You have to go a long way to top Mary Kwart's accomplishments. So far, the 60-year-old has walked 20,000 miles — almost the circumference of the earth — on isolated trails, in the heat, snow, rain and wind, mostly alone and loving it.
Kwart just completed hiking the 800-mile Arizona Trail, from Mexico to Utah. She did it in two segments: 130 miles over 12 days in March 2011 and the last, 670-mile section over 62 straight days this March through May.
Breaking a big route into smaller sections is preferable for long-distance hikers who don't have the stamina, desire or time off to commit to months of nonstop walking. While some hikers can traverse the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to the Canadian border, in seven months, Kwart finished it, bit by bit, while on vacations over 34 years. She tackled the segments during time off from her job as a U.S. Forest Service fire management officer in national parks, forests and wildlife refuges in California, Colorado and Alaska.
But since she retired and moved to Ashland in 2008, Kwart has had more time to devote to wearing out her walking shoes, which she does every 500 miles. She joined the Ashland-based Backpacking After 60 group, which posts practical information and travel journals online at www.ltbackpackers.wordpress.com, and hikes with them on weekend trips. She teaches a series of classes on hiking strategies through Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and at the Greensprings Mountain Festival on Sept. 8, and she blogs about her preparations and experiences on www.postholer.com/fireweed.
"Fireweed" is her trail name, which she gave herself because the fireweed flower is the first to return after flames have cut through a forest. When she hiked the Arizona Trail, she ran into people named "Yeah, But," "Happy Feet," "Elderly Ellen" and "Upchuck." Each name comes with a story.
Kwart prepares for her grueling hikes by walking the treadmill at the Ashland Family YMCA. While people nearby are stepping leisurely enough on the rotating belts to flip through magazines, Kwart is hoofing it at a 3-mile-per-hour pace and on a 9-degree incline. Oh, and she's bearing a 30-pound pack.
"I'm older and wiser now," says Kwart, who went on her first long hike as a teenager, from the Bay Area to Yosemite in 1970, with a kid's flannel sleeping bag and 2 pounds of sunflower seeds and raisins stuffed into an Army Surplus pack. "I no longer think that my physical fitness can get me out of every situation. I give myself time to figure things out and not just go."
Although the long hikes keep her fit, she says what she enjoys most is being a part of the natural world, winnowing her needs into a backpack and relishing the simple joys of an occasional bed, warm shower and cold beer.
The trails she has traveled, she says, are not set up to be pilgrimages, like the Camino de Santiago in Spain, but she finds a spiritual component in each place. "The opportunity to concentrate one step at a time is lost in our daily life," she says, "but when you're out there, you have to pay attention to the world around you every moment."
Long days alone, monotonous scenery, out-of-date guidebooks, miscalculated GPS coordinates and vanished sign posts have taught her to be self sufficient. "You have to deal with the weather and other stuff," she says. "You can't run away from it and that makes you resourceful."
On the Arizona Trail, she endured grinding, altitude-sickness-causing paths 9,300 feet above sea level and a path that plunged 4,800 feet from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the bottom. The elevation gain across the Arizona Trail is 96,666 feet, which is like climbing Mount Everest three times.
She described one segment, the Two Bar Ridge trail, in her blog as "the equivalent of hiking down a steep chute of golf balls. Impossible not to fall."
Bulls blocked the water tanks and she shared the dry, dusty road with bears, coyotes and rattlesnakes. On one stretch, she went nine days without seeing a car.
It's complicated to prepare for a long, remote trip. Kwart needs a house sitter and to put her bills on auto pay and her stock market investments on hold. Then she uses a spreadsheet, GPS mapping and other high-tech devices to plot her resupply spots along the route. But once she's hiking, she's rarely connected to cellphone service or the Internet.
Instead, she relies on the kindness of Trail Angels and other strangers; people who can identify her as a long-distance hiker in need of a post office to collect a bounce box — a package of supplies she sent herself in advance — and the comforts of four walls and a computer.
"I have met day hikers and other people at trailheads who offer to let me stay in their house or in their fifth wheel, or to use their cars," she says. "There is a community of people who let it be known that they will give you a ride to the trailhead or help you out."
Kwart is thankful to the unknown Trail Angels who leave containers of water on the route, and she returns the favor to people coming through Ashland.
On the Arizona Trail, she had endless anxiety about being thirsty in the desert. She carried only about 2 liters of water with her because she didn't want to be weighed down. Once, out of desperation, she pumped water from a puddle in a road while worrying that a four-wheel drive vehicle would drive over her. She ran the water through a filter and recalls that it was fresher than the water in her second choice, a cattle trough.
Another time, she watched guys in a Jeep pour water in a dog bowl for their dachshunds and regretted not asking them for spare drops.
She wrote in her blog about an experience she had days later at a rest stop: "I picked up my package at the marina — pretty surreal to be walking on top of water on the long floating dock, after stressing about water availability for days."
But the bleak days she wrote about in her journal and later posted on her blog were woven with days in which she appreciated the times she saw orange poppies, heard the sound of flowing water, experienced the peacefulness inside her tent and met helpful strangers along the way.
When she arrived in Oracle, Ariz., 82 miles into the trip, she was told that the only motel was full. When she mentioned the setback to a woman at the post office, she was invited to stay in the woman's spare room. She celebrated with Mexican food and ice cream.
When she took her last step on the Arizona Trail, the party was equally simple. Her friends took a photograph of her and they drove to Page, Arizona for fish and chips at Denny's, a meal that Kwart wrote in her journal was "perfect."
"There is no big whoop-to-do at the end of the trail because it feels so good just to have a beer, pizza or ice cream," says Kwart, who calculated that she spent $4 per mile for food, transportation, motels, shoes and resupply items. "Simple pleasures become your celebration at the end."
She says her reaction was different when she finished walking the Pacific Crest Trail because it was the end of a decades-long goal, starting with hiking 68 miles in 1976 and ending with a 1,000-mile trek in 2010.
"I saw the monument at the Canadian border and I signed the register," she says, pausing. "It was an overwhelming emotional experience to finished."
But just as she does on the trail, her mind bounced back to the fun side of being on a long, long walk.
She says the period of mourning that a trip is over is short. "I immediately start reading journal websites," she says, "and talking to other hikers and planning my next trip."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email@example.com.