By Charissa Hipp, ATC Harpers Ferry Visitor Center Supervisor

Hiking with Pigtails

January 14, 2022

When hiking the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), the word “connection” comes to mind. I feel a strong connection to self, place, nature, spirit and community. On the Trail I can be alone with my thoughts, surrounded by the beauty of nature. Perhaps most importantly to me, it has allowed me to connect deeply with others who have a shared love of the Trail, and to help foster that love for my daughter in the most formative years of her life.

Ironically, despite growing up in rural Maryland in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains, my discovery of the Trail didn’t come until later in life. I was nearly 40 years old the first time I went for a hike on the A.T., getting up before sunrise one fall morning with my oldest son to enjoy the fall foliage and hike to Annapolis Rock. I was hooked after that and slowly began exploring other sections of the Trail.

Many early hikes were done with a toddler on my back, carrying my daughter until she became too heavy, and the shoulder straps dug deep into my shoulders. Transitioning to trails she could hike took a lot of patience — I would have rather had the challenge of hiking the A.T. — but we had to gradually increase trail difficulty and distance. When she was three, we hiked the short-but-challenging mile up to Weverton Cliffs together for the very first time. She could have spent hours at the cliffs enjoying the view. It was love at first climb.

Little did I know then, but with some perseverance and patience, she would soon become my best hiking partner.

At the start of 2020 when she was four years old, Julia asked to join me for the 52 Hike Challenge, pledging to hike about once a week throughout the year. I happily encouraged her, but I also never expected her to stick with it. Yet when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down basically everything that March, we filled our time by hiking almost every day. Some of our usual spots grew busy — many others came to know the restorative benefits of hiking that year — but that gave us the excuse to explore the many lesser-known trails nearby.

Later that spring, Julia saw me watching online videos about the A.T., which sparked a multitude of questions from her. “How long is the Trail? Will you take me to that footbridge? Can we hike to that overlook? How many miles are in Maryland?” At that point, I hadn’t hiked all the A.T. in Maryland. I soon discovered that was about to change.

When summer came, we hiked to several overlooks along the Trail in Maryland, but Julia — a.k.a. “Pigtails” — insisted on hiking all 41 miles of the Maryland section of the A.T. I planned day hikes to cover the remaining miles and we enlisted the help of family members to shuttle us. Before the summer was over, my four-year-old daughter had completed the 52 Hike Challenge and all the A.T. in Maryland. She became obsessed with A.T. symbols and white blazes, and part of me was sad to see her start pre-kindergarten, fearing that our hiking days were over.

Thankfully, those fears were short-lived. By the time fall arrived, it became clear that hiking was now part of our lifestyle, and it wasn’t going to go away because of inconveniences like “schedules.” I worked from home and Julia had virtual pre-k during the week, so we hiked on the weekends and evenings, continuing our A.T. trek north into Pennsylvania and frequenting other local trails.

Hiking was no longer just a hobby — it became a necessary part of our self-care, an escape from screens and sitting indoors. Time on the Trail gave me a break from the demands of working, “mom duty,” and being an amateur teacher’s aide, often simultaneously. We were happier in nature, and the Trail became our giant outdoor classroom where we constantly learned and grew together.

As our fondness for the Trail grew, our desire to give back and be active members of the A.T. community expanded as well. We read in a children’s book that some Trail maintaining clubs allow kids to help paint blazes. That lit a fire in Julia, and when a friend invited us to paint blazes on a section of Trail she helps maintain near Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, “Pigtails” gladly accepted the offer for both of us.

We spent a day with the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club painting white blazes and clearing overgrowth. The crew leader insisted Julia have her own pair of loppers and learn how to safely use them. From the size of her smile, you would have thought she had been entrusted with Excalibur — she still talks giddily today about her Trail work with a profound sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Cultivating Julia’s sense of stewardship and responsibility at such an early age has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life so far, as has watching her love grow for a part of the world I regret never experiencing at her age. I can see her wonder as she scans the seemingly endless valleys from atop South Mountain, and as she balances a fallen pine needle on her fingertip. During our final A.T. hike of 2021, she pointed out the white tops of the sycamore trees leafless from the winter winds, the perilla growing along the Trail’s edge, and the turkey tail fungus perched on a downed log. She fully activates her senses and soaks in every detail more than anyone I’ve known. And she constantly reminds me how important it is to slow down and appreciate the world around me — especially the special places like the A.T. — through the eyes of a child.