Learn More

A Trail for Danny

In 2011, Danny Cramer, a.k.a. “Mile Hi,” thru-hiked the A.T. in 146 days — 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine.

This year (2016), his parents, a.k.a. Kathi and Steve Cramer covered 6,746 miles in 32 days — traveling from their home in Colorado to hike a section of the Trail in each state it passes through from Georgia to Maine. On May 11, both parties landed at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) headquarters and Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, five years apart. For Danny, the stop was a celebration; for his parents, a memorial.

The Cramers at Springer Mountain — the couple took time off to connect to the places Danny experienced during his thru-hike by taking day hikes in each of the 14 states the Trail passes through.

To commemorate their son, who took his own life in 2014 after repeated struggles with depression, Kathi and Steve have launched the Danny Cramer Appalachian Trail Stewardship Memorial Fund. A seed pledge of $50,000 will be used to mitigate the impact of increased Trail use issuing from the recent spate of movies and books about hiking. In dedicating a plaque, now displayed in the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center, Steve said, “We believe that hike gave Danny a few more years to live, and we would like people involved with the Trail to know that they helped prolong his life a little bit; a treasure beyond value.”

As Colorado residents, Steve and Kathi are outdoor people, a passion conveyed to their son. “We’re runners, we golf and ski, and we camped when we were younger,” they explain. But it was Danny who caught the hiking bug, ultimately inspiring his parents’ goal to “walk in some of the places he walked” across all 14 Trail states. To this end, one of Danny’s fellow thru-hikers, Gingersnap, provided a “greatest hits” list of three- to six-mile day hikes. Springer Mountain, Fontana Dam, Max Patch, Mount Rogers, Delaware Gap, Mount Greylock, Norwich-Hanover, and many other sites provided “a glimpse of the wonderful experience the Trail was [for Danny],” the Cramers say. An email to friends describes their last hike: “Today’s Trail experience was truly magical; the scenery absolutely gorgeous! We made it to within five miles of Katahdin’s summit. We could go no further because the A.T. has not yet opened for the season…We feel a great sense of accomplishment at a beautiful place by a pond (a large lake by our standards) knowing that Danny would have enjoyed the serenity and peace.”

The Cramers at Springer Mountain — the couple took time off to connect to the places Danny experienced during his thru-hike by taking day hikes in each of the 14 states the Trail passes through.

In the tradition of Earl Shaffer, whose inaugural thru-hike walked off the psychic distress of World War II, Danny had decided to thru-hike after a serious bout of depression during his junior year at Swarthmore College. Afterward, he returned for his senior year to graduate Phi Beta Kappa, on time, and “on budget” to quote his grateful parents. Because he had just begun work as an ATC ridgerunner, he attended his graduation wearing his ridgerunner uniform underneath his robe. He returned to Swarthmore for a teaching certificate in 2012, followed by a second season as a ridgerunner. He then joined the faculty of the New Jersey School of Conservation, where he taught middle and high school students one- to two-week custom curricula — mastering a menu of 50 topics ranging from rock climbing to history and maple sugaring, Danny received rave reviews from students and supervisors alike. He had just bested a field of more experienced candidates for a full-time teaching position at his alma mater, Denver Jewish Day School, when a final bout of depression took its toll.

The Trail was far more beautiful than I ever could’ve expected.

“My guess is that a lot of people hike the Trail to buy some time, to discover themselves, or because they don’t know what they want to do next, because they don’t know where they fit in the world,” Kathi says. Her husband adds, “It’s also an escape from the craziness of daily life. There aren’t many places you can go for that …” Kathi finishes his sentence, adding, “… that are socially acceptable.”

Just before they set off on their 14-state section hikes of the Trail, the Cramers experienced their own brand of Trail magic, starting near their home in Colorado where they received a good omen. “When we stopped at a cafe/bar in Limon for lunch, a guy at the only other table of people was apparently talking about his trip along the southern part of the A.T. In Limon, Colorado. Too weird!” they explain. A more typical example occurred when they decided to head for Hot Springs, North Carolina from a nearby trailhead. Another pair of hikers offered directions, and then followed them down, signaling every twist and turn along a labyrinth of dirt roads. Arriving in Hot Springs, Kathi and Steve strolled around town, “hikers everywhere,” before selecting a brewery for lunch. They’d just settled in when their “Trail angels” walked through the door. “So we got a chance to buy them lunch,” the Cramers explain. “We’d probably still be at the trailhead if they hadn’t helped us out.”

Although the Cramers are not planning to thru-hike, Kathi says that they will definitely be doing more day-hiking. “The Trail was serene and beautiful. You’re in the woods [for long stretches], and then get breathtaking views.” Steve confirms, “The Trail was far more beautiful than I ever could’ve expected. I knew we had a treasure in the A.T., but I didn’t know how much until we did this. Research on PTSD indicates that right-left activity like the metronome of walking can help people get through difficult memories. I felt closer to Danny than at any time since he died, in a good way; love and grief, which is another form of love.”

– This article was written by Sonja Carlborg, and first appeared in the 2016 Summer issue of A.T. Journeys.