Donna Dean Does the Appalachian Trail at the age of 51
Could you hike 2,180 miles through 14 states, with elevation gains equal to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times? Well Nashville’s Donna Dean did it! In 2010, at the age of 51, she became one of the few women to solo thru-hike the famous Appalachian Trail.
Donna, a former nurse, divorced and mother to three adult sons started her journey on a cold rainy March 9th at the start of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in Springer Mountain, GA . She finished 6 months later (…and 10 pounds lighter!) on September 9th at the trail’s end in Katahdin, ME.
I sat down with Donna and asked her about the experience.
What kind of backpacking experience did you have before doing the AT?
D: Day hikes and one overnight camping trip.
What made you decide you wanted to “thru-hike” the Appalachian Trail?
D: It had been a life-long dream of mine. I read about it when I was 10 years old in a Weekly Reader. Later, my husband and I planned on doing it together when we retired. The divorce didn’t change my desire to do the AT. In my late forties, several friends died unexpectedly from cancer and such. They were my age. It really affected me. There is no guarantee any of us will make it to retirement. So I decided I would do the AT sooner than later and on my own.
What did your family think?
D: My Mom was my biggest champion. She sent books to all my mail drop points on the trail so I would always have something good to read. She was so proud of me. Mom died shortly after I finished. I will always cherish the strength she gave me.
My kids were indifferent at first but when I finished they were proud and a little envious I think.
How heavy was your backpack when you started/ finished the AT?
D: 45 lbs at the start and 30 lbs by the end.
What did you pack that you didn’t need?
D: Initially I packed way to many clothes. I had like 5 sets of pants, shirts. Everyone on the trail made fun of me for it. Rookie mistake. I learned (smiling).
How many food drops did you arrange and what did you put in the packages?
D: I had 32 food drops and packed the same thing in each box. I would put more of a variety in the boxes next time. I ate a lot of instant mashed potatoes, stuffing, oatmeal, tortilla shells with peanut butter, chocolate and Ramón noodles. No freeze dried foods like Mountain House.
What was your favorite comfort food?
D: I could not go without this coffee, chocolate-creamer mix. I drank it each morning and at 400 calories with caffeine, it got me going!
What was the average age of hikers one the trail?
D: You would think most hikers would be kids in their 20’s, but I met a lot of middle-age hikers between the ages of 40-60. Many were like me, not wanting to wait until retirement. Others had lost jobs and were taking a time out from life to do the AT.
What was the best thing about the AT?
D: The people. Everyone was friendly and outgoing. From the hikers, trail volunteers, to good samaritans who donated food, showers or gave us a place to take a day off from the trail and rest. I called these things ‘Trail Magic.” It is refreshing and amazing to know there are so many generous people in this world.
How often did you sleep in one of the shelters along the trail versus your tent?
D: I slept 2/3 the time in my tent versus in a trail shelter.
Were you ever afraid on the trail?
D: I saw a lot of moose and black bear. This one time I accidently stumbled upon a mama bear with 3 cubs. I tried to slowly pass them but she got nervous and started chasing me. Thankfully mama bear didn’t want to run too far away from her cubs and let me go.
Did you ever take a day off?
D: I didn’t take a day off until the half-way point. After that, I usually hiked 5-6 days and gave myself a couple days break. The body needs to rest.
Unfortunately, in May that year when the Nashville Flood hit, my home was damaged. I had to come back to take care of things. That took about 3 weeks but after everything was sorted out, I went right back to where I left the trail.
What was your least favorite state to hike through?
D: Pennsylvania. It is a beautiful state, but the AT runs through a very rocky section of it.
What was your favorite state on the AT?
D: I had the most amazing experience with people at the 200 year old Woods Hole Hostile in VA. As for physical beauty on the trail, Max Patch in NC was breathtaking. Maine was misty and mossy and I saw a lot of moose. Just beautiful.
How many miles a day did you average?
D: Not counting rest days and only those actually on the trail hiking, 16 miles.
How much did it cost you to do the entire trip?
D: Around $3,000.
Finally, what life lessons did you learn from hiking the AT?
D: I learned several things. I learned to worry less. Things in life can be repetitive and bad times will come and go. In the end, the sun will always come up. Life goes on.
I also learned to relate better to younger people and my own children. I had never spent much time around 20-something year olds. My kids are my kids so I was always in parent mode. You think you know best. On the trail, I listened to the young people, heard their stories and got to know them for who they are. Good kids. I made the decision to do a better job of accepting my children for who they are and their individuality.
Dana Birdsong didn’t have time for a headache that day. The (then) 35-year-old lobbyist and advocate for the American College of Cardiology in Washington, D.C. had a meeting on Capitol Hill she couldn’t miss.
To read this and other Her Well-Being stories, click here.