Hiking the Appalachian Trail A 68-year-old adventurer recounts his 754-mile trek

October 06, 1990

A few years ago, Charles Purcell got the itch to do some hiking. The former WMAR-TV cameraman and Baltimore Sun copy boy, who left Baltimore in 1981 to retire with his wife Thelma in Florida, decided to put the urge to a test.

Last April 1, at the age of 67, he loaded his pack and began walking alone from the southern tip of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. His goal was more than 2,000 miles away at the northern end in Maine.

Some 87 days and many adventures later, bothered by a leg problem, he left the trail two days south of Harper's Ferry, W. Va. He had hiked 754 miles, more than a third of the grueling walk. His weight had dropped from about 160 pounds to about 135. He had marked his 68th birthday on the trail.

Here are a few recollections from Purcell's adventure:


It was somewhere in Virginia between Catabwa and Troutville that Rambling Dan, another hiker, put his arm on my shoulder and said, "Don't feel bad, after all, you've hiked over 700 miles. That's further than 75 percent of the hikers who started the trail on Springer."

Springer Mountain in Georgia is usually the early spring starting point for hikers striving to reach Mount Katahdin in Maine on the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail.

For me, just being on the AT was the fulfillment of a dream of a young boy scout. Fifty-five years ago I qualified for my mile-walk merit badge on the streets and alleys of East Baltimore.

Getting a much older body into some sort of shape for a much longer walk became a nine-month ordeal. My mountain was the ramp and staircase of a Bradenton, Fla., parking garage with a backpack loaded with 55 pounds of books. I was the target of all sorts of comments from the lunch crowd driving in and out.

There were also plenty of comments from my family and friends, namely, that I was crazy, going to kill myself out on the trail, or that I was too old at 67 to start acting like a kid again. My starting date of April Fool's Day, they said, was appropriate.

Nevertheless, I hit the trail with the enthusiasm and adrenalin of a 39-year-old. My trail nickname -- Flamingo Legs.

By the time I had covered 30 or so miles, it was apparent there was very little you could do to train for the mountains of the AT. As the days unfolded and the miles mounted, the trail's steep rocky paths started to take a toll. Blisters became a big problem and I jammed my toes to the point that I was losing some of my toenails.

It was also evident that living in Florida offered little chance of encountering the April weather of the Georgia and Carolina mountains.

Most nights, after hiking anywhere from eight to 18 miles, I would crawl into my sleeping bag wearing long Johns, pants, wool shirt, wind breaker and once even my rain jacket. When the temperature dips into the teens, with sleet or snow, and you're sleeping out with nothing but a tarp over you, you wear everything you've got.

(A tent would have been a luxury, considering you are carrying everything on your back. As it was, I was hauling about 45 pounds in my pack.) I never slept without woolen socks and a wool hat. In addition to keeping my head warm, the hat also kept the mice out of my hair. The mice, it seemed, were as fond of the three-sided shelters set up at intervals along the trail as were the hikers.

Supper, as dull as it may seem, was frequently the highlight of the day. Walking along, you could easily spend hours planning a menu: chicken soup with noodles, macaroni and cheese, beef-flavored rice, a can of tuna.

Six thousand calories is the recommended amount to be consumed every day while hiking the trail. Even though I ate as much as I could, in addition to snacking all day on a bag of mixed M&Ms, peanuts and raisins, I lost 30 pounds. Every bone in my body made its point visible.

As I lost weight I also lost muscle tone in my upper body. The pack was harder to lift, mountains were getting steeper and I was tripping and falling more often.

Once, I slipped crossing a stream. My pack became wedged under a log, pinning my arms behind me. It didn't take long to realize how cold the water was. Just laying there wasn't helping. After 10 minutes of squiggling and squirming to loosen the shoulder straps of my pack, I crawled onto the bank wet and very cold.

Weeks later, while stepping over a spot were the trail had given way on the mountainside, a rhododendron branch hooked my pack and spun me around. For a moment, I faced nothing but open sky and a view almost straight down the mountainside. I fell on my stomach and and managed to stretch my legs as wide as possible. I slid about 20 feet before snagging a bush.

Getting out of my pack wasn't a problem, but getting up to the trail was. Every time I tried to make forward progress I slid back down. I desperately dug hand holds while supporting myself by digging the toes of my shoes into the ground. When I finally reached the top and got back on the trail, I sat there and laughed my fool head off. From the top of my gray head to the bottom of my boots I was black mud.

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