For nearly 30 years, Maria Higgins has been working toward a goal: to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, a distance of 2,175 miles.
Stitching together her own sort of Appalachian quilt, Higgins, 49, of Hickory has so far logged more than 1,600 miles along the nation's most famous footpath. In 44 outings, she has hiked through 10 of 14 states. Counting additional hikes in parts of three more, she lacks only about 530 miles to finish.
In 15 trips over 46 days, she has also logged 545 miles of trail, all alone.
A section hiker, Higgins marks off completed trail segments in her data book. After starting solo in 1980, she has hiked with husband Danny and children Tyler, 21, Danielle, 20, and Trey, 18, sometimes with a friend and now often solo again, mostly using vacations and holidays to work on her goal.
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Her family was always behind her effort, according to Higgins. “Over the years, Danny and the kids have been very supportive and have done a lot of hiking,” Higgins said. Making use of school holidays and good weather, the family spent many Easters on the trail.
“A lot of Easters, we had to pack in chocolate Easter bunnies,” Higgins said.
According to Higgins, the kids' last big trail hike was in 2000, when they were 10, 12 and 13. “But they also hiked when they were 2, 4 and 5,” she added. “We really didn't have to carry them that much; it just took us three days to do 15 miles. Now Tyler has continued to hike with me. With the exception of Danny, Tyler has hiked the most.”
In May, Higgins hiked 145 miles through New York, Connecticut and into Massachusetts. Later this summer, accompanied by Danny, she hopes to log 150 more miles, including 114 miles of remote wilderness in Maine, as well as parts of New Hampshire.
According to Higgins, her long-term project started at a bleak time in her life. In 1980, feeling burned out, she had quit school and two jobs, packed up her things and decided to take on the trail from Front Royal to Roanoke in Virginia.
A grainy snapshot taken that day by her mother shows her heading off into the woods alone, dwarfed by a heavy pack.
“I started at age 21 in Shenandoah National Park,” Higgins said. “I was afraid 24 hours a day. I was afraid of the day, I was afraid of the night, I was afraid of being alone and of the people I met.
“Finally I got tired of being afraid – and that fear was from before I went on the trail,” she said. “I came off that trail not being afraid anymore. It was a spiritual experience.”
From being completely unprepared for the wilderness, Higgins said, she learned self-reliance and trust in God.
“Going on the trail back then may have been a death wish, but coming off was like the will to live,” she said. “ actually had amphetamines with me, and afterward I threw them in the fire. I didn't believe in God, much less Christ. I couldn't even cook or build a fire, but God showed me everything.”
At the end of that first hike, Higgins said, she went home, finished her two-year degree and got a job. After that, it was her decision to hike the whole trail and go on with her schooling, which brought her to Hickory: a college town close to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It's also where she met her husband.
Higgins said she never carries a camera but does keep journals. Even with years of experience in the wilderness, however, she says sometimes she still has to face fear, as she has recorded in her trail logs.
“I have 30 years' worth of stories, zillions of stories,” she said. “Like when I did the Smokies alone, my family didn't want me to go. I remember I was on a ridge when this huge storm blew in and lightning was striking all around me, and the whole time I was praying …
“I'm not saying I'm not afraid – I was jumping through puddles, I'd see lightning and squat down and wait for the thunder, then I had to get up and go on. There was nothing else to do."
More recent challenges have included spotting two rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania and five bears in three different sightings near Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey. “But the first time I saw a bear in Virginia, it scared me to death,” Higgins said.
She has also met lots of nice people on the trail, including some who became close friends. Some became hiking partners across the miles.
“People do for you, you do for others,” she said, citing the example of people sharing food or shuttling one another to their cars, sometimes going miles out of their way.
In 2005, with her children mostly grown, Higgins said, she started to work in earnest on finishing the trail, completing Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut since then.
She also decided to jump ahead and do some of the trail's most challenging hikes while still young enough. In 2006, Higgins climbed Katahdin in Maine, the trail's northern terminus, and last year she made the top of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, known for freak snowstorms and hurricane-force winds.
From a sizzling heat wave in Hickory, Higgins said she found herself climbing Mt. Washington the next day in blowing sleet and 30-degree temperatures. “It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life,” Higgins said. “I grew up on the beach. I was prepared for the weather but not the terrain. I was hit with 70 mph winds on the way up and had to stay overnight at a hut, and two fellow hikers turned back.”
Now, however, even with all the challenges still ahead, it seems possible to see the end of the trail.
“I didn't know I would ever get finished, but I'm getting closer to that goal, and now it looks like I can,” she said.