There was a moment back in August when Dale “Grey Beard” Sanders considered giving up.
In the middle of the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine, he was bleeding internally and having heart palpitations — not surprising considering that he was 50 or 60 years older than most of the people he had met on the Appalachian Trail.
Sanders called his wife in Bartlett, Tennessee, and she urged him to keep going. With a go-ahead from his doctors, he did, and Sanders, 82, officially became the oldest person to hike the entire 2,190-mile trail in a year.
He walked much of it alone, but for the last mile, ending at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Sanders was joined by friends, family and hikers — including a pair of dogs — he had met along the trail.
At the end of it, he danced a jig.
“I feel euphoric!” he said. “I keep thinking, is someone going to come out of the woodwork and say, 'Uh-uh, I hiked it last year . . . and I was 83' — but no one has stepped up and said that.”
“Someone said to me, 'You can't do it, the only way an old person's going to be able to hike the Appalachian Trail is if they've hiked it before.' That challenged me.”
Sanders had completed other impressive feats. A couple of years ago, he paddled the length of the Mississippi River. He broke the record for underwater breath-holding in 1959 and was IUSA spearfishing athlete of the year in 1965. But he had never done a hike lasting more than two weeks. For this one, which he started in Georgia in January, he was on the trail for a total of seven months.
He is, incidentally, two years older than the Appalachian Trail, which was officially “connected” in 1937, meaning people could hike it in its entirety from Georgia to Maine. Sanders hiked it in a “flip-flop” sequence, meaning he did a Georgia-to-Harpers Ferry leg, followed by a Maine-to-Harpers Ferry leg.
A naturally gregarious person, Sanders had periods of depression while alone on the trail. He was helped by what he calls “trail angels,” people who recognized him from seeing him on the Internet, who called out his trail name — “Grey Beard” — and hiked alongside him for a stretch. (Sanders' long beard is white, but he named himself after a Cherokee Indian chief he admires.)
“The best comment from one of them was, 'I want to be like you when I'm your age,' “ he said. “That kept me going.”
The majority of his fellow hikers were in their 20s. They didn't have to keep track of blood pressure medication or the two different kinds of eye drops that Sanders needs for glaucoma.
“As older people, we have a great deal more challenges,” he said. Injuries take longer to heal, including the hip he injured in a fall on Kinsman Mountain in New Hampshire that took two months to stop hurting.
During the hike, he wore a tracker so people at home could locate his position. He fell “about 100 times” along the rocky, mountainous trail, but only the Kinsman Mountain fall was serious.
“A few times I played the age card, I admit, and it worked every time. I didn't hitchhike, I flagged cars down, and I told them my story and they said, 'Get in.' “
Sanders' personal story includes a 50-year career as a parks and recreation program administrator. He spent his boyhood on a Kentucky tobacco farm, worked as a lifeguard and was a circus acrobat and cotton-candy seller.
“He always did acrobatics,” said his sister, Elaine Bush of Nashville, one of several family members celebrating with him in Harpers Ferry; his wife, a daughter and son-in-law, and two grandchildren also came. “He was always in the limelight, because he was unusual and he did unusual things.”
Sanders takes 30-inch steps, so he figures he took 4,625,256 steps for the hike. Along the way, he passed tens of thousands of white blazes that mark the trail. When he passed the last one, he stopped, took off his cap, and kissed it.