Not a single thing about the Appalachian Trail appealed to her. Jean (Lindner) Deeds ’64 had never hiked or camped. She spent 20 years in an Indianapolis suburb as a stay-at-home mom, moving into a career at the end of her marriage. She volunteered, played bridge and had wine nights with friends.
But every day in her Indianapolis community became too much like the day before. Deeds knew she didn’t want to live the rest of her life that way. She knew what was next after reading about a woman who hiked the Appalachian Trail’s nearly 2,200 miles through 14 states.
“It all sounded horrible to me,” she said, recalling her reaction in 1993. “Why would anyone want to sleep on the ground, carry 40 pounds, be out there in the rain and sometimes the snow and the heat and the bugs, and walk 2,000 miles in the mountains?”
A week later, she was committed to it. Hiking the trail just felt like something she was meant to do, even though she’d have to endure 100-degree heat, drenching rains and high winds to make it to the vertical rock slabs at the end. Her two sons didn’t think it sounded at all like their mother. She was 51 at the time, 115 pounds and stood 5 feet 5 inches. Deeds’ mother refused to talk about it for months.
But Deeds was not deterred. She read library books, joined the YMCA to train, and met with thru-hikers. The term refers to those who have hiked the entire trail. She trekked through her neighborhood at night, her backpack filled with encyclopedias. She walked football stadium bleachers, practiced lighting a camping stove in her garage, and camped one night on a state wilderness trail. It scared her to death.
She resigned from her job at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, rented her house, and packed supplies for friends to mail along the way. The night before she left, she asked herself again if she’d lost her mind.
Flooding from tornadoes made it unsafe to drive to the trailhead at the top of Springer Mountain in Georgia, so she hiked up the seven muddy miles to reach the start. Panic soon set in. The backpack was much heavier than at home. She was cold and wet, with no idea where she’d sleep for the next six months. She reminded herself of her expectations. “I knew it would be difficult, and maybe the worst experience of my life. When it was, that was OK.”
She hiked solo. This was her journey alone. But within a few days, she realized the importance of others who crossed her path. A hiking physician diagnosed her swollen eyes as an allergy to her down sleeping bag. On the sixth day, she was short of breath and dizzy. Two hikers came to her aid. “Trail magic” is what they call it, when someone or something shows up at just the right time. Hikers choose nicknames, and she became “Indiana Jean.”
One of the first lessons Deeds learned was to stay in the present. “I remember for a while I was worried about the White Mountains in New Hampshire because I have a fear of heights,” she said. “But then I realized, ‘Why should I worry about New Hampshire when I’m in Virginia?’”
Every two weeks, she took a day off. The ascents and descents were hard on her back and legs. She popped Ibuprofen around the clock, and she cried a lot. Sleeping on hard ground in 30-degree temps with mice scurrying over her, filtering drinking water, hanging food from trees to avoid bear attacks, and hiking 10-hour days was draining. But she stayed on the trail “because at 51, I knew the pain wouldn’t last.”
Deeds also knew she could always say she didn’t want to go any further or learn more. “On the trail, that’s when you go home,” she said. “I think in life, that’s when you die.”
After two months, her body adapted and she started enjoying the hike. She left the trail for supplies in small towns, sometimes staying in hostel rooms shared with several hikers. The food was better than the Pop-Tarts she carried for breakfast and boiled pasta eaten at night to consume the needed 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day.
What really sustained her were letters received along the way from more than 400 friends and strangers. She also felt the unexpected presence of her father, who died when she was 5.
“It would never have occurred to me that the hike would have had anything to do with him,” she said. “But I felt his constant presence, and I have never felt that before or since. He was with me every step of the way. That became a very spiritual part of the journey.”
Three months into the hike, her Indiana bridge club friends drove out to celebrate the half-way mark with her. At five months, she was 1,800 miles along and one of her sons, Greg, hiked with her a few days.
They were above the tree line in Maine when she slipped on a wet rock, heard a pop, and knew she was in trouble. Twenty-six hours later, she was in an emergency room with a broken leg.
With 300 miles of trail left, Deeds was headed home. While healing, she wrote a book titled There Are Mountains to Climb, made speeches, and decided she was going to finish the trail.
“The broken leg opened up so many doors,” she can say 23 years later. “I don’t believe in coincidences anymore.”
A year after the fall, she was back on the trail. This time, everything was different. Peace replaced fear. A film crew joined her. They had to ask her to slow down as she began running to the trail’s end, the summit of Mt. Katahdin, in September 1995.
Deeds returned home, but not to her old life. She started leading women on six-day hikes on the Appalachian Trail, and then found herself guiding them on adventures all over the world, from Europe to Africa. She summited Mt. Kilimanjaro twice—at age 55 and 60—and led a group to 15,000 feet on Mt. Everest.
Those experiences made her realize why she was called to leave suburbia for the trail. She was supposed to inspire women through their journeys, teaching them to trust their instincts, know their strength and heal. Some of the women became thru-hikers. Others earned degrees, asked for a raise, or ran marathons.
Among the women touched by Deeds is Janet Gorrell of Franklin, Indiana. She describes Deeds as the perfect guide who was soft-spoken and peaceful, yet displayed a wicked sense of humor. Gorrell appreciates that she learned from Deeds how to dance in the rain, sleep with mice, cut a mango and twirl an umbrella.
Now 75, Deeds is still introduced as the woman who hiked the trail. It’s a legacy she did not envision, but readily embraces.
“I never sought being in a role where I would be inspiring to other people. It’s being the messenger,” she said. “I feel so strongly that when you’re ready to hear it, the message appears. I just happened to be at a place at a time when I was an inspiration to someone else, and I’m so very grateful for that.”
Deeds recognizes how her adventures empowered her as well, especially as she has battled cancer in recent years to live beyond her prognosis.
“Cancer has broadened my life in another way. You don’t look five years down the road. You say, ‘Today I’m going to do this. I feel badly today; I’m going to feel better tomorrow.’”
Every morning starts with a workout. Twice a week she helps incarcerated men study for their GED. And she hikes her neighborhood. Last year she led a group of women on a hike in England, which she said was her last.
But in the next breath she said there’s one more possibility, The Greater Patagonian Trail. Stretching from Chile to Argentina, the trek offers views of glaciers and granite towers. It’s a destination often referred to as the end of the earth.
“I may go to Patagonia,” Deeds said, with such a mix of confidence and adventure that the listener has no doubt she will.
The Appalachian Trail is a footpath that stretches about 2,200 miles across 14 states, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Benton MacKaye had the idea for the trail in 1921, seeing it as a utopian refuge from urban life. It was completed in 1937.
Approximately 2,500 attempt the entire trail annually, but only about one in four complete the journey. It takes five to six months and an estimated 5 million steps to cover the distance. More than 2 million do at least one-day hikes each year.
The tallest peak is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and stands 6,643 feet. Because of the constant ascents and descents, hikers who complete the miles finish with a total elevation gain equal to reaching Mount Everest’s peak 16 times.
The first person to travel the entire trail was World War II veteran Earl Shaffer. He decided in 1948 that the hike would be a good way to walk the Army out of his system.
Emma Gatewood is the first woman to attempt the trail alone. At age 67 and with 11 children, she set out in 1955. She became the first person to hike the trail three times, with her last adventure at age 75. Her journey is chronicled in The New York Times best-seller Grandma Gatewood’s Walk.
Kate Arthur can be reached at kaarthu@IllinoisState.edu.