Member Spotlight: Kate Waite

American Hiking Society loves connecting with our members.  Every single one has a story to tell about when and why they started hiking, and why they continue to do so.  AHS recently had the chance to talk to new member Kate Waite about her experience thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT), and uncovered a touching story about how she met her beau on the trail in North Carolina, the significance of snacking on Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Pies, and forming bonds to last a lifetime.  Kate is not a pro-athlete; she’s just an everyday hiker who wants to be able to enjoy the trails today, tomorrow, and for years to come – just like the rest of us.  Here is her story:

Q:  How long have you been hiking?
A:  I’ve been hiking for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure that I was a “kid in a backpack” kind of hiker, but certainly by an early age, my parents had my brother (3 years older), twin sister, and I hiking in the Green Mountains (most memorably Mount Hunger, Spruce Mountain, and Worcester Mountain) and each year we went on a trip to Acadia with our cousins.  I’m not sure how many pictures exist of our family that are just a collection of feet circling the Geological Survey marker found on the top of summits, but it’s a tradition we continue today.

After college, I moved to Boulder, Colorado, where peaks were a bike ride away. It was in Colorado that I got my first taste of bagging 14,000 ft. peaks and also backpacking.  My longest backpacking trip was a week out with a former boyfriend.  We carried backpacks weighing well over 40 lbs. each, that included gallon-sized Ziploc bags of GORP and a climbing rope to hang our bags out of bears’ reach – and I literally mean we hung our backpacks because we didn’t know we should have just hung the small food bags with paracord.

Q:  What is your favorite hiking memory?
A: Climbing the coveted Beehive in Acadia National Park. It became a rite of passage in our family — you had to be 10 in order to hike this mountain. Despite its mere 0.8 miles to the top, it packs many formidable punches in the form of iron rungs, exposed cliffs, and one fearful grate. Reaching the top meant a celebration of Little Debbie Oatmeal Pies, cheese and crackers, and Gatorade. It also meant that at night, while Dad and Uncle Carl smoked celebratory cigars on the screened in porch, kids who had climbed the Beehive got to relish bubblegum cigars. There was a year that we begged for cigarillos instead — and promptly decided to return to bubblegum cigars after the thrill of lighting the cigarillo was over and the unfamiliar taste of tobacco entered our mouths.

Q:  You recently thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.  When and why did you decide to take on this challenge?
A:  I had toyed with the idea of hiking the AT since high school, but like most sane people, had never been able to justify the time and money a trip like the AT would cost. Not to mention the fear of failure — of getting 25 miles in and realizing that my dream was actually a colossal mistake. My original intention was to hike the Long Trail to get a taste of what real long distance hiking felt like and if I was up to the task.  But then a window of opportunity presented itself.  After six years in Colorado, I had recently moved to Maine to be close to family. I had just moved across the country, just come out of yet another long-term relationship, was living on my own for the first time ever. Two years out of grad school, I was working at a job among people I respected and admired, but sadly and frustratingly didn’t feel was the right fit for me. So, I made a decision.

I put in two months’ notice, I listed my apartment on Craigslist, I moved all of my belongings to my Dad’s house (the day after a blizzard), I drove my car down to DC so my brother could borrow it while I was gone, and I bought a one-way ticket the rest of the way Georgia.

The idea for my trip had hatched as a solo adventure. But just as I gave my two months’ notice, my youngest cousin who had previously attempted a thru-hike in 2011 decided to join in for the beginning of my trip to get me off the ground.  As our departure date crept closer and closer, another cousin opted to join us. These were the cousins whose feet you would see in all those pictures from Acadia so many years ago.

Q:  You mentioned that you met your current boyfriend, Luke while hiking the AT.  When and where did you meet Luke?
A:  I sort of met Luke “Green Lite” at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina. I say sort of, because while I was on the phone with my Mom, I noticed Toretto (one of my cousins) had started to talk to a hiker I’d never seen before. When I got off the phone, I went over, noticed Green Lite’s Red Sox hat, and commented on it immediately, as all Sox fans must. His response? “Thanks! I’ve gotta go — I have no idea where I’m supposed to be staying tonight, but your cousin can tell you about my hat.” …which it turns out was a present from another hiker leaving the Trail after Green Lite lost his hat at a bar in a Trail town. As it turns out, he didn’t care about baseball or the Red Sox at all.

Q:  What is your favorite memory of your time hiking the AT together after meeting?
A:  There are many favorite memories considering we still had about 1600 miles to reach the end. One of my first favorite memories was Ice Water Shelter in the Smokies. Everyone was headed to Gatlinburg — we’d entered the Smokies hot, hazy, and full of biting gnats several days before…and now the forecast had a 100% chance of rain and plummeting temperatures for the next two days. Pantry (a woman from Maine) and I had opted to stay in the mountains and zero at a shelter despite the massive amounts of peer pressure from hiking buddies and partners alike.  I hiked primarily solo that day, until running into Green Lite chatting with some day hikers. He was headed into Gatlinburg to do laundry and some shopping, but vowed to make it back up to Ice Water Shelter if I promised to read him 1 page of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (starting at Chapter 7 because I’d thrown away the first half after reading it in town). Fat chance I’d see him again. And yet, that night he came running breathlessly into the shelter just after dark with a harrowing tale of the sketchiest hitchhike — and got himself the first page of Chapter 7. We read the rest of the book aloud together the next day as other wet, tired, freezing hikers trickled into to our warm and humble abode. By the time we reached the final chapter, a few other hikers listened attentively…and then we used the book as kindling to help start a fire that night with soggy wood.

A second favorite memory was hiking in New Jersey. We were hopelessly behind our hiking family at this point, having initially fallen behind when Green Lite got Lyme Disease in Virginia…and then even further behind when we took five days off to visit his family in New Jersey so I could recuperate a badly sprained ankle that I’d hiked on with an air cast since Caledonia State Park in Pennsylvania. Only two days out, we had grand plans for doing tons of miles. Until we got outside of Vernon, New Jersey and walked past a music festival happening on a farm. We heard the music, saw food carts, looked at the dark clouds looming ominously overhead, and decided to see what was going on. We were welcomed, given wrist bands and free camping, and enjoyed a midnight cookout, swapping stories with musicians who were just as excited and curious about us as we were about them.

Also: sunset hikes to McAfee Knob and Kelly Knob. Epic sunrises (Antler’s Campground in Maine offers the finest). And Katahdin. Of course, Katahdin.

Q:  What have you (and Luke) been up to since thru-hiking?
A:  After thru-hiking, Luke and I each returned to our respective native homes. We both initially got short-term maternity leave jobs to get back into the working world. His first job ended last February and he moved up to Vermont to give our everyday-all day relationship turned long distance relationship into a normal day-to-day relationship. I’ve gone back to working in schools as a Speech Language Pathologist. And last summer I was able to finally hike the Long Trail (LT), since I learned while hiking the AT that I do, in fact, like long distance hiking. While I hiked the LT, Luke worked on it; he was hired on for the summer season as a Care Taker for the Green Mountain Club and lived primarily on Camel’s Hump from June to October. He now is working full-time in a year round job, so he will not be living in the mountains this summer or joining me on my summer adventures.

Q:  Did you meet anyone else on the trail that you stay connected with?
A:  Yes — Facebook makes it pretty easy these days, but there are several to whom Green Lite and I remain very close. We were able to put up a friend as he travelled New England on a short music tour last spring. This fall we went to a wedding for a couple we’d met who got engaged in Maine (amazing to see how well a group of hikers can clean up).  And this fall, on our Trailversary (October 9), we were lucky enough to be in the company of three other hikers we’d summited with as well. This summer, I’m planning to hike the John Muir Trail — again with 2-3 friends I met on the AT. Then there are plenty of friends with whom I shared a brief connection or time with on the Trail who I haven’t seen or talked to since.  Even those connections still feel more real to me than many off the Trail — there’s something about the shared experience, about the inherent trust and camaraderie, about being stuck together in a shelter after enduring hail, mud pits, and hypothermic chills, that creates an instant, and to me, eternal bond.

Q:  Tips for others attempting to thru-hike?
A:  Just DO IT.  All those reasons you’re telling yourself: you can’t, it won’t work, it doesn’t make sense – you’re right.  Which is why you just need to take the leap.  Even if you don’t finish; even if it doesn’t end up being for you, you will learn more about yourself, about pushing beyond any perceived notion of your limitations, about how to trust others and always assume the best intentions rather than the worst.  Stay in a stranger’s house when they offer you food and lodging?  Sure!  Take a ride from someone you’ve never met before?  Heck yeah!  I knew plenty of people who quit the Trail and not a single person said they regretted the trip. It was always sad to see people leave — saddest when it had to do with reasons beyond their control (e.g. money or injury), but when people left the Trail otherwise it was because they had gotten what they needed, as much as they could, out of the Trail. You will laugh, you will cry, you will stink, you will have legs of steel. Most importantly: never quit while you’re on the Trail, in your umpteenth day of rain, or right when you’ve taken yet another fall.  Get yourself into town, take a shower, relax, EAT REAL FOOD, call family and friends — and wait for a perfect sunny hiking day to say once and for all it’s time to throw in the towel.  Chances are, you’ll be ready to give it just one more day.

Q:  So what made you decide to become a member of American Hiking?
A:  Someone put me on the right mailing list and some info about you guys ended up in my mailbox. I hadn’t heard of AHS before, but I’ve been trying to give back in whatever financially meager way I can to Trail organizations since finishing the AT.  I read your mission, I saw your sponsors, and I saw that you’re based out of Silver Spring (where my brother lives), and thought — this looks cool.  A t-shirt and subscription to Backpacker Magazine are good selling points, too!  I had already joined AHS, but wanted to learn more about the organization, so stopped in person when visiting my brother most recently.  The staff was teeny tiny, but the passion was big. They took time out of their day to chat with me, answer questions, and share information.  Mountains, hiking, backpacking, and now long distance hiking have had a profound impact on my life.  As such, I realize the importance of connecting with and supporting organizations who aim to maintain and strengthen Trail systems and protect land so they are always available, open, and as undeveloped as possible.  The benefits and payback occur as soon as you step into the woods and take a deep breath.