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Judy Young said she realized late in life that her boots were made for more than just walking – they were made for hiking long-distance trails.
Young, 66, has by her estimation trail-hiked more than 3,000 miles since retiring in 1997 as a teacher from the Shelby County school system. Her foot-trips, some of which she has done by herself, have taken her coast-to-coast in the United States and to several overseas destinations.
But before she could take her first journey, she had to avoid stumbling over the loving objections of family and friends.
Some questioned her announcement that she wanted to tackle the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail by herself.
“My husband [Bill] said, ‘What is wrong with us that you want to be gone for six months at a time?’” recalled Young with a chuckle of her now-supportive spouse. “When other people heard I wanted to do the ‘AT’ by myself, they thought I was crazy. No one believed I should do it.”
And, yes, many probably think the idea of hiking and camping for months on end would not be an enjoyable time.
But to Judy Young, it is pretty darn close to perfect…just like she’d always imagined.
“I just became enamored with walking days on end in the woods,” said Young of her pre-hiking days of reading authors such as travel writers Peter Jenkins and Jean M. Deeds. “But I was still working and could not do it. But I read every book I could find.”
Finally, a book by Deeds – There Are Mountains to Climb: An Inspirational Journey – pushed her over the edge.
“I told Bill it was time to go,” she said.
Conquering the trail
She soloed the Appalachian Trail in stages: In 1999, she traveled 165 miles from the start of the trail in Springer Mountain, Ga., to Fontana Dam in North Carolina. The next year, she trekked 400 more miles to Pearisburg, Va., where she was sidelined by the painful heel infirmity, plantar fasciitis.
Taking a year off to recover, Young then split the final 1,600 miles or so of the Appalachian Trail into equal stints in 2002 and 2003. She later re-hiked part of the “AT” in New Hampshire in Vermont with a friend.
“By the time I was finished, my husband was my biggest supporter,” said Judy of Bill, whom she calls her “trail angel” for lending both logistical and emotional support. “He doesn’t care now that I wander off in the woods.”
Bill Young, who has been married to the former Judy Jones for 43 years, said his initial concern was for his wife’s well-being.
“The biggest fear was her safety,” he said. “But that changed after I was able to get to meet the hikers and talk to the people, and see how much she really enjoyed it. She just blossomed as a person. There was kind of a contentment; a great enjoyment.”
Bill Young tracked his wife’s journey over the Appalachian Trail with a wall map and a thumbtack. At one point towards the end of a journey, he exclaimed to his wife during a phone call: “You’re only an inch away, just run!”
Young said she had to overcome some fears of her own, including ones featuring rattlesnakes and bears. She also has great respect for lightning storms, hiding in low-lying areas when they pass by. And, of late, she worries about falling and injuring herself.
“But I never feared people,” she said. “You are actually safer on the ‘AT’ than at the mall. If I do get afraid, I try to reason it out and get over it.”
After several solo journeys, which included the 165-miles Long Trail in Vermont in 2007, she started doing trips with friends she had met along the way, including Louisville residents Maxine “Max” Berman and Maggie King.
“I still like hiking by myself, but at my age, I like having a buddy,” she said, adding, “I was in my mid-50s when I started this madness.”
The final hike?
Young, who has followed her teaching career at East Middle School and Heritage Elementary by serving as a substitute teacher, often speaks to groups about her experiences with long distance hiking.
She describes a typical hiking day that lasts from early morning to early evening and always with a pack strapped on her back that weighs at least 30 pounds. Some days, she may cover 20 miles, but other days, because of the terrain, it may only be seven or eight. Her longest stint on a trail lasted three months.
Young in September completed the 211-mile John Muir Trail over the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. The journey was tough: oxygen-zapping elevation rises from about 4,500 feet to more than 14,000 feet at Mount Whitney.
“That was on my bucket list,” she said. “Re-supply was difficult; there were no cross-roads; the elevation was high. It was my last big hike.”
But her husband said he has seen her in this mood before. Bill Young is confident that it won’t take long for her to start planning another journey.
“It’s like when some women give birth to a child,” he said. “At first, they say they’ll never have another one. But after a while…”
OK, one more
Young, who is known as “Grayjay” (the first syllable for her hair color; the second for her initials), admitted she now casually is eye-balling a trail that is a little closer to home: the 282-miles Sheltowee Trace Trail, which starts in Rowan County and continues into Pickett State Park in Tennessee.
“That is on my radar,” she said. “I just don’t know whether I will do it in sections or all at once.”
What is certain is that Bill won’t be accompanying her on this trail, or any trail.
“No, to me, a hike is a walk to the mailbox,” he said with a chuckle. “I ride a motorcycle, and she doesn’t do that. But walking off into the woods, that’s not for me.”
Said Judy Young: “I love being out in the woods and seeing animals. But for me, completing a goal is the reason I do it. I set goals for myself. That’s what I like.”
Quite a hiker
Prominent trails completed by Shelby County resident Judy Young since she started long distance hiking in 1999, with location, distance and year(s) hiked
§ Appalachian Trail, Georgia to Maine, currently 2,174 miles, completed over four years, 1999-2000 and 2002-2003
§ Long Trail, Vermont, 272 miles, 2007
§ West Highland Trail, Scotland, 96 miles, 2008
§ Northville Placid Trail, upstate New York/Adirondack Mountains, 133 miles, 2009
§ C&O Canal Trail, Maryland to Washington, D.C., 180 miles, 2011
§ John Muir Trail, California/Sierra Nevada Mountains, 211 miles, 2011
NOTE:Young in 2010 also hiked parts of various trails in Newfoundland, France, Italy and Switzerland.