The Dicksons decided to take a walk—from Georgia to Maine.
You’ve reached retirement, and you’re ready for a new adventure. What do you do? If you’re John K. (BS ’81) and Shauna Huff Dickson (BS ’77), you throw everything you need to survive onto your back and spend seven months hiking the Appalachian Trail, which stretches 2,200 miles through 14 states—from Georgia to Maine—and and includes a total of 464,464 feet of elevation change, nearly 16 times the height of Mount Everest. Of the nearly 19,000 people who have hiked the entire trail, only 3 percent have been over 60. But John and Shauna Dickson—ages 61 and 62 at the time—defied the odds, completing the trek in November 2017.
Even an average day on the trail can be grueling. The Dicksons’ daily hikes lasted anywhere from 10 to 17 miles, their packs typically weighing 26 and 35 pounds. Shauna went through four pairs of shoes, ordering replacements online as she went. “When you start out you have no idea if you’re going to make it all the way to the end,” she says. “The wear and tear takes out a lot of people.”
Fortunately, the couple had a decade of small hikes under their belt when they set out from their home state, Virginia, in March. While the majority of thru-hikers begin in Georgia, there are others, like the Dicksons, who “flip flop,” completing the trail in different sections to capitalize on good weather and avoid crowds. Keeping with tradition, the Dicksons assumed trail names to introduce themselves to fellow hikers. John became “Pappy12,” in reference to their 12 grandchildren, and Shauna became “Best Wife.” John explains: “At work [my coworkers knew] I was Mormon, and they would sometimes ask me how many wives I had, so I would always refer to Shauna as my best wife.”
Meeting others on the trail enriched their experience. For example, the Dicksons befriended and mentored a couple in their mid-20s, Panther and Overdrive. After camping with the couple for a few nights, John noted that “[Panther’s] language got better, and both Panther and Overdrive seemed to like the fact that my wife and I had a good, solid marriage. We [went] to church, [did] things that would lead to a good life, and we were out having fun together, even at 60 years old,” he says. The Dicksons still keep in contact with the couple and feel committed to reminding Panther and Overdrive “how important it is to lead good lives.”
The Dicksons were consistently impressed by the kindness of the people they encountered on the trail. “One Sunday,” John recalls, “we were hiking to the top of Mt. Greylock [in Massachusetts] when we saw a couple hiking towards us. They asked, ‘Would you like some ice cream?’ Never in a million years would I expect someone to walk the Appalachian Trail packing ice cream for hikers. Of course, it was the best ice cream ever.” In addition to the kindness of current hikers, many people who have hiked the trail before want to give back. Called “trail angels,” these people include Miss Janet, who gives rides to hikers along the trail; Omelet Man, who cooks eggs for free; the Cookie Lady, who provides homemade cookies and a water fill-up; and the woman who once flew a seaplane full of pizza to a remote part of the trail.
The Dicksons also found trail angels in the form of bishops and other Church members. Determined to attend church whenever possible, before their trek they compiled a list of bishops’ phone numbers that they could call to learn about church locations, meeting start times, and transportation to and from the trail. “[It] was not always easy, because someone had to come from the ward to pick us up or we had to pay a shuttle to drive us to town,” Shauna says. “It required people to come and get us on some remote dirt road.” Once at church, members were quick to offer them rides back to the trail. “A few times a bishop would invite us to stay at his house overnight so we could shower, do laundry, and eat a meal, which was pretty amazing,” says Shauna.
After years working apart—John in construction, Shauna in education—the Dicksons used the trek as an opportunity to bond. “The first month was really fun because it was the first long time we’d spent together in years,” says Shauna. “[We] got to know each other again.” Of course, that didn’t mean the pair was inseparable. “We weren’t hiking together every minute of the day,” Shauna says, explaining that she would leave early most mornings and John would strike camp and catch up.
A small disagreement early on in the hike taught John a valuable lesson: “It’s very important to make decisions based on whichever one of the two of us was having a more difficult day,” John explains. “If she’s having a hard time, I need to defer to her, and vice versa.” Shauna has similar advice: “[The key is] being willing to be flexible and patient with one another, because it’s easy not to have a good relationship when the times [get] tough.”
“Just like in everyday life, if you can look past the problem, better days are ahead,” says John, noting setbacks from rainy days to broken packs. “Often a situation that seems dire works itself out in a way least expected.”