Pamela Clark Is On Track To Become the Oldest Female AT Thru-Hiker Ever
When Pamela Clark read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, she was amused and curious. But she never imagined she would one day put her own feet on the storied trail, let alone have a shot at becoming a record-breaking thru-hiker herself.
Yet the 76-year-old Florida native is now just 300 miles from completing the Appalachian Trail; if all goes as planned and she completes the remaining miles by her 77th birthday on March 30th, she will soon become the oldest woman to hike the AT in one year.
Better known as “Birthday Girl”on trail, Clark is easily recognized by her resplendent, bubble-gum pink hair.
“It’s actually amethyst,” she corrects me as we talk via Zoom. She’s somewhere in Massachusetts waiting out a storm. “I didn’t want to get lost, and I thought if I dyed my hair, people would remember where they saw me. But now it’s become BDG’s colors, so I keep it up.”
Going for the Gold
Clark is a retired elementary school teacher lovingly called “Pam-maw” by several children. The widow and mother of two has traveled to Australia and throughout most of the United States, but had never been backpacking until recently.
Breaking a record was not on Clark’s radar when she started walking the AT a year ago. She was just looking for somewhere to go without getting on an airplane amid Covid travel restrictions—and the AT’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia is only a day’s drive from Florida.
So on Black Friday, 2021, she wandered into Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park, looking for a sale to begin gearing up for her own walk in the woods.
And she returned every week for a half a year, soon connecting with a local hiker named Kathy Porupski. Porupski leads hikes with Suncoast Outdoors and became one of Clark’s biggest champions.
“That first time Kathy and I went out with all my new gear, we hiked eight flat miles. I got my tent up but didn’t blow up my mattress and didn’t eat dinner either. I slept about 14 hours that night!”
Porupski was first to point out that Clark’s thru-hike positioned her to set an Appalachian Trail record. Currently, M.J. “Nimblewill Nomad” Eberhart is the all-time oldest AT thru-hiker (he was 83 when he set the record in 2021), while Nan “Drag’n Fly” Reisinger is the oldest female thru-hiker, finishing in 2014 at the age of 74.
In contrast, Clark turned 76 the day she started the trail. To be considered a thru-hiker by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, she would have to complete all 2,200 miles of the AT within 12 months.
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News about Clark’s historic attempt traveled quickly through the thru-hiker grapevine. Soon hikers on trail began catching up to her to snap selfies, offer praise, and give vital support, like saving a spot for her at the next shelter.
Now, with roughly 300 miles to go to snag the record, Clark demurs on achieving this milestone. “I gotta get there first!”
Walk as Meditation
Clark describes her relationship with the 2,200-mile pathway as a marriage.
“There’s the blissful tale of what it’s going to be, all happy and rosy, and it’s not always that way. There are difficult things, but you go and do it anyway.”
Clark talks about the many facets of the infamous and sometimes relentless “green tunnel.” Once, a non-hiker friend expressed how wonderful it must be to soak up the outdoors—the comment was made just as Clark was hiking past a smelly textile factory, she recalls with a laugh.
“The whole trail is a walking meditation. Hikers talk about the ‘hostel hobble’ when you get to a place you’ll stay at night and out come the Band-Aids. But you don’t notice that on trail because you have a mindset of keeping on.”
The forests themselves reflect this perseverence, especially in Maine. “There are tenacious trees growing where they shouldn’t, as if someone told them go out there and create a stepping place, a hanging place, a hugging place. I say, ‘thank you, tree’ a lot just for being where I need them to be.”
When things get tough, Clark says the Unity Prayer.
The Light of God surrounds me.
The Love of God enfolds me.
The Power of God protects me.
The Presence of God watches over me.
Wherever I am, God is.
“It helps focus the mind and get the job done. I say it until I feel it!”
Team Birthday Girl
Clark began her hike on March 30, 2022 in Georgia. She hiked a thousand miles north to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, then flipped north to climb Katahdin and tick off the 100-Mile Wilderness amid fall’s peak colors.
As Clark’s quest became better known and her fame grew, so did her fan base. She’s been helped by countless hikers along the way. It would be fair to say it takes a village (or maybe a small army) to deal with logistics.
At Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson, Maine last year, she was looking for a partner to manage challenging Mahoosuc Notch, a veritable jungle gym of rock climbing moves. That’s when she met veteran hiker Kevin “Kitchen Sink” Ryan II.
Their goal was to slackpack the Notch. Unfortunately, it took them over five hours to finish, and they were stuck outside in 30-degree weather without sleeping gear.
“But we were OK because Kitchen Sink always overpacks, hence the name!” she tells me with a giggle, even as he perches over her shoulder on our Zoom call.
Before setting foot on trail, Clark suffered a fall that shattered her elbow. Surgeries put her back together, but in Maine’s rugged Bigelows, her elbow got jostled and banged on rocks, and she eventually developed an infection. Although antibiotics kept her going for a while, it became obvious she needed another surgery to remove the pins and clean up the infection.
That meant on October 11, 2022, just shy of Mount Washington’s summit and with 1,300 miles under her belt, she had to give up.
“The hardest part was letting all the people down, letting the trail down. I thought it was all over.”
But the trail wasn’t through with her; this became obvious once she was back home caring for a couple dozen stray cats and watching too much television. Kathy Porupski invited Clark to give a speech to a group of hikers about to begin their Appalachian Trail bid. Somehow, while talking about her adventures, Clark let it slip that she was heading back.
Porupski, whom Clark has lovingly dubbed “Remote Operations Coordinator of Birthday Girl’s Thru Hike Attempt of the Appalachian Trail,” again ran the numbers and pointed out that if Clark walked just ten miles a day for 80 days, she’d be within reach of the record.
Of course, that was calculated without taking into account any zeroes or rest days.
Back in the Saddle
Clark soon made another trip to Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure, this time for warmer clothes since she’d committed to returning to the New England section of the AT in January. A Florida gal, she wears five layers, including two coats, two under-layers, three pairs of pants, and three pairs of socks; she has also become best friends with Hothands warmers.
She’s also modified her style and purchased a trailer to provide support. Kevin Ryan has since joined her for the last push, earning him the title “Field Logistics Officer.” He drives ahead to scout out the night’s lodging, carrying extra food and clothing so she can slackpack (day hike) and sleep in a warm place, at least most of the time. When there are no road crossings near Clark’s location, Ryan carries in her gear and sets up camp before she arrives.
Clark normally carries up to 30 pounds in her pack. “And I lost over 30 pounds on the first part of the trail. I love those hiker boxes (where hikers leave unneeded gear), especially the clothing exchange!” She averages 10–12 miles per day, but it takes all day to walk that far at her customary one-mile-per-hour pace, which got halved in the most difficult state of Maine. “I’m a slow hiker. People try to walk with me, but it lasts about a week because they have to get somewhere!”
Clark’s body is holding up well. “My joints really hurt, but I take a daily off-the-shelf supplement (that includes turmeric, chondroitin, glucosamine, etc.) and use CBD cream, which took care of that.”
As far as food, Ryan chimes in to tell me she passes on the Sour Patch Kids, thru-hikers’ junk food of choice. When I ask what she craves, she replies, “Anything that comes my way!” Although she noted that the one thing she dreams about at the end of each day is chocolate cake with no icing.
Flexible and still able to sit cross-legged, Clark has practiced yoga most of her life, which helps keep her strong and loose. But if she could talk to her younger self, she’d tell her to “do this earlier when you have the limberness and balance.”
Clark is still unsure where she will end the trail. The strategy is to cover the highest mountains and summit Mount Washington whenever conditions allow, then leapfrog to check off the rest.
Reflecting on A Walk in the Woods and the seed it planted to walk the trail, Clark laughs, thinking of all the times she looked back at a mountain she’d just conquered and said to herself, “Bryson didn’t even finish the trail!”
Even so, Clark’s attitude is less competitive and more dogged. “I said I would walk the trail, and I will. I have to finish what I said I would do.”
And you know what? I bet she will.
You can follow Pamela Clark in her final miles by joining her Facebook group, Birthday Girls Thru Hike Attempt Of The Appalachian Trail. There’s also a GoFundMe site.
Update from Birthday Girl’s team 03/03/2023: “With the recent heavy snows and with more on the way Birthday Girl has made the hard decision to push the pause button until the weather becomes more favorable for the safety of herself and others.
We will keep everyone posted as to the return date to complete the last two states of Vermont and New Hampshire.
We want to give a huge shout out of thanks to all of the trail angels, hikers and supporters who helped her complete Massachusetts.”
All images, including featured image, courtesy of Pamela Clark.
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