In the late spring of 2000, Lucy and Susan Letcher summitted Maine’s Mt. Ktaadin and then began a southward trek along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Adopting the trail names “Isis” and “jackrabbit,” they hiked through the summer, fall, and winter, reaching Georgia’s Mt. Springer the next spring, and then turned around and hiked back to Ktaadin, completing what’s called a “yo-yo” (a double-traverse of the AT). Their story is chronicled in a two-volume book set entitled “Southbound” and “Walking Home,” which I recently read and enjoyed immensely.
What was somewhat different about their experience, and the reason of course they’re called “the barefoot sisters,” is that they completed most of the hike without shoes, and this gives their story an extra dimension from other AT narratives. Barefoot hiking is a relatively unusual activity, although it’s not completely unheard of: noticing their lack of footwear a Baxter State Park ranger commented, “There are a few that do that. I don’t know how. Well, if it works for you, more power to you.”
The books consist of alternating chapters written by each sister. They are thoughtful and articulate authors, and the reader feels like he is following behind them, seeing the trail through their eyes, meeting their friends, and experiencing the joys and frustrations of the journey. While it’s an important element, barefoot hiking is not the main story. For these young women (Isis was 25 at the time, and jackrabbit only 21), the AT was the opportunity to undertake a pilgrimage, experience the sights and sounds of nature, test their mettle against the grueling demands of trail life, and discover a community of like-minded souls. Isis summed up much of the trek when at one point she realized they were no longer alone: “We had found our tribe.”
Not surprisingly, going barefoot earned them a certain level of notoriety. According to a survey of 2015 AT thru-hikers, 58% wore trail running shoes, 35% hiking boots or shoes, and 7% minimal footwear (track shoes, sneakers, or Crocs). There was no mention in the survey of anyone without footgear. In Maryland, a skinny ten-year old Boy Scout took one look at them and couldn’t help but cry out, “Holy Shit! They’re fucking barefoot!” On the northbound journey, Isis was trying to explain to a woman that “It feels really good, sometimes, when you’re walking in soft mud, or grass ,or smooth rocks” — when the woman arched her eyebrows and retorted, “But…you get dirty!”
Earlier, Isis had shared a fuller explanation:
We had decided to try hiking barefoot because it was the way we had always walked, since we were kids, in the mountains near our home on the coast of Maine. We loved the sense of connection to the ground that barefoot hiking gave us.
Every surface feels different, she continued, whether granite, shale, pine needles, or thick mud. One section of the trail was “dry dust, powder-smooth and silky underfoot,” while in another place they felt the “granite slabs cold beneath our feet.” Isis found the experience difficult to convey to those who are habitually shod: “You can’t really describe it. It’s like another sense that you didn’t know you had.”
The barefoot journey actually started on a whim. The sisters had planned to wear boots, but couldn’t resist climbing Ktaadin barefoot, and when that went well, they wondered how far they could make it through Maine’s 100-mile wilderness. After this section, the boots were mailed home.
At first they were a little tentative carrying heavy packs, typically weighing 50 pounds or more. Isis was quick to adapt: “I marveled at how quickly I had become accustomed to walking barefoot with a pack. My feet wrapped themselves around roots and rocks, and I easily shifted my balance to avoid sharp edges. New ridges of muscle had grown above my arches, and all the surfaces of my feet felt alive and aware.”
But that’s not to say that every step of the way was easy, or every surface was pleasurable. As jackrabbit explained, “Of all the surfaces for barefoot hiking, gravel is the worst; it’s nearly impossible to set your foot down without landing on many small, sharp uncomfortable points.” A long gravelly stretch sorely tried her patience: “My feet were beginning to feel the constant impact on the gravelly trail. My soles felt warm and achy, and sharp little pebbles sent jolts of pain up my legs.” Placing each foot carefully on this difficult path required such “strict concentration” that eventually her “mind went numb with the effort.” By the end of this section, jackrabbit was leaning heavily on her hiking sticks and cursing through her teeth.
Jackrabbit was the taller and more athletic of the two sisters, but even so she struggled more than Isis with injuries and pain. After crossing through the difficult terrain of New Hampshire, her concentration wavered for just a moment: she stumbled, slid three feet down a rock slab, and landed hard on the ball of her right foot, bruising it.
She limped on in grim spirits, refusing to quit or even put on shoes, but a couple of days later she stepped onto a sharp rock on exactly the same place on her foot. The bruise turned a “dark purple lump the diameter of a quarter.” They left the trail for a nearby hospital, and while the x-rays showed nothing was broken, jackrabbit was forced to leave the trail to recuperate. Isis continued solo, but when jackrabbit rejoined her a month later, she almost immediately hurt her foot again, this time her heel. Jackrabbit fought back tears of frustration as she raged against the intense pain and her own inattention. Another dark bruise formed, but this time it healed without further incident, and the two continued their southbound journey together.
The sisters were hiking through Virginia when fall shifted to winter. They continued barefoot for a time, finding they could navigate a thin layer of snow, but ice was too slippery in bare skin, and as the temperature fell and snow accumulated, they put their shoes back on. At first Isis missed “the soft brush of snowflakes, the ribbed boards of the shelter floor, even the burning that subsided as I pulled on my neoprene socks.” These sensations “seemed to be keeping me aware, awake to the world in a way I didn’t want to give up.” But once she found proper-fitting boots, she appreciated her feet being warm and dry and enjoyed the “curious but pleasant sense of levitation” provided by the soles.
In contrast, jackrabbit was more than ready for a break from barefoot hiking; the strict concentration required to avoid injury had made it seem increasingly like a job, instead of being fun. After putting on winter shoes, she found her mind wandering more freely, and she began to focus less on the path and more on her surroundings: “I noticed the subtle colors of the woods, a thousand shades of brown and gray, and the shapes of clouds framed by the bare branches.”
The winter of 2000-2001 was unusually severe. Full winter gear was necessary, including boots and snowshoes, and the sisters struggled with heavy packs, frigid temperatures, and deep snow. Following the blazes became difficult in sections, and the risk of hypothermia was a pressing concern.
But winter eventually eased, and with the new spring, the sisters once again unlaced their boots. Isis reported, “Wading through meltwater streams that cascaded over the trail at regular intervals, and rediscovering the textures of leaf and stone, I felt my feet come back to life after their long confinement.” She added, “The strange, delightful tingle in the soles that I had often felt in the first five minutes of hiking barefoot lasted a full half hour.”
Jackrabbit, too, was ready to lose the boots. Now she found, “My feet felt wondrously alive, awake to every pebble or patch of smooth mud in the trail. The skin on my soles was still tender, but I quickly adjusted back to the rhythm of hiking barefoot, testing each step and shifting my weight minutely to compensate for the roughness of the trail. Without the accustomed weight of boots, my legs felt stronger than ever.”
After reaching the southern terminus of the AT at Mt. Springer, the sisters found the return trip to Maine somewhat easier, no doubt due to the 2,180 miles of experience already under their belts. Heading south they’d reported that 2 miles per hour was the fastest they could go barefoot, but on the way back north, they found themselves walking 3 mph or faster in some places, at least when trail surfaces were favorable. Sometimes they put on sandals to go faster or cover more ground, for example, when they undertook the “Maryland Challenge,” which consists of crossing the entire state, a distance of 31 miles, in a single day.
One evening the sisters hiked several miles at night without lights. “All my senses sharpened with the fierce concentration that it took to set my feet down safely on the darkening trail,” Isis noted. She became more attentive to the conditions: “The ground felt soft and cool, clay soil varied here and there by a patch of fine sand. A warm wind from the valley washed over us, bearing a scent like honey.” In retrospect, it seemed like a “strange trance” to march across a rock-scattered trail and “find the path by touch.”
Then it was Isis’s turn to suffer an injury. She stepped on a sharp branch and cut her foot. After a week’s break, it had healed enough for her to get back on the trail. For a period of time she hiked more frequently in sandals.
When the two sisters reached Mt. Ktaadin for the second and final time, it was a little sad. The pilgrimage was over. It was time to say goodbye to the trail and now face up to the demands of the real world and all its “meaningless brutality,” as jackrabbit put it, still reeling from the news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And the reader, unable to follow these two free-spirited youths any farther, must say goodbye as well.
From the top of Ktaadin, they surveyed the barren, wind-blasted summit, feeling like they were on top of the world. Jackrabbit groped for something profound to say, but found herself at a loss for words. A dicey trail called the “Knife Edge” leads off the summit, and as they looked out across the ridge, they spotted a slowly revolving spiral of clouds hovering in the air. It remained in place almost thirty seconds before the wind snatched it away. “I think it’s the spirits of the Mountain,” Isis whispered, “Welcoming us home.”
Jackrabbit finishes their story:
We shouldered our packs, under the ceiling of dancing clouds, and walked across the Knife Edge and into the rest of our lives.
Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon! (Click on the image to check it out)