Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Grandma Kay Wood - A Life Well Lived

I was a just shy of 28 and she just shy of 70 the day I had to hike like the Devil to beat Kay Wood into camp. "Grandma Kay," as she was known to her trail family, was in the early days of her 1988 Appalchian Trail "thru hike," and while the trail was taking every bit of physical energy my out of shape bones could bring to it, Kay was  meeting the challenge with grace and ease. That morning as we all set out from camp I knew that Kay and I would be aiming for the same shelter that night. When, during that days hike, I'd stop for lunch or whatever, Kay would catch up to me. "Dang," I thought, "I can't let a grandma out hike me!" So I would saddle up and turn on what little reserve I had left to again take the lead. I was crowing to the other hikers as I approached  Cable Gap Shelter that evening that I'd bested Kay! Which was my joking way of paying homage to a grandma who could give a twenty-something a run for his money - beer gut or no beer gut! Thing was, Kay was never aware of any race. She was just out for a nice walk. Before I had even eaten my first handful of raisins she walked into camp.
Kay was a marvel to all who met her that year, and I count myself as lucky indeed to have made her acquaintance. Here are a few of my personal memories of sharing the trail with this true to God AT luminary.

   The Appalachain Trail is a 2179 mile foot path stretching along the spine of the Appalachian chain from Springer Mountain here in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Founded in the 1930s, the AT has become the crown jewel of America's hiking trails, and each year a few hundred hikers will attempt to hike the entire length in one season. Indeed, an end to end "thru hike" of the AT has become a bucket list item for thousands of hikers, and a photo from atop Katahdin after a months long oddysey is at once a point of eternal pride and proof postive of a hiker's backcountry bona fides.
   Though those hopeful hundreds will travel to Georgia's Amicalola State Park to start the hike each Spring, few will possess that happy combination of focus and fitness required to go the distance. The attrition rate is pretty high in the early going. But those who stick it out and who choose the typical south to north route will find themselves denizens of a sort of moving village as they head north. They'll meet fellow villagers who'll become friends for life. They'll pick up cool trail nicknames like Blue Moon, The Mad Norwegian, Hot Buns, Captain Moonpie, and Wingfoot. They'll devour every calorie they can lay their hands on and still lose weight. (it's impossible to carry as many calories as you'll expend) They'll feast their eyes on a thousand vistas not available to those whizzing along in the cushy, climate controled comfort of their cars. They'll come to a new understanding of the word "essiential" as they jettison excess gear *, food, flab, and bad habits along the way. They'll harden their muscles and clear their minds. And they'll have an experience of which most only ever dream and more cool stories than they could tell in 1001 nights.
*such as ponytail ribbons, eyelash curlers, and an inflatable sink. you know who you are!
   None of this could happen, though, without the efforts of the thousands who volunteer their time and sweat to maintain the trail. With trees forever being blown down and erosion from rain and thousands of boots, the trail requires constant maintenance. That means that someone has has lug chainsaws, rakes, shovels, and all manner of "impliments of destruction" deep into the woods to do the work. If you've ever walked so much as a single section of the AT you have those unsung heros to thank. (And if you'd like to show your thanks in a more tangable manner, I'm sure these folks would be happy to hear from you!)

   As a lifelong hiker and nature lover Kay became became involved with the Berkshire chapter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy back in the 1960s. So involved was she, in fact, that a shelter was named in her honor along the section of the trail just south of her home in Dalton, Massachusetts.
   When she was raising her children, the trail literally ran through Kay's backyard, and more than one of those early thru hikers found themselves enjoying her hospitality. Even legendary Granny Gatewood, known to any AT enthusiast as one of the first end to enders, a feat which she accomplished in her late 60s, was served a cool drink as she rested her sneaker clad feet in Kay's shade.
   Then, with her dues paid in advance, it was finally Kay's turn. In the Spring of 1988, on a morning when many people her age were settling into their easy chairs to watch Matlock, Kay climbed Springer Mountain, faced north, and set out for New England. Alone. A few days later I had the pleasure of meeting her.

   My own experience with an AT thru hike began when I found myself losing focus as a student at the University of Georgia. In danger of foundering academically, I felt that I should take a little break to reorder my priorities. I was free from responsibility, still young and reasonably fit, and as a thru hike had always been on my to-do list, it seemed to be the perfect time. I could have my adventure and come back to school the following fall recharged and with a newly charted course. I decided to go for it, and after working a temporary gig for a few months to bank the cash I, too, was on my way north that Spring.
   Now, thru hikers represent every possible level of fitness, experience, and hiking style. You'll find everyone from the super fit, gung-ho packers who begin the hike with 20+ mile days, the out of shape strollers who take a decidedly casual approach to daily milage, and every shade of grey in-between. As a result of this hikers will evenutally be hiking more or less as a group with those of a similar fitness/style/experience level, and will usually find themselves in familiar company at the end of the day.
   And so it was that your humble and rotund blogger, being closer to the causal mileage end of the hiker spectrum, had the great good fortune to fall in with some very agreeable "familiar company." On North Carolina's Wayah Bald I happened one day upon Bruce and Melanie Thomson, a young couple of thru hikers from Maryland with whom I immediately hit it off. Later that evening we all wound up at the Siler Bald shelter (not to be confused the Siler's Bald shelter in the GSNP), and it was there that I met Kay. She'd been moving along at the same rate as Bruce and Melanie for a few days and they were already fast friends.

Grandma Kay with Bruce and Melanie Thomson - The Bobsie Bums

   Personally I was wowed by Kay. The contrast between she and nearly every other septaugenarian I'd ever known was stark. Few of the ladies that age that I'd met had ever spent so much as a single night outdoors. And certainly none would ever consider walking, walking mind you, 2100 miles. In the woods. With no toilet! Perish the thought! But there was Kay on her way to Maine. If she was in possession of this kind of mojo at 70, what was she like at 20? She was the living embodiment of Yankee grit. Quiet grace personified. And I was deeply impressed on my first introduction to this remarkable lady.
   I was equally taken with Bruce and Melanie. They were from Aberdeen, Maryland, and two more archetypal "All American Kids" couldn't be imagined. They'd have been great spokepersons for milk. I can't stress their wholesomeness too strongly. I never actually heard them use the words, "gee", "nifty", or "swell", but I know they must have, i.e.: "Gee Hon, those powdered eggs you whipped up for breakfast were swell!. And isn't that new campstove nifty?"
   Most hikers take on a gritty mien after a few days on the trail, but these two somehow always seemed to look...um...spiffy. Upon re-entering civilization at the small towns and communities that come every few days a typical hiker might be seen breezing around in his or her rain suit while every stitch of other clothing was thrown into the washer at the local laundromat. But not these two. When they hit town, out came the ziplock bags with plaid button-downs, khaki shorts, and Weejuns! Honest to God! The rest of us looked like bedraggled hobos in Gore Tex, but The Bums blended in perfectly with the yuppie couples who were up from the city for a weekend mountain getaway. The Scotch Guard, to use Melanie's metaphor, would eventually wear off, but that would be a few hundred miles further on. In any case, they were awesomely awesome, and when time came to stick them with a trail name "The Bobsie Twins" was briefly considered before being dropped for "Bobsie Bums."
   So for most of the brief balance of my hike I enjoyed the nightly company of Grand Ma Kay and the Bums - and very good company that was with tons and tons of laughs. One chilly moring at the approriately named Cold Gap Shelter we were all reluctant to get out of bed, so I whipped out my blues harp and serenaded the group with an extemporaneous "Sleeping Bag Blues" to great acclaim. Those were some good times.

Cold Gap Shelter. Bruce, Kay, and Your Humble Blogger.  Melanie's Caption: Morning of April 28th. Nobody wanted to get up that morning!! You played your "Sleeping Bag Blues" on the harmonica. Bruce retrieved everybody's food bags and we all ate "breakfast in bed", waiting for it to warm up.

   Sadly, I wouldn't finish that trail that year or ever. There's a shelter on TVA property at Fontana Lake that was, in 1988 at least, the nicest shelter on the entire trail - The Fontana Hilton. This was a nicely designed affair that could easily sleep 30 people, hence the name. Just up the paved path from the shelter is a parking area complete with sandwich bearing tourists happy to share with hungry hikers, and another couple of hundred yards down the hill is Fontana Dam. Cross the dam and you're in the Great Smokies National Park. A couple of miles down the hill is Fontana Village, a perfect stop over point with it's post office, laundomat, shops and restaurant.

                                              The Fontana Hilton                                                                                  
   We'd been forced into a lay over by a forest fire in the park that threatened the AT, so when we finally did get the "all clear" from the Park Service there was a pretty good backlog of hikers - including Kay, The Bums, and I. But I was lazy that morning and decided to stay in bed for a bit. I bid the crew goodbye with assuances that I'd catch up to them on down the trail, and they were gone.

   A couple hours later I was climbing down from the upper sleeping loft when I missed the little step and fell three feet busting my ankle in the process. It was obvious that I wouldn't be hiking on that foot for a while. So I hobbled over the hill to the dam and used the pay phone (no cellular in those days!) to call my girlfriend to rescue me. Since I was only a couple of hundred miles from home,  in a few hours I was being borne away a highway speeds.
   A more determined hiker would have gotten back on the trail after a period of healing, but there was this sweet, pretty girlfriend you see, and....well... I think you see where this is going. I didn't go back.
   Meanwhile Kay and The Bums made steady northward progress. The AT grapevine informed them of my fall sometime later, and I had to wait a few months before I got a letter from them recounting their journey.
   Kay's '88 hike was interrupted by a nasty fall in Pennsylvania. Not to be deterred, however, she was back in '89 to complete her walk. She got her Katahdin photo.
   The Bums later decided to mix things up a bit. They did a little section jumping later on and ended the '88 season with 1500 miles under thier boots. The next year they completed all of the AT but the Presidential Range in the White Mountains. (Just fifty miles left, y'all. Get on it!)
   By that time their transformation from yuppie puppies to full fledged hikin' hippies was complete. A year later they did a complete thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail - the west coast answer to the AT. But even that wasn't enough to satisify their wilderness wanderlust and a year after that they moved to a cabin in Delta Juntcion, Alaska and had a baby - Forrest.

  Through my own damnable tendency to neglect correspondence when I get caught up in the life, I lost contact with The Bums sometime after that. But  last week I got an email from them. They're back in the lower 48 and living in Pennsylvania. They kept up with Kay over the years, and were always amazed that she just kept going and going and going. They'd get a letter from her detailing what she'd hauled up the trail for this or that project and would do a quick calculation of Kay's
age at that time. Always amazing.

Bruce, Melanie, and Forrest Thomson with Kay at her 90th birtday party.

   The year before last they drove up to Massachusetts for her surprise 90th birthday party. Then came the news in February of this year that she'd died. She suffered a fall at home and never recovered. She was 91.
   It's always sad to lose a friend, but the quality of Kay's experience was such that we should all cheer her well lived life. If any of us can realize a fraction of a sliver of the pure living that Kay had we'll be doing well indeed. To you, Kay, I say well done! Well done.

        A Few more photos. The captions are from Melanie - 50% of   The Bobsie Bums

Kim "census taker" and Jim "Capt. Moon Pie".  This was one day north of Hot Springs, NC. on May 13, 1988 Grandma Kay's 70th birthday. Earlier in the day, we left Kay in Hot Springs where she was responding to over 40 letters and cards she had received for her birthday. Bruce, Kim, Jim  and I had left Kay left the balloon and moon pie with birthday greetings tied on a tree waiting for her. She actually found it the next day, which I found to be quite a miracle considering how may voracious hikers were on that trail!

(Says Your Humble Blogger: Melanie looks about sixteen here! Also, great photography by Bruce. Note how he artfully cuts off feet!)

   Walnut Mtn. Shelter, just south of Hot Springs.  Grandma Kay being fed chili by "weekenders" Dave, Bill and Kim.  This day was a thru-hiker's fantasy--Dave, Bill and Kim were out for a few days on the trail, but found they were carrying too much food so they spent the day cooking over a fire to feed anybody who came along.  Lucky Grandma Kay and the Bums came along to lighten their load.  It was the first  and only time I saw someone make pineapple upside down cake on an open fire.

 1989 Tumbling Run Shelter, PA.  Bruce and I surprised Kay by arriving early in the morning and making her breakfast.  Later, Bruce took her backpack in the car and  he planned to meet us farther up the trail.  Kay and I slack packed that day.  As I tried to keep up with Kay, I marveled at her speed and her massive muscular calves. Okay, truth be told, I was envious of Grandma Kay's shapely muscular legs!  I wanted those legs

 Tumbling Run Shelter. Bruce making Kay blueberry pancakes.
                               Tumbling Run Shelter.  Kay enjoying the blueberry pancakes.

Your Humble Blogger and Melanie at Wesser, N.C. (That's Bruce and the Nantahala Outdoor Center reflected in the window. Late observation: I just noticed they're wearing matching sweaters!)

Your Humble, Rotund Blogger at the "southern terminus", Springer Mountain

This last one is for The Bobsie Bums from their good ol', southern, Elvis lovin' buddy!

(I chose this one 'cause here Elvis resembled me after I'd finished the Stecoah Range)


  1. Chip,
    This is an incredible tribute to Grandma Kay and the days we were all blessed to spend together on the AT. Although we hiked together for only about a week, the experience made a lifelong impression on us all--a true testament to the magic of the AT.
    Bruce & I were also fortunate to meet all of Kay's family at her 90th birthday party in 2008. And although we knew Kay by her tremendous contributions and achievements on the AT, I do believe her proudest contributions to God's earth are her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren,nieces,nephews, etc. They are the embodiment of Kay's strong & generous spirit, her kindness and compassion. Kay definitely lives on...in all of us!

    Melanie of the "Bobsie Bums"

    P.S. You looked a heck of a lot better than Elvis when you came out of Wesser, NC!!

  2. Thanks for doing this. Grandma Kay was my Mother In Law. Proud to admit it. She would have been embarassed by this, but that's our "Mum". She was the next best thing to my own Mother.

    How many out there have had their Mother In Law offer to help with splitting and stacking firewood? I'm willing to bet in her 50's she would have offered to cut it too!

    She was quite the lady!

    John Tiffany

  3. I kneew her as "Kay"- I'm not a hiker in the physical sense but we shared many a fair hike spiritually. Kay Wood IS the most complete woman I have ever known: brimming with life, love, integrity and grace. We ended her Memorial Service with "Climb Every Mountain".... until you find your dream. Kay Did.
    Rev Irene M Jones

  4. I'm so glad those of you who only knew Grandma Kay for a short time saw her the same way her family saw her...she truely was an awesome lady!

    Granddaughter Katy

  5. Bruce and Mel - hiking with Kay and the two of you was one of the best times I've had. I'm very glad I bumped into y'all on Wayah.
    John - I can picture Kay splitting that wood!
    Irene - A more fitting song couldn't be imagined.
    Katy - You're very lucky to have had Kay for a Grandma!

  6. For me she was "Aunt Kay", one of five re markable sisters, of which my mother was one. But Kay was unique amongst them for her lifetime love for hiking and the AT. I would bid her "Rest in peace", but suspect she is busy in a new realm now, perhaps hiking the golden streets.

    Fred Beckwith(nephew)

  7. Happy Birthday Grandma Kay...

  8. Thanks for this post; it means a lot to me to read these stories from 1988, the year I thru-hiked the AT as Big Trektor. I never met you all, as I think you were behind me that year.

    As I write, it is the 23rd anniversary of the day I set off Springer Mt. That day, I met my good friend Tony, who became Little Trektor.

    I finished that year, but Little Trektor has been section hiking ever since. After many years, we reunited and hiked the Whites in NH in 2010. To be back on the AT with my old friend was an amazing physical and emotional experience. Back then I seemed to dance across the mountain tops, as the Hut registers would reveal. Although a lot older and slower this time, I was able to take in much of the natural beauty and trail magic that I whizzed by as an eager kid racing toward Khatadin two decades before.

    Next year, Little Trektor will finish his Appalachian journey. And he, too, will join the rare gang of 2,000 miler alumni.

    Thanks again for all the memories!
    Kevin Farkas

  9. You White Mtn reunion sounds great Trektor. I'm jealous! Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. Chip,
    It has been a couple years since I first read this piece and I so enjoyed rereading it. It makes me laugh and brings tears of joy and sadness. Most importantly, it warms my heart with love. Those days with you and Grandma Kay were magical and through your incredible writing, you are able to capture that magic and convey the very special being that Kay was.

    Much love to you Chip "Bandana Man" and God bless you.


  11. I still think of her often. Especially at family gatherings while desserts are being passed around. LOL

    Love ya Mum. Miss ya as much.


  12. Hi Chip,
    Grandma Kay has been on my mind today. After googling her obituary, I found it has been six years & six days since her passing (Feb 16, 2010). Anyway, I came to your blog to "visit" with Kay and the wonderful memories we all made together on the AT. I cherish them.

    As I get older, I am in awe of Kay's abilities and accomplishments even more. In 1988, a 70 year old woman alone on the trail, carrying a 50 lb. pack, no cell phone? No shuttle service back then--she walked into town for her mail drops, never hitching. Answering every letter she received.
    And what a positive spirit!

    She had intimate knowledge of what it took to keep the beloved Appalachian Trail maintained, as she volunteered for over 40 years doing trail maintenance with AMC Berkshire Chapter-Massachusetts Appalachian Trail Management Committee. I still chuckle at the letters we received from Kay when she was well into her 80's, describing the trail work she did with the volunteer crews, hauling timbers up the trail! Just another day doing trail maintenance!

    Kay was a beautiful, humble soul. I miss her. I'd love to talk and take a hike with her right now...and I know I'd have trouble keeping up, but I'd be inspired the entire way.

    Thanks again Chip, for writing this wonderful tribute.

    Sending much love,