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Dream journey: Woman hikes Appalachian Trail - Dothan Eagle: Lifestyles

Dream journey: Woman hikes Appalachian Trail

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Posted: Saturday, January 4, 2014 4:12 pm

All her life, Karen Didorek wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.

She dreamed of the adventure. She read about the trail’s beauty and history.

“It just drew me in,” the Daleville resident said. “The more I read about it through the years … it just sounded like an awesome thing to do.”

Each year, roughly 2 to 3 million people hike some portion of the Appalachian Trail, according to the non-profit Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which maintains the trail. The A.T. ─ as it’s known ─ is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world. It measures 2,180 miles and stretches across 14 states from Georgia to Maine.

At 54, Didorek decided to fulfill her dream. Besides, she said, her kids were tired of hearing her talk about doing it.

She had hiked day trips before but had never done an overnight backpacking trip. She didn’t even have a backpack. She began selling possessions to help pay for the trip. And, she had to quit smoking ─ which she did the day she started her journey.

“This was the last chance I knew I could actually do it,” Didorek said.

She knew it would be hard, but she had no idea just how difficult this dream would be to accomplish. She joined a Facebook hiking group and began preparing.

“It was a whole lot harder than I imagined,” she said. “I knew you’d have to climb mountains. I don’t know what I was thinking ... and then the rivers.”

Greg Poirier, 54, has been hiking since he was a kid growing up in northern New York. Before he met Didorek, he had hiked the A.T. twice in his life (the first time at age 16). He knew all too well what the trail was like. And, when a third chance to hike the A.T. came about through a Facebook hiking site last year, Poirier was ready to go again.

The plan was set ─ a group of six to seven hikers would leave in May to travel the Appalachian Trail continuously from one end to the other. The hike would take about six to seven months to complete.

The Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus is at Springer Mountain, Ga., and its northern terminus is at Katahdin, Maine. The easiest states to hike along the A.T. are Maryland and West Virginia. Maine and New Hampshire are the most difficult.

Only one in four hikers who attempt to hike the A.T. continuously from one terminus to another ─ known as “thru-hikers” ─ actually succeed.

By late May 2013, the group that Didorek and Poirier were to hike with had dwindled to just three hikers. The trio began their journey in Maine rather than Georgia, facing the trail’s most treacherous terrain early in their hike. The third hiker ─ in his 20s ─ quit after five miles.

Didorek and Poirier kept going.

They scaled rocks that went straight up. One 3-mile section took an entire day. They sloshed through knee-deep mud and climbed under huge trees blocking the trail. Temperatures went from 100 degrees to below freezing. Streams that should have been ankle-deep were up to their thighs due to heavy rains. Foot bridges across rivers were flooded.

“It’s not a stroll in the park,” Poirier said.

Their mascot Grumpetta ─ a stuffed version of the Internet superstar Grumpy Cat ─ had to be left behind at a shelter in Maine after becoming so soaked that it was too heavy to carry.

They camped at night ─ Didorek in a tent; Poirier in a hammock sheltered by a tarp.

“Doing a southbound hike, once you start, the days are getting shorter practically every day after June 20,” Poirier said. “So, basically, you’re fighting time because you’re running out of time every day.”

Poirier did his best to keep Didorek motivated, even crossing the same rivers multiple times to carry Didorek’s backpack and help her across.

“It was scary, and it was river after river after river after river,” Didorek said. “And, finally, he said this is the last one. He wasn’t even telling the truth because we’d get to another one, and I’d just stand there and cry like a baby.”

Didorek fell every day at first, her falls often cushioned by the 35-pound backpack she carried.

As beautiful and memorable as Maine was, Vermont was a welcome site for Didorek. It was the first flat land she had encountered along the trial. Of course, it didn’t stay flat long.

They ate mostly pasta, rice, instant potatoes and foods that would help restore some of the thousands of calories they burned hiking. Didorek lost 40 pounds during the months hiking the trail and wore out a pair of shoes.

They made it through the Shenandoah National Park before the government shutdown closed it to hikers. At one point, Didorek began marking her time on the trail by the towns she could get to and catch a bus back home.

They can laugh about it now.

For all the difficulties, the journey was awe-inspiring for Didorek and she has no regrets about going.

Along the way, they saw moose, deer and one bear. The beauty and colors of the mountains surrounded them and quaint villages gave them short reprieves from the trail, spoiling them with real food, showers and beds.

On Dec. 14, they reached the trail’s southern terminus in Georgia. Poirier spent Christmas together at Didorek’s home in Daleville.

“So many times I wanted to quit ─ there were a lot of times,” Didorek said. “… I am glad I did it.”