With a year of backpacking experience, Frederick resident Eliane Coates flew to Atlanta and stood at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail.
She had spent the previous year caring for her mother, Patricia Coates, before she was in remission after being treated for breast cancer, and her father, Vince Coates, who died of pancreatic cancer.
Eliane Coates decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. When she started, she was 22.
“I thought it would be a really good way to work through my grief,” Coates said.
The hike started on March 16. Her backpack weighed 30 pounds. She had a one-person tent, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a water filter, hiking poles and clothes — but only two pairs of socks, she said.
Her goal was to make it halfway home by June and stay for a week before continuing up through New England to the end of the trail in Maine.
At the first resupply station, Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap, 30 miles into the trail, there is a tree filled with abandoned hiking shoes from those who deserted the trail to hail a ride back to civilization, she said.
Coates said she started slow, going 10 to 12 miles a day, and worked up to 20 miles a day by the time she reached Virginia.
She went day-hiking during college at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, but she never ventured out for more than a couple of days, Coates said.
On the Appalachian Trail, she decided to take the “northbound” route, because she could gradually work up to the more difficult portions of the trail in New England and the White Mountains.
After two weeks on the trail, she met another woman going north, Aundrea Jorgensen. The pair met several other people along the way, but Jorgensen and Coates stayed together through Maine.
Still, it can be difficult to hike at the same pace as another person, and many times, Coates hiked alone and met others at a campsite. Coates and Jorgensen might split up during the day, but they would camp with each other or other people they met at night.
Coates walked through her emotions every day, she said. Sometimes, it was grief. Other times, it was self-doubt that she could reach home, Maine or the top of the next mountain.
Each night when she lay down, though, she had an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, she said.
In the White Mountains, among some of the highest elevations on the trail, she looked out over the wilderness that’s usually seen only on postcards or in movies.
“That’s where it hits,” Coates said. “I’m a backpacker. I’m on the trail.”
Every few days, Jorgensen and Coates hitchhiked into town for supplies, a shower and sleep. It was a humbling experience to have to rely on the kindness of strangers for rides into town, she said.
“You realize how much people are just people,” Coates said.
The pair also took a few side trips. They went to New York City and on a bear hunt in Maine.
Most of Coates’ hiking experience came from her time working as a visitor center intern at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry. One of the most special moments during her journey was hiking back into Harpers Ferry, where her dream started, she said.
“I had officially hiked home from Georgia and I was able to hike up to where I was an intern,” Coates said.
On Sept. 24, a grueling six months and eight days after she stood in Georgia, she finished.
Along the way, she wrote a blog. A high school acquaintance came across it and followed Coates’ journey north. When she got home, she said, her acquaintance called her with a job as an event coordinator for the ALS Association in Rockville. ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“I transitioned from full-time hiker to full-time employee,” Coates said.
She was offered the job because her employer thought she could handle the emotional weight of the disease, she said. It can still be hard, but it’s a positive way to help, Coates said.
She plans to work for a year and a half to save money to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018 and later complete the “triple crown” of hikes by completing the Continental Divide Trail, which runs from Canada to Mexico.
“Hiking the trail is a great way to get some clarity and peace,” Coates said.