Lessons from the Oldest Appalachian Trail Hiker

October 25, 2017
Appalachian Trail hiker
John StiflerGreybeard, on track to be the oldest Appalachian Trail hiker, treks north of Tennessee’s Roan Mountain.

Dale Sanders, better known on the Appalachian Trail as Greybeard, carries on a conversation while regarding you with two of the brightest eyes you’ve ever seen, with genuine curiosity about who you are. He makes friends quickly and keeps them easily: hundreds in person and hundreds more who, never having met him, know him by rumor, by trail tales, or by his website.

A Navy veteran, a sometime civil servant, but most of all an unstoppable adventurer, Greybeard turned 82 in June, in the midst of his quest to become the oldest person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail (AT) in one calendar year. (For the record, the AT’s former information specialist, Tenny Webster, notes Frederick Luehring was 82 when he finished the trail circa 1963, after spending several years pursuing the feat.)

Over 11 days in April, I had the pleasure of hiking with Greybeard. I first glimpsed him as he bounced past me down the north side of Clingman’s Dome, in Tennessee, while I sat on a log, trying to regain my energy. I caught up with him five days later in Hot Springs, N.C., surrounded by a group of hikers outside a local outfitter: studying maps, making friends, and talking.

In the days that followed, we shared lean-tos, hostels, tent sites, and trail magic. With the aid of two friends—one a seasoned thru-hiker, the other with a car—we managed some welcome days of slack-packing, including a two-vehicle switch where Greybeard rode to the north end of the day’s hike and walked south with the friend’s car key while I walked north from the south end. We swapped keys when we met on the trail so Greybeard could retrieve his van where I had parked it.

Some van. Its amenities include a bed in back, along with ample storage for food and equipment—notably an extra pair of boots that were critical at the end of a very long, very wet day in the mountains. Greybeard put them on before shuttling himself to where the rest of us were waiting then tied the wet boots inside the engine compartment. By the time he had driven an hour, the first pair was dry again.

Because I occasionally took the wheel, Greybeard made sure I knew how to find the van’s fuel-line interruption switch. Flip it down, and nobody can start the vehicle. Flip it up, and it’ll start—if you have the right touch. Somehow I did.

After those 11 days, Greybeard leapfrogged ahead. While I was hiking continuously north, he was section-hiking for a few days in Shenandoah National Park; then shuttling south to Damascus, Va., for the great Trail Days festival; then driving north to Katahdin, with plans to walk south over parts of the trail he had not already hiked, concluding with a celebratory final mile.

He’ll likely make it, too, despite an unintended detour. Somewhere in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness, Greybeard started taking the easy uphills hard. His heart rate was rising, and he was sweating excessively. Then he found blood in his stool. A doctor in Greeneville ordered tests and wanted to admit Greybeard to the emergency room.

“I was able to convince them I should see my personal doctor,” Greybeard later wrote me in an e-mail. He drove home to Bartlett, Tenn., near Memphis; got the OK to resume his hike; and drove back to Monson, Maine. “They’ll do the colostomy after I finish the AT.” The adventurer’s priorities are clear: Harpers Ferry, Va., before the end of October.

As autumn approached and Greybeard and I pursued our own routes, we continued to swap e-mails when we could find an internet connection. It blew me away when he wrote that he felt honored to have shared the hike with me. I felt simultaneously humbled and lifted in ways I could not have imagined. The trail brings surprises, revelations, and blessings. Greybeard is all three.

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John Stifler

John Stifler—trail name: Whistler—is a writer, teacher, photographer, and editor who lives in Northampton, Mass.