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‘Worth the walk to get there’

For Unicoi County residents Dorsey Edwards and Worley Shelton, hiking all 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine was a goal they set for themselves 20 years ago. On Aug. 31, Edwards and Shelton achieved that goal when they ascended Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the end of the Appalachian Trail for northbound hikers.
“I never dreamed we could do this,” Shelton said, “but once we got halfway and kept battling we saw we could do it.”
Edwards and Shelton began hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail, known as the “A.T.,” in Tennessee and North Carolina during the early 1990s. At that time, several of their friends also participated in their hikes.
“We started around here with a lot of friends and as time went on they dropped out,” Shelton said. “(Dorsey and I) decided we’d hike the Smoky Mountains and just kept going. The more we went, the more we wanted to do.”
Edwards and Shelton decided they would hike the entire trail. Using vacation from their full-time jobs, they would hike a section one year and then another the next. They continued this pattern until they completed the entire 2,180 miles. Hikers who approach the trail this way are known as “section-hikers.”
Edwards said family obligations and personal injuries caused them to miss their annual hike on a few occasions after they began section hiking. He also said that section hiking, as opposed to “thru hiking,” (hiking the entire trail in an uninterrupted trip) poses its own challenges.
“I think section hiking, the way that we’ve done it, is probably the hardest way to do it. You just get to where you’re going and you get used to carrying the weight (of your pack) and the walking and it’s time to come back to work,” Edwards said. “If you do the whole trip together once you get used to walking and get used to the weight it’s a lot easier. We’ve done it the hardest way, but we’ve done it the only way we could because we both work full time and we’d take vacations.”
Before their annual hike, Shelton said both men had to make sure they were “in fairly good shape” before they “hit the mountain.”
Edwards said they have hiked the majority of the trail with a “full pack,” carrying all the items they needed to survive, including food, sleeping bag, tent, clothing and emergency supplies.
Since starting section hiking the A.T. two decades ago, Edwards and Shelton witnessed significant improvements in the equipment available to hikers. Edwards said “there is all the difference in the world” between the equipment they used to complete the A.T. last month to what they used in the early 1990s.
Equipment was often a key factor in preventing injuries. While hiking the A.T. through Georgia, Edwards injured his knee. The following year, while hiking through North Carolina, he injured his knee again.
“At that time I didn’t know about walking sticks and I didn’t know about knee braces that would help support my knees,” Edwards said. “Once I got knee braces and two walking sticks that could help support me, I did a lot better.”
The men often followed the advice of fellow hikers regarding which equipment to purchase.
“People we would meet on the trail would tell us what’s best,” Edwards said. “It was a matter of years, but we ended up getting all the best, lightest stuff we could get and it really made a difference.”
Completing the A.T. would not easily be accomplished. Especially the last leg of their journey, a 304-mile trek through New Hampshire and Maine, which they began on July 29, each at the age of 65.
Edwards and Shelton started this final section in Gorham, N.H.,and hiked their way into Maine. According to the official Web site of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, www.appalachiantrail.org, the most difficult sections of the A.T. are found in New Hampshire and Maine. Both men quickly became aware of this during their final hike, as they walked on a trail that was either slick rock or had roots protruding up through the soil.
“We didn’t think it would be that rough,” Shelton said, “but the further we went we could only hike six or seven miles a day. We have hiked as high as 20 miles in a day … There is no good walking there.”
By late August the men had made their way into Maine and approached the “100-Mile Wilderness,” an area famous for being one of the roughest sections of the entire A.T. Before entering the 100-Mile Wilderness, Edwards and Shelton purchased enough supplies to meet their needs for their journey, since no supplies are available after entering the region.
“We knew we had to have food to last us through the 100-Mile Wilderness and we knew we had to make so many miles per day to get through (the area) with our food,” Edwards said.
On Aug. 21, their first day in the Wilderness, Edwards and Shelton completed 10 miles and set up their camp to rest for the next day’s hike. The men had not been in camp very long before what they described as a “tremendous storm” settled over the area.
“It rained all night,” Edwards said.
The next morning they broke camp and continued on their way. After hiking approximately two miles they came upon a river.
“We could hear the river roaring as we approached,” Edwards said.
On the bank of the river was another hiker who advised Edwards and Shelton that because of the previous night’s storm, the water was too high and moving too swiftly to ford safely. Unable to move forward, the men sat by the river and waited.
“We were eager to get started because we knew we had to make so many miles each day,” Edwards said.
After waiting 30 minutes and anxious to ford the river and continue on their way, Edwards decided to use a large stick to measure the depth of the water before they decided to cross.
“I got on the bank and I started down with the stick and I hit what they call a river hole,” Edwards said. “It was very deep and I never could hit the bottom. I kept bending over trying to get the stick to the bottom and in a split second I went in head first.”
With the river moving rapidly downstream, Edwards was quickly caught in the current and was carried downriver toward a set of waterfalls that were 30 feet high.
“It was seconds until the river had me. I mean it literally just grabbed me,” Edwards said. “In seconds (after falling in) I went over the waterfalls. I could feel the rocks beating me as I went.”
After witnessing his friend fall into the river, Shelton and the other hiker ran along the riverbank trying to keep up with Edwards and offer help if they could get to him.
The river carried Edwards, who was now injured, another 150 feet before he was able to grab onto a rock in the middle of the river and wait for Shelton and the other hiker to help him. While clinging to the rock, Edwards said he looked upriver at the waterfalls the river had pulled him over and thanked God that he survived.
Shelton and the other hiker tied one end of a rope to a tree and threw the other to Edwards and pulled him out of the river to the safety of the riverbank.
“I thought he was gone, but the Lord provided,” Shelton said. “It was a scary moment and I’ll never forget it.”
Although he sustained numerous cuts and bruises from the accident, Edwards suffered no broken bones. Shelton helped Edwards back to where they had left their packs, then the trio walked back downriver to a location where the river widened and the current was slow enough for them to cross safely. After fording the river, the hiker who assisted Edwards and Shelton went on ahead of them before they could ask his name.
“What was so amazing and what I cannot comprehend is that I cannot swim a lick. I did not have any water in me. I didn’t have a problem breathing,” Edwards said. “I felt like God had me in a capsule. There was just peace there and I knew that my life was going to end in that river, but God had other plans.
“I realized the only way that I could let people know how big God is was to pick up that pack and keep going.”
As they continued north along the A.T. Shelton and Edwards told the hikers they encountered about Edwards’ accident and “what God had done.”
“Nobody could believe it,” Edwards said.
After the accident Edwards was so sore that Shelton had to help him put on and remove his pack, but despite their difficulties, the men completed the 100-Mile Wilderness a day ahead of schedule.
The cuts and bruises he suffered are still healing and he is still sore, but Edwards remains thankful that he survived.
Just nine days after the accident, Edwards and Shelton ascended Mount Katahdin and completed their 20-year, 2,180-mile journey. Both men described the journey as rewarding, but challenging.
“The most rewarding day was when we finished the trail,” Shelton said. “We had been waiting on that for 20 years.”
“It’s been rewarding. We had a lot of hard trips when we would wonder why we were doing this, especially when it rained,” Edwards said. “Then there have been other trips that we’d hit sun and beautiful mountains and everything turned out really good … I’ve always said the top of the mountain is your payday. It’s worth the walk to get there.”