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A&M-Commerce student hikes Appalachian Trail

By Adam Troxtell
On February 24, 2011

While A&M-Commerce boasts many students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, not many of them can say they have traversed half of the United States. This is something that makes senior social work major Debbie McDowell stand out from the campus crowd.

Last year, McDowell, 54, and her husband, Robert, hiked the 2,181-mile Appalachian trail that crosses through 14 states. Debbie said completing the trek has always been a goal for her husband.

"He's wanted to hike it since he was 12," she said. "I had never really had a back-pack on before. That was probably good for me, because I didn't have any clue of what I was getting into."

Robert, a 1977 graduate of East Texas State, said he was initially unsure about his wife accompanying him on the hike.

"I was really skeptical about Debbie joining me on the hike," he said. "I had always imagined a solo hike where I could commune with nature and become spiritually enlightened. Debbie had never carried a pack or lived outdoors, so I was afraid that her lack of experience would jeopardize the venture. I could not have been more wrong."

The pair set out on April 6, starting in Harpers Ferry, W.V., instead of either of the traditional trailheads in Georgia and Maine. Debbie said there was a reason for their improvisation.

"It's called ‘flip-flopping', and it's a relatively new thing," she said. "We started in Harpers Ferry, W.V., and hiked to Maine. Then we took a bus back to Harpers Ferry, and hiked south to Springer Mountain in Georgia. We were really able to stretch the hike out by doing it that way."

She said another reason was to eliminate the impact of the changing weather, and this allowed them to see parts of America in their various forms.

"We kind of walked through all the seasons," Debbie said. "When we started out, the trees were beginning to bud, and it was rainy. So, we were able to see the flowers come up and the trees bloom. My husband knew a little about black fly season in Maine, so by starting when we did, we avoided quite a lot of the bugs and mosquitoes. When we started back, it was fall and it was very nice. We really hit the climates in the best time we could."

As they made their way north, they encountered their hottest day in Vermont where the temperature reached 101 degrees.

"That was actually one of our longest hiking days with the most mileage," Debbie said. "There were days we'd have to stop in the middle of the day, just because it was so hot. That didn't bother my husband as much as it bothered me."

In fact, Robert said his wife became the more tenacious hiker as the trip progressed.

"Debbie really proved to be the hardiest hiker between us," he said. "She fell so many times, especially in the mountains of New Hampshire and Maine. She never gave up. When I got discouraged, she encouraged me. When I felt miserable, she comforted me."

Debbie said Maine was her favorite state to go through, because it was so tough and so rewarding at the same time.

"The mountains were very rough, there was a lot of wilderness, but the beauty was just incredible," she said. "It was worth every step, just because of the ruggedness of it. One morning we were woken up by this moose splashing in the water. The White Mountains in New Hampshire were difficult, too. I know there was one day we hiked eight hours and covered five miles. It was so beautiful, that made it worth it."

The mountains Debbie and Robert hiked through were full of hidden windows into the past of the United States.

"We would see old settlements that are probably hundreds and hundreds of years old," Debbie said. "We might find an old chimney way out in the woods, and we knew somebody's homestead was there. We might find a rock wall that was remnants of someone's home or maybe their springhouse where their water supply was."

However, with the beauty of America also came the consequences of being exposed to the elements of nature. During the hike, Robert contracted Lyme disease. Debbie said as scary as this was for her, she is amazed by the outcome.

"We had met this guy hiking the trail months earlier," she said. "All of a sudden we came to a hostel and this guy we had met saw us. He was in his truck, and he said ‘Get in my truck, I'm taking you to the hospital.' People would just appear. They were like angels along the way."

Getting through these struggles together evolved Debbie and Robert's relationship. While Debbie admits there were tense moments, the trek revealed what the future might hold for the couple.

"There were some really difficult days, because being with anybody 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you sleep with them, you wake up with them, and you're never far apart from them," she said. "But, I think you learn to be alone with somebody. We were together, but not always. Sometimes we would hike separately and meet up at the end of the day, and that's good. If we could do that together, we think we're pretty compatible."

After about eight months of hiking rugged terrain and camping in a tent, Debbie and Robert completed the trail on Dec. 10 in Springer Mountain, Ga. With so much time spent traveling up and down the eastern United States, Debbie said coming back to her normal life was not a quick process.

"It's really kind of a culture shock, coming back into this reality," she said. "I remember one time going into a Walmart, and it was just overwhelming. I had to walk back outside and regroup, make a list of what I need, and walk back inside. It sounds crazy to walk in a Walmart and be overwhelmed. There's a routine. You need to get up, you need to be somewhere at a certain time, and those things were easier for me when I was in that groove. So, it's been kind of difficult for me to get back to that."

Debbie has returned to finish her degree at A&M-Commerce, and is hopeful of getting a job in one of the areas she and her husband traveled through while on the Appalachian Trail. She said the hike itself was also an educational journey.

"I think there's so much education that's not in a classroom, that's not in a book," she said. "I would encourage anyone that can walk this trail to do that, or to travel. Of course, school is important to me. That's why I am back. But, it makes me view the world differently, and the people differently."

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