The Appalachian Trail is one of the great hiking challenges of the United States, testing the fortitude of the people who attempt it. For 82-year-old Dale Sanders, it came with an added complication. As he made the effort to hike its full length, he began to bleed internally, placing him in jeopardy.
Sanders had certainly picked out a terrific challenge for himself to begin with. It’s claimed that the trail itself is the longest of its kind, unmatched anywhere across the globe. Stretching from Georgia to Maine, it represents about 2,200 miles of hiking-only trail.
Aside from the sheer physical challenge, the trail also presents hazards that any hiker needs to consider. The first is that there are a variety of animals, some dangerous, which live in the vicinity of the trail in some areas. These include wild boars, snakes and black bears.
Additionally, the terrain can be unforgiving. Hikers may need to travel in 100-degree heat at times – weather that makes hydration imperative. There’s also an abundance of Lyme disease bacteria-carrying ticks in deer-populated areas, which can cause a sickness that can end any hiker’s ambitions.
Sanders wanted to be one of the close to 2,700 hikers who attempt to do the entire trail at once. These individuals are known as thru-hikers, some of whom even try going all the way to the end and back. This is called a yo-yo, and only a few achieve it each season.
The octogenarian aimed to become the oldest person ever to complete the trail. Previously, Lee Barry, who managed the trek in 2004 at the ripe old age of 81 years old, had held the record. However, there’s an obvious reason that seniors of Sanders’ age don’t try such an enormous undertaking: their health.
Sanders had done well on the trail, making it all the way up to Maine. Unfortunately, while he was trekking through the so-called Hundred-Mile Wilderness, he ran into difficulty. He knew something was wrong, and it turned out that he was suffering internal bleeding.
Such was the severity of the situation that Sanders was forced to return to his native Tennessee. It turned out to be a ruptured hemorrhoid, a condition that required ten days’ treatment. Afterwards, Sanders’ confidence was shaken, and he was in no hurry to return to the hike.
As a matter of fact, the event was enough to make Sanders reconsider the trek entirely. This was perhaps linked with the fact that he had never done a hike that lasted over two weeks before. It was only with a friend’s strong encouragement that he returned to finish the Appalachian Trail.
It had taken a lot to get back up on the horse, with the health issue being only one of several difficulties Sanders had had to overcome. For one thing, he suffered depression from long periods spent alone walking the trail. He credited the “trail angels” with helping him make it through.
These were people who had heard about Sanders’ attempt at the trail through the internet and called out to him as he passed. They used his trail name, Grey Beard, a reference to his long white beard. As a result of the beard, he tended to stand out among the other, mostly younger, hikers.
Sanders recalled the trail angels for The Washington Post. He said, “The best comment from one of them was, ‘I want to be like you when I’m your age.’ That kept me going. As older people, we have a great deal more challenges.”
One of the more obvious challenges is that when they get injured, octogenarians take longer to recover. When Sanders took a tumble in New Hampshire, on Kinsman Mountain, it didn’t properly heal for two months. This was just one of about 100 falls he claims to have suffered on the trail.
Sanders did take some smart precautions, recognizing the scale of the test ahead. In this case, he had a tracker, and people back home would be able to see where he was. This was smart because it took him seven months to make the 4,625,256 steps he estimated he’d taken during the trek.
He claimed to have been driven by someone arguing that an older person would never be able to complete the trail. He explained, “Someone said to me, ‘You can’t do it. The only way an old person’s going to be able to hike the Appalachian Trail is if they’ve hiked it before.’ That challenged me.”
Sanders might have made the arduous journey by himself, but he didn’t finish the trail alone. For the final mile, Grey Beard walked alongside some friends and family, who joined him in support. Additionally, some fellow hikers he’d met on the way accompanied him.
The weight of his achievement wasn’t lost on him. “I feel euphoric!” he said, knowing that he’d broken an incredible record. “I keep thinking, is someone going to come out of the woodwork and say, ‘Uh-uh, I hiked it last year … and I was 83’ — but no one has stepped up and said that.”
This last fact is kind of ironic, because Sanders is actually older than the Appalachian Trail itself. After all, the trail officially only came into being in 1937. It had not existed before that as connected trail, having been dreamed up in 1921.
Although this was the first time that Sanders had attempted such a long hike, it isn’t the only impressive thing he has done in his lifetime. Among other feats, he has paddled down the entire stretch of the Mississippi River. Additionally, he won a spearfishing award in 1965.
His sister seemed unsurprised that Sanders would set himself such an awesome challenge. “He always did acrobatics,” she said, following his euphoric completion of the trail. “He was always in the limelight, because he was unusual, and he did unusual things.”