By Heather Mullinix
Tennessee's Cumberland Trail has joined forces with the Great Eastern Trail to offer hikers an adventure that, when complete, will stretch from the Alabama-Florida state line to Finger Lakes, NY.
While there are still sections to both trails missing, two hikers decided to hike the roughly 1,800-mile trail, passing through Crossville and the home of the Cumberland Trail Conference last week.
Jo "Someday" Swanson said, "No one's every hiked the whole thing before. It may be 1,600 miles or it may be as much as 1,800 miles when all is said and done. It's fun because we have the freedom to decide where we're going."
"Hillbilly Bart" Houck added local hiking clubs along the way have come out and shared their knowledge of the trails with them and hiked with them a ways.
The two began their journey at Flagg Mountain in Alabama Jan. 10. At 1,152 feet in elevation, it's considered the southernmost Appalachian mountain. From there, they hike to the highest point in the state, Cheaha State Park, elevation 2,401 feet. From there, it was on to Georgia and then down Lookout Mountain and into Tennessee Feb. 3.
"We went right through downtown Chattanooga and got to meet with a lot of trail people there," Swanson said. "They're really excited about their trails."
Because the trail isn't complete yet, these hiking pioneers are having to improvise. They took a temporary route through Chattanooga that will likely change as the city ties its greenway system into the trail system. They picked up the Cumberland Trail at Soddy Daisy and went about 32 miles before the trail ended at Legget Rd.
"From there, there's a gap. We're doing a choose your own adventure type hike; so when we reached the end of that trail, we didn't know if we would go left or right, and we chose left, and we ended up walking through the Sequatchie Valley, and it's been beautiful," Swanson said.
They've also had a lot of road walks on their journey. That's provided the opportunity to find little treasures along the way. Houck saved room in his pack for what he might find and has already sent several boxes back to his hometown, including a purple glass plate.
They camp along the trail when possible. That's harder on a road walk because finding a suitable place away from the traffic can be challenging. The said each state they've visited has offered great hospitality.
They were greeted at Lowe's Gap Rd. by Levonn Hubbard of Crossville, who offered the two a hot meal and a place to sleep for the night. The next day, after a filling breakfast, he returned them to Lowe's Gap Rd. and they made their way to Jewett Rd. and then on to Brady Mountain, Black Mountain, across Crab Orchard to Frozen Head State Park and making their way east to Cumberland Gap. Tony Hook, manager of the Cumberland Trail Conference, helped the pair figure out how much of the trail they could complete without having to return to the road.
"We're pretty much done with the road walking," Swanson said. "That's awesome. We didn't know how much of the trail we would be able to hike up this way."
Swanson worked with the Great Eastern Trail last year in West Virginia, where there is a large gap in the route. The Great Eastern Trail was attempting to resolve landowner issues in that state and blazing new trails.
"I spent a year working on this project. West Virginia was the biggest hurdle in the Great Eastern Trail, but I had already hiked all of West Virginia. I was in a really unique position where I could probably hike the whole thing and make it work," Swanson said.
She convinced local volunteer Houk to join her on the four and a half month journey.
"I'm from West Virginia. To see something like that come through my home town and promote the Great Eastern Trail," Houk said. "There was talk of skipping West Virginia because of the land issues."
They want to raise awareness of the young trail, which isn't far from the famed Appalachian Trail.
This is not Swanson's first long hike. She's completed the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail in Vermont, Superior Hiking Trail in Minnesota and the Benton MacKaye Trail in the Smoky Mountains. It was on the Appalachian Trail in 2009 she was christened with a new nickname, "Someday."
Houk enjoys backpacking and has previously completed a two-week backpack trip with no resupply of food, water or equipment, but this is his first long hike.
They get up about dawn and have a quick bite while packing up their gear and doctoring their feet.
"We walk until we're really, really hungry and then we'll sit down and eat," Swanson said. "Then we'll walk until it's about to get dark and we'll find a place for the tent and set up camp."
Dinner can be tortillas and peanut butter or tuna heated up over a camp stove made with an aluminum can. If they're still away, they'll journal about their experiences that day and, when cell phone service allows, they'll update their blog.
They carry a few days worth of water and food with them, along with a tent, backpacks and layers of clothing to keep them warm with the area still experiencing freezing cold weather with lots of rain. In fact, they've seen snow in every state so far. That gear adds up, and each of their packs weighs 30 to 40 pounds. They restock every few days.
They have hiked as much as 20 miles in a day, but when the terrain gets steep and rugged, 12 to 15 miles is considered a great success. They're taking care of their feet on the way, allowing calluses to form, using duct tape to help keep blisters away and adding insoles to their hiking boots. They expect to have to get new boots at least once on the way.
To follow Swanson and Houk, visit www.gethiking.net. To learn more about the Great Eastern Trail, visit www.greateasterntrail.net. To learn more about the Cumberland Trail Conference, visit www.cumberlandtrail.org.