What you can learn from a really long walk
On October 26, Dale “Greybeard” Sanders became the oldest person to thru-hike the nation’s most iconic wilderness trail
After hiking for more than seven months, 82-year-old Dale Sanders completed the Appalachian Trail on Thursday, October 26, officially becoming the oldest person to finish the 2,190-mile trek. Sanders, known on the trail as “Greybeard,” broke a record previously held by Lee Barry, who set the mark in 2004 at age 81.
“I feel numb right now. It’s really a euphoric experience,” Sanders says. “I’m just so thankful to the people who have helped me. I literally would not be here if it weren’t for all the people who encouraged me along the way.”
In all, the retired civil servant spent about seven months on the trail this year. But his trek officially began last January when he section-hiked the stretch between Springer Mountain and Neel’s Gap in Georgia. On March 14, he began his continuous journey north and made it to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia—the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy—by June. To avoid the coldest autumn weather, he then traveled north to Maine and set off southbound from Mount Katahdin back toward Harpers Ferry, where he hiked the final mile of the trail Thursday morning. He was met at the finish line by his family, a crowd of supporters, and officials from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
But Sanders’ journey nearly ended in late July, when he began bleeding internally after hiking through Maine’s Hundred-Mile Wilderness. Frightened for his life, he left the trail and returned home to Tennessee where he was treated for a ruptured hemorrhoid. After ten days away from the trail, “I lost my confidence,” he says. “I almost didn’t come back.” But Sanders’ neighbor, a retired FedEx pilot, convinced him to return and began hiking with him in New Hampshire.
Despite the medical issues in Maine, Sanders says New Hampshire was by far the trail’s most difficult section. “I probably fell 25 to 30 times on the Appalachian Trail,” he says. “Most of those were in New Hampshire.” He noted that the rugged terrain and slick rocks made the Granite State particularly challenging. At one point, while descending Kinsman Mountain, he slipped and landed so hard on his hip that he wasn’t sure he’d reach safety before nightfall. But ultimately, neither his hip nor the ruptured hemorrhoid prevented him from finishing the trek. Upon reaching Harper’s Ferry, he says that he’s feeling no pain in his body.
While it’s arguably his most impressive, this record is not Sanders’ first major feat. In 2015, he became the oldest person to paddle the Mississippi River 2,300 miles from source to sea. And while he’s taking 2018 off to spend more time with his wife and his dog, in 2019 he plans to paddle the entirety of the Missouri River and beyond—3,800 miles from Brower’s Spring in Montana to the Gulf of Mexico—in a single-person canoe.
Given his most recent accomplishment and the journey he’s planning two years from now, there’s good reason why, he jokes, “It’s hard to be humble.” Still, he says that more than anything, he remains thankful to those who helped complete the Appalachian Trail.