When Dianne Seger retired in February from her job as associate director of behavioral health with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, she wasn’t interested in settling into the proverbial rocking chair. Instead, less than week after cleaning out her office, Seger boarded a plane for Georgia, strapped on a backpack and headed out on the Appalachian Trail.
As of late May, Seger, who lives in Plymouth, has hiked about 900 miles on the nation’s best-known long-distance trail. She started at Springer Mountain at the trail’s southern terminus and hopes to finish up at Mount Katahdin in Maine this fall, a distance of about 2,200 miles.
Only about one in four hikers who intend to thru-hike the trail make it to the end. Some backpackers make grand plans to speed down the trail, only to wear down and drop out. Seger, on the other hand, believes her age has given her some wisdom — she’s being careful not to overdo it, and backs off when she does, which she thinks could help her go all the way. But regardless of the outcome, Seger seems focused not on the destination but enjoying the journey.
Following are excerpts from a recent conversation with Seger:
On why she’s doing it
In 2017, I took three weeks off work and hiked from Springer to Fontana Dam, N.C. (about 165 miles). I thought that would get long-distance hiking out of my system. It really just made me want to do even more. But I had to work a couple of more years before I could retire.
On her chances of completing the whole trail
I’m 64 and I don’t know if my knees are going to hold out. And I’m too old to hike injured. I’ve actually developed shin splints, which made me take a few days off to recover. The biggest risk is overuse injuries, racking up miles too fast. You really need to gradually adjust to doing something like this. I’ve seen a lot of young, fit people injured for that reason.
I don’t know if I’ll get the whole thing done, but I’m pretty bullheaded, pretty stubborn. If I don’t get injured, I’m pretty likely to finish it all. Either way, I’m having a great time.
I am probably looking at a “flip-flop” to get it all done. Baxter State Park (the end of the trail) closes as soon as it gets a significant snowstorm, and that can happen in September. This whole trail could take me six or seven months, so I may have to skip some sections, go do the final portions before it snows, and then go back south to pick up any parts I missed. I just need to keep track of how much I have to do before winter.
On daily mileage goals
I don’t really have daily goals. I started early in the season to give myself plenty of time, and I made a conscious decision when I started that I was not going to “chase miles,” or try to keep up with anybody or hike at someone else’s pace. This is physically very demanding, and you have to listen to your body.
I knew when I began that I was going home for my daughter’s college graduation on May 19. When I bought the plane ticket to go home, I knew I was going to have to average about 16 miles a day to get to the Roanoke (Va.) airport in time. That’s when I started to develop the shin splints. I think the lesson is that I’m not supposed to have goals (laughs).
The mileage I cover changes over time, and some of it depends on the terrain. My first day out I did seven or eight miles and thought that was a pretty good day. Now, seven or eight miles is more of a “nearo” — that’s a half a day, or near zero. You just get in better shape when you walk every day.
Knowing where you are going to resupply is the most important thing. I always know approximately how many days I am from the next town where I can resupply. If it’s going to be three days, I need to make sure I have three days’ worth of food.
On sleeping in hostels
(Note: Hikers camp along the trail but also stay in hostels and shelters.) Sleeping in a bunk bed with 10 other people in the room takes a little to get used to. It’s not something I would normally do in real life, but I have not really found it too bothersome. If you’ve been hiking all day, you’re just so tired. You don’t hear the other people sleeping or getting up in the night — normally that would wake me and probably annoy me. Hostels post “quiet time” hours, usually between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., but there have been times when the last person up turns off the light at 8:30. Everybody’s just so tired.
On sleeping in shelters
There are shelters all along the trail, but I don’t sleep in shelters. I don’t like them. I don’t even have a sleeping pad, because I don’t need one with the hammock I have. I’ll just set up my hammock for the night somewhere in the vicinity of a shelter.
It’s one thing to sleep in a bunk bed in a hostel, but in a shelter you’re sleeping literally right next to other people. It’s close quarters — and a lot of times they are full of mice. The mice seem to be trained to run right over your face.
On the trail community
Sometimes you’ll be with a group — a trail family, or “tramily.” It’s not that you necessarily hike together, but you’re going at a similar pace. You may end up camping at the same spot at the end of the day. So that’s who you hang out with. If you go to town, you may go out to eat together.
Being the age I am, a lot of my tramilies have outstripped me (in mileage). So you meet up with and then lose track of people over time.
It helps that the community on the trail is fabulous. I’ve been a little surprised at how kind the people are. Anybody on the trail would give you the shirt off their back, without question.
On the challenge
“When I started in late February, it rained the first three days and the temperature was in the 20s at night, so everything froze. It’s hard to stay warm when you’re wet. So the first three days sucked. But I knew it would get better, and it did.
It’s hard to imagine how rigorous this is, and mentally demanding. It can be a fight to actually go out and hike every day, to be diligent about that. Then you deal with the boredom, and the discomfort of the weather, sometimes being lonely, walking all day and hardly seeing anyone. It’s very tough, but it’s also very rewarding. I’m loving it.
Life is so simple. You have everything you need on your back. The only things you’re really concerned with is, are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you cold? It’s very basic.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.