This article previously appeared in The Trek.
Mary E. Davison – trail name “Medicare Pastor” – is the Old Lady on the Trail, and proud of it. A retired pastor and grandmother of ten, she began long distance backpacking at age 60 and completed her Triple Crown (walking the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail) 16 years later. Her current project is the American Discovery Trail, which she is on her way to finishing this fall at the age of 82.
Mary’s written two books (so far) about her incredible achievements and is working on another. I was so excited to speak with her by zoom this past week, and take a gander at someone changing the definition of what it means to be a backpacker and especially, an old person backpacking. Bespectacled under a gray pixie with an infectious giggle, Mary sat in front of a wall of theological books looking strong and athletic. I assumed she had good genes but she immediately set me straight.
“I do not have good genes! The best thing I ever did for my body was take up long distance backpacking. That’s motivated me to stay in shape, because if I don’t, I can’t!”
To which she burst out laughing. I told her both my parents have debilitating arthritis and, at 58, I’ve already had both hips replaced. She has new knees and other bodily repairs, so has to be methodical about preparing for the trail by getting in her 10,000 daily steps and practicing carrying weight. Still, she admits she takes off a few winter months to enjoy the holidays and “fall apart” just a little.
it’s not the good weather that makes you have fun
Mary was born in California and traveled a lot with her pastor father who worked for the Council of Churches. “I grew up camping because it’s a cheap way to travel. A fond memory was taking a month to travel across country. In those days, Valley Forge had a little trailer park with a small square of grass for tents. I learned how to set up camp and keep a neat tent.”
As a member of The Mountaineers in her 20s, Mary learned to use an ice axe and crampons climbing the major peaks of the Cascades. But it was Girl Scouts that sealed her love for the outdoors.
“On a 10-day backpack trip, it rained every day and hailed every other day. We were lost half the time but I never had so much fun! That trip taught me it’s not good weather that makes you have fun!”
Deciding to hike long distances kind of snuck up on Mary. “My daughter liked hiking and her husband was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. We went to the Smokies as tourists and I realized we’re on the Appalachian Trail. That same summer, one of my parishioners had set a goal to hike the Washington parts of the PCT and I thought, ‘Well, gee, that looks fun.’ So I just sort of started.”
When I asked if maybe the trail called to her like the ministry did, she responded that it was simpler than that. “I always loved to hike. I always loved being in the out-of-doors. I was just about to retire so thought, ‘let’s do it!’”
That’s when she made retirement goals to complete both the AT and PCT in sections. “After that decision, I just haven’t stopped!”
two trails at once
Mary began her quest by walking both trails in the same season. She lives in Washington state and her daughter lives on the east coast. “I wasn’t just flying across country to hike, but to see her and her growing family. But, you now, as long as I’m here, I might as well hike!”
The PCT and AT are very different trails in tread, in flora and fauna and in hiker culture. (see Trek article comparing the two) Mary’s style added variety to her hikes. Plus, she met a lot of people, many she’d run into on different trails over the years she walked.
Much of the time Mary walked with people, but as the years wore on, she spent more than half the time hiking alone. “I don’t hike alone because I hate people,” she said with a laugh. “I hike alone because it’s very hard to find someone who hikes at your pace and who wants to do the crazy things that you want to do.”
Making so many friends has helped her create a support group as she ticked off sections of the ADT, allowing her to hike shorter distances before being resupplied (thus carrying less weight) or slackpacking.
“I always do backpacking. If I can find a way to do it easier, I’ll do it easier. I’m not stupid – and I am old!” Mary has led many group hikes as a pastor and enjoys introducing other people to backpacking. She’s also had one serious fall and knows hiking alone raises the risk level. At 81, she’s more careful with each step.
It’s also just fun to be with other people and Mary has been joined by many friends as she’s hiked the trails though she conceded that adding people to a party creates complexity.
“When I’m hiking alone, for one thing, I can do whatever I want! I’m not adjusting to someone else’s need. I wouldn’t have finished all these trails if I hadn’t gone alone some of the time.”
Still, it wasn’t easy to get in the mindset of solo hiking since both the Scouts and Mountaineers advise against it. “The very first time I camped out alone was on the PCT. I had someone coming to meet me the next day and I only have to be brave for one night.”
But hiking alone has its own joys. “I get a feeling at the beginning of a hike, like wow, this trail is out there just waiting for me! The whole world is right in front of me. I think I’ll go see what’s there.”
Mary uses this word I love: expectantly. She describes how she approaches the trail – and life – by simply letting it unfold and reveal itself without trying to control it.
“It’s not just a trail thing. I’ve had a long life. I’ve had some real down pieces and some great joys. I can’t tell which is happening until afterwards. The trail is the same – I don’t know what will happen until it does. We fool ourselves if we think we do.”
This was especially true on the eastern portion of the ADT where camping is often prohibited, so Mary needed to knock on doors and ask if she might set up her tent on a stranger’s lawn.
“All I need is a place to put my tent, have some water, a bathroom is a bonus. I don’t know if the person behind that door will say no or be my next best friend.”
Still, Mary is a meticulous planner. Part of the reason is that as a section hiker, she needs to meet a plane at a particular time and at a particular place. Also, as an older hiker, she wants to know ahead of time what the conditions will be, like elevation gain and loss, to ensure she can complete a section.
“Last year, because of fire and flash floods, was remarkable because I started out with plan A, then Plan B then C, D, and E. You do have to be flexible. But I have a lot of experience planning and can switch plans quickly!”
old doesn’t mean done
As I mentioned at the outset, Mary Davison wears her title as Old Lady on the Trail with pride. She told me she is very much against the idea that the word ‘old’ is pejorative. “It’s funny because some of the people who read my book get it and some of the people say, ‘I wish she wouldn’t talk about being old so much. I’m of that age and I don’t think I’m old.’ And it’s like, that’s because you don’t want to own up to fact that you have that many years and other people think you’re old. I refuse to think it’s a bad thing!”
In her 80s now, Mary is losing friends and colleagues to death. She accepts that she can’t do what she used to do, but realizes she can still do something meaningful and there’s no reason to stop doing something just because of the number of years she’s lived.
“It doesn’t mean that old ladies can’t have goals, and desires and things to do and I hope I still have goals yet to meet when I die.”
Mary and I have many things in common, including our love of hiking, but also our personality types. According to Meyers Briggs, we are both J’s or Judging types, those people who make lists and plans, who need structure and schedules, who like to space out projects to complete a little bit at a time. As a J, it’s no wonder Mary stuck to her goal of completing the Triple Crown over 16 years.
“When I felt called to the ministry, it was so seemingly impossible and yet as long as there was a step to be made, I felt I should take it even if I couldn’t see that it would get me to the end – to being ordained.”
That step-by-step faith and determination is what shaped Mary’s personality as The Old Lady on the Trail. And that made me curious to know if she might have words for her younger self after all she’d accomplished.
“I went through some very horrid down times in my life. At one time I was suicidal. I would like to tell myself in those hard times, that’s not all there is.”
life is good
Part of the reason Mary has been able to write so extensively about her experiences is that she kept careful journals on trail, disciplining herself to chronicle the adventure as it happened. Her tagline on each entry is “Life is good.” And the mantra itself forced her to look for the good in each day. Even when it’s raining all day and you’re up to your knees in mud? I asked cheekily.
“Well, occasionally I’ve said life will be good tomorrow though I’m not so sure it was good today! But it’s a way of looking back and being thankful for what was good. ‘It rained, but I had a raincoat!’”
Mary is an inspiration to all of us ageing hikers still wanting to experience that “wow” feeling she described on trail. Perhaps it’s not only the trail and nature that needs to be accepted as it is and approached expectantly, but ourselves too.
“I like myself and I’m my whole self including those very hard times. And I’m eternally grateful I didn’t commit suicide when I was suicidal. Look at all the fun I would have missed!”
I love your attitude 🙏 thank you
I have to keep it on track every single day! lol I often talk about things that I have struggled with because a healthy attitude is not always default for most of us!
Loved reading your book “Old Lady on the Trail”. I also love to hike and cycle!
Mary, you are so inspiring! I am 74 years young and former marathoner (55+). Knee surgery prevents running but I think I could pivot to long distance hiking. Look forward to reading your books. Keep it up!!
She is! You will love long-distance hiking.
Wow. Talk about inspiring…..
I KNOW! I have absolutely no excuse. 🙂