected canine encounter on trail happened when FitzPatrick and a trailmate were climbing up an incline into a storm, the wind and clouds, making visibility slim. 

“We were walking and I saw these weird things come out of the fog, and they were two little chihuahuas wearing raincoats,” she said. “At this point I seriously thought I was hallucinating … these two little dogs running at us with these raincoats on, and this couple that were behind them, they were super ill-prepared … chihuahuas in raincoats, you never know what you are going to see.”

Trail challenges and highlights

For FitzPatrick, the challenges she faced along the AT were mostly obstacles she knew were possible, like a tendon injury in her ankle — “a pretty typical injury on trail” — sickness, terrain, weather, and some wildlife encounters.

Among the latter were copperhead snakes and rattlesnakes, wild boar, and of course, bears.

There was one really big black bear FitzPatrick encountered right on the trail, preventing her and others from continuing on.

“We just had to wait for him and he just kept eating and looked over at us like, ‘yeah, you can wait,’” she remembered. “He was just so big, that even blowing whistles and stuff, he didn’t care.”

But FitzPatrick admitted the biggest challenge for her was actually when she was alone. 

“I really enjoyed hiking with other people for that reason and maybe it was part of what I needed to learn and how I needed to grow,” she said. “I definitely did it and it was fine, but that part was, in my mind, frustrating. 

“I just wanted someone to deliver food to me,” she said with a laugh, “so I could just keep hiking and not have to worry about getting into town and making all of those arrangements … it was a little overwhelming for me.”

One of her favorite spots along the AT ended up being the state of New York. It was here trailmate Jack accused FitzPatrick of “deli-blazing.”

“By then (New York) you are kinda depleted of all your body fat, and so we were just starving all the time,” she explained. “And the cool thing about New York was that there were delis all over the place along the way and there were lots of roads and places to go eat. So there were days we would go to the deli, like, twice in a day and one day we even went for all three meals.”

One night while in New York, from one of the shelters, “we could actually see the whole Hudson Bay, and then we could see the city lights in the distance,” she said. Being just days before the Fourth of July, they even saw some fireworks in the distance as well.

“A lot of times when I got to places … different places that are kind of iconic places, it was sort of like, well I saw pictures of this,” FitzPatrick said. “The fact that I could see New York, and I just didn’t realize how close … it was neat.”

The final 150 miles or so to reach Katahdin in Maine “was kinda interesting for me,” FitzPatrick said. Having done this section of the trail 33 years before, and now hiking it with her son, Mack, FitzPatrick admitted in her mind she was done before she even got there.

“I think when all of it really hit me was, one morning I got to the top of the Bigalows (Mount Bigelow ridge in Maine), and there was a group of camp kids there hiking, and they were just amazed at how vast it is to see out in that open space,” FitzPatrick said. “So, as I came up the hill and was listening to them, I was smiling and thinking what an awesome experience this is for them. And then I turned around and I looked the other direction … it was the first time I could see Katahdin.”

“When we went up Mount Katahdin — Kevin, Mack and I all climbed it together ... when I got to the sign, I think what went through my mind was ‘I did this,’” FitzPatrick said. “I know it was over five months, but in my mind it really didn’t seem like that long.”

Although originally FitzPatrick’s goal was 4 1/2 months to thru-hike the AT, she wasn’t at all disappointed in her experience.

“When I look back and I think about the whole journey and how it all played out and the things that happened, the people I met and the places I got to go … all of those experiences, I don’t know that I would do anything differently,” she said.

‘We’re all following you, Fitz’

As much as she enjoyed meeting new people along the trail, FitzPatrick felt in the end she enjoyed the independence of being on the trail.

“I’m a pretty in-the-moment person, and so a lot of people go out there to be in that moment,” FitzPatrick said of the AT. “I think it made me grow in a lot of ways as far as knowing it was me out there, and I had to just depend on me. There is something sort of selfish about being on my own, just having to take care of me.” 

But returning home again was almost bittersweet. 

“I have to say it’s a little weird to come home now, I’m enjoying being a mom more now,” she said. “Having Delaney home and cooking, all those simple things that you don’t do on the trail. It’s just a different perspective. It’s like being in your old shoes again — it’s comfortable. I wasn’t sure what that transition would be like, for me coming back … I’m not sure I’ve put enough distance between me and that experience yet.”

FitzPatrick said the support she received from family and the community while on trail pushed her to fulfill this accomplishment.

“When you’re a little bit older and you have established yourself in a community, or have a family, those people really look up to you,” she said. “I have a lot of appreciation for people who were like, ‘We’re all following you, Fitz, this is so cool,’ like that kind of thing, that drove me to get to the end, those people who supported me. Having my kids all hike with me, and just hearing them bragging about me being out on the trail … I don’t want to say I didn’t expect that, but it’s kinda like when you hear it, it makes you feel like … it’s super cool to know that they really are just so thrilled to have a mom that would take that on. They are proud of me, so that made me feel excited and happy.”

To see the blog FitzPatrick kept during her time on trail, “Jo Fitz Appalachian Trail Adventure 2019,” visit https://jofitzatadventure.home.blog.

Rim to Rim to Rim

Not quite ready to settle for the typical retirement just yet, after returning home from the AT, FitzPatrick then joined some friends in Arizona to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim at the end of September. The South Kaibab Trail is about 20.3 miles, while the North Kaibab Trail is a bit longer, at 22 miles. FitzPatrick and her friends started south and returned north the next day.

By 5:30 a.m. on Sept. 20, FitzPatrick and trailmates headed out with headlamps, before the sun came up with light and heat.

“The hike was very different from hiking the Appalachian Trail,” she said. “The open, vastness of the canyon, the trail was not chocked full of rocks and roots.” FitzPatrick was even greeted by a group of tourists on mules along the trail.

“The climb was difficult, but unlike the straight up climbing I was use to I was greeted with long winding switchbacks (sharp bends in the trail),” FitzPatrick said. “I kept looking up the canyon walls wondering how I was going to end up at the rim when the wall looked like they went straight up! Around every turn I was greeted with another switchback. I was often surprised at the trail route. It was hard to visually see where the trail went.”

FitzPatrick also appreciated the occasional “oasis” along the way, the first being Bright Angel Campground, where there were trees along the river, and again at Indian Garden Campground. She said the green trees and grass were a welcoming sight to rest up and hydrate.

Nearing the end of the first day’s hike, FitzPatrick dealt with leg cramps, despite her efforts to stay properly hydrated. And although she enjoyed a nice meal and rest at the historic Grand Canyon Lodge, getting going the next morning was difficult.

“I had a slight headache already from being dehydrated and there was a potential of thunderstorms in the afternoon,” FitzPatrick said of the return hike. “I didn’t know what it would be like hiking in the canyon in the rain.”

FitzPatrick soon found out. When she realized she had forgotten her phone at bathrooms a mile down the trail, she left her pack with her friends and ran back. On her return, it started to rain, and with all of her rain gear in her pack, FitzPatrick was soaked by the time she was reunited with the group.

“Hiking in the rain anywhere is always an interesting experience,” FitzPatrick said. “If you had a choice, you wouldn’t ordinarily choose to come out and hike on a day like this, but you also see and experience the environment in a very different way. I noticed the red mud on the trail below me. I could hear the echo of the thunder rumbling through the canyon. I could see the rain on the cactus, they almost looked like they were growing before my eyes! I was wet and tired, but happy for this different experience.”

“There is something surreal about being in the canyon as opposed to seeing it from above,” she said of her Rim to Rim to Rim hike. “The colors of the canyon walls, the rock formations and the river make you stop and pause and wonder and feel a part of something special. Something powerful yet peaceful.”

In terms of future retirement plans, FitzPatrick said only time will tell.

“I’ll definitely be traveling and will continue to hike, but where ...”

Emily Koester may be reached at [email protected]


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