Trail Angel Spotlight: Red Hat
For many hikers who are nearing the northeastern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not only might you be stalked by bears along the way, but, if you are lucky, you’ll also be stalked by a trail angel who goes by the trail name Red Hat.
Otherwise known as Kathy Markward, this saintly woman, a widow of nine years, has spent much of her time these past couple of years sitting atop a boulder at Davenport Gap waiting patiently—sometimes for hours—for hikers to emerge from the Smokies. She then whisks them away for a brief respite from the rigors of the trail to her charming log home, a little over ten miles away, where she houses them in her cozy, wood-paneled bunk room, feeding them an excellent dinner, followed by a hearty breakfast before returning them to the trail; rested, well-fed, and refreshed.
In the beginning
Born in 1947, the now 71-year-old Red Hat has lived a long and varied life. Growing up in Houston, TX, she always loved the outdoors—a love that was instilled in her by her father, who often took her fishing and camping. This love of nature continued throughout her early life as she was also a Girl Scout for many of those years
She got married and lived happily ever after. No, not really
When she was 20, Red Hat got married to a man who was in the casino business. Shortly afterward, they moved to Las Vegas. Over the years, they had three children, and eventually her husband was transferred to a casino job in New Jersey. It’s a long story with a sad ending, but after 17 years, their marriage ended in divorce.
At 38 years old, she was alone with the care of three kids in NJ. However, she credits her father for pushing her in school early in life, which gave her the marketable skills needed to get a good job. Because of this, she was able to provide well for herself and her kids.
Though she could have easily moved back to Houston to get support from her family, she didn’t. “I didn’t want to have anyone tell me I told you so. I was determined to prove to everyone that I could take care of myself,” she said with firm resolve.
Still, it was not easy being a single mom, far away from the support of family and friends. She credits her faith in God for pulling her through the emotional trauma of her divorce. It was at this time in her life that she said she truly became a Christian.
Then she met Frank: “He was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I believe God had put Frank in my path,” she says right up front. “He was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
After the divorce, although she was doing fine in her life as a single mother, she said that a friend insisted that she accompany her to a Parents Without Partners dance. She said she didn’t really want to go, but, through the persistence of her friend, she went anyway. While there, she said, she just sat along a wall and kept to herself.
That’s when this tall burly man (Frank) came over, and told her, “I’m in charge of wallflowers,” then asked her to dance. “He used his gift of charm on me, and that was it.” They were married two years later.
Frank was a big man. At 6 foot 4 inches, this 300-pound former Army soldier was a strong man who could easily take care of himself. Though he looked like a big, tough guy, Red Hat said with a cheery smile, ”He was as as gentle as a teddy bear.”
Frank, a corrections officer at a local prison, had a calming effect on everybody. Red Hat told of a time during a riot in the prison yard when Frank strolled right into the middle of the fray, held his big hand high in the air and, in a booming but genuinely enthusiastic voice, said, “Hey guys, feel the breeze!” To the astonishment of the other guards and the confusion of the brawling inmates, they suddenly ceased their melee. She said he had this effect on everyone.
Throughout their years together, Frank would turn out not only to be a wonderful stepdad to her children, but he was a staunch supporter of her as well. Even though she was already in her 40s, Frank encouraged her to go back to school and get her college degree, which led her to a new career as a teacher for special needs junior high students.
The Appalachian Trail beckons
Once, on a trip from New Jersey to Houston, she remembered passing a sign that said, Appalachian Trail Crossing. It was this single event that sparked her interest in the AT. She’d already known about it before but the more she thought about that sign, the more interested she became with the idea of hiking the trail.
However, it wasn’t until 2003, when the last of her children got through college, that she was able to retire and could actually have the time to get out to the AT and hike. So Frank drove her to where the famous hiker, Warren Doyle, was conducting his Appalachian Trail Institute class. She said, “He would lecture in the morning, then they would hike in the afternoon.” For their final exam, he dropped the students off at Bear Tree Gap, and said, “I’ll meet you in Damascus.” The ones that made it to Damascus passed the class.
When asked why her husband didn’t hike with her, she said, “He told me, ‘I did enough walking in the Army.’ ”
Over the next year, her intention was to section hike all of Virginia. Frank supported her hikes by driving their RV, dropping her off to do sections, then meeting her at predetermined road crossings. However, one day while she was up on Dragons Tooth in a severe thunderstorm, she was over four hours late meeting up with Frank. He became so worried about her while she was up in that storm that he decided he didn’t want to drive support and have to worry about her all the time. Instead, when they returned home, he told her, “Honey, just go hike.” Meaning she ought to just hike the entire AT.
So, on March 13, 2005, that’s just what she set out to do. She made it as far as Harpers Ferry when she received a call from her mother back in Texas, telling her, “Get your ass home, Frank is really sick.”
For the next several years, she stayed by Frank’s side as his health had its ups and downs. Eventually, in 2009, Frank passed away.
Red Hat’s thru-hike: a journey of healing
On March 13, 2010, with the loss of the love of her life leaving a gaping hole in her heart, she gathered up her strength and embarked on a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
Instead of waiting for someone to give her a trail name, she went with the name she most associated with from back in 2004, when she founded a local Red Hat chapter, the “Bold, Beautiful Babes of Brenham (TX),” of which she was the queen until right before her hike. In fact, she ordered as much of her gear as possible in the red and purple colors of the Red Hats, to go with her name.
During the early stages of her hike, she remembered, “I wasn’t a good hiking companion.” Though she could have hiked with others, she chose to be alone a lot to work through Frank’s death. She says, “I walked and I prayed and I cried, and I walked and I prayed and I cried.” Gradually, the trail displaced her grief; the struggle dispelled her sadness.
As she hiked, she made new trail friends and was helped by many people along the way, one of whom was the ubiquitous Miss Janet Hensley.
As Red Hat tells it, she was at Hogback Ridge Shelter when she suddenly felt as if she were having a heart attack. That’s when one of her fellow hikers, Soweega, sprang into action and ran the two miles down to Sams Gap, and knocked on doors until someone let him use their phone, where he called Miss Janet, who came up and drove her to the hospital. After some tests, it turned out that her backpack strap had pinched a nerve in her shoulder, giving her what she thought were heart attack symptoms.
The rest of her hike was filled with countless rich life experiences, and she met many wonderful people who changed her outlook on her life. It was the most enriching thing she had ever done.
However, there came a day in the 100-Mile Wilderness when she found herself confronted with a situation, much like Tom Hanks in the movie Forrest Gump, when she decided, “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.” She said that her decision to quit the trail there was because at that point the trail had served its purpose; it had done for her all the things that she needed to satisfy her desire for a long-distance hike, as well as help get her past Frank’s death. She was tired of hiking and knew it was time for her to go home and start a new chapter in her life.
From hiker to trail angel
Once done with the trail, she began to reevaluate her mission in life. It was during Christmas 2015, when she and her adult children, who were spread out between Kentucky and North Carolina, decided to have a reunion in Gatlinburg, TN, where she laid eyes once again on the beauty of the Smoky Mountains. Knowing that this was a more logical location in which to see her children and grandchildren more often, as well as be in a place where she could hike any time she wanted, she decided to look for property.
Remembering back to her thru-hike attempt, she had to get off the AT at Lemon Gap to go to the hospital in Newport, TN, to be treated for norovirus. She remembered how lovely the northeastern end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park looked from Newport so she decided to look for property there, as property was less expensive than other areas near the Smokies.
It didn’t take her long to find a nice log cabin in a little subdivision with marvelous views of the Smokies.
On the day that she was moving into her home, she didn’t have anyone to help her unload. That’s when she got the idea to drive up to Davenport Gap, where she found two thru-hikers who were willing to unload her moving van in return for resupply at the local Walmart, a few good home-cooked meals and a good night’s stay in her guest room. She really identified with these hikers and liked having their company so well that she continued driving up to Davenport Gap, sitting atop one of the large boulders, waiting for hikers to appear. She said: “I don’t initially invite them to stay. What I do is offer to take them to resupply at Walmart and, on the way, I observe their behavior, and if I get a good feeling about them, I invite them to stay.”
Red Hat’s life’s ministry: to help hikers, especially women hikers
When asked why she does it, she explained, “When I hiked, so many people helped me that I now want to be one of those people. I feel that hospitality is my (God-given spiritual) gift and I want to share my gift with others. I believe that one of the spiritual gifts given to little people (like me) is hospitality.” She went on to say that hospitality is promoted in the Bible—in Hebrews 13:2—where it talks about people who have entertained angels, unaware that they were doing so. It thrills Red Hat to think that she might someday have (or already had) a real angel in her home.
Over the years, she has joined the Appalachian Trail Women’s Group on Facebook, where she makes arrangements for hikers to stay in a bedroom that she has very charmingly remodeled into a four-person bunk room, done in a very woody, rustic fashion. She said that she chooses who she takes in by who “God has laid upon my heart.” She said she isn’t against having men stay with her but, “I feel safer if there’s at least a few women in with them.”
Her rules are simple: They can invite three other friends (as she only has lodging for four), they must behave themselves, and must not give her money. She said people have tried slipping cash into her couch cushions and other places, so now she checks her house for cash and, if she finds any, she slips it back in their backpacks.
She is a good cook and serves only her best to hikers. “Hikers normally eat so much pasta, I want to cook something different; something unexpected.” So, for supper, she’ll usually make steaks, with all the fixings (or eggplant parmesan for vegetarians). The next morning, for breakfast, she’ll sometimes make peach pancakes with homemade peach cobbler syrup, topped with fresh whipped cream. She laughingly said, “But there’s also maple syrup for the traditionalists.”
But her giving spirit does not stop there. “I am in charge of hospitality at my Messianic synagogue and pass out meals to people in church,” she said.
She’s also done trail maintenance with Bob Peoples’s Hardcore Crew, and also the Konnarock Crew. With a wistful smile, she said, “But I’m getting old now, so I do what I can.”
Even with all her giving, she still finds time to hike up to shelters and pass out trail magic to hikers as she did one snowy day this spring, when she carried 30 pounds of drinks to Walnut Mountain Shelter, where I served a huge pot of pork chili verde to over 15 hikers.
The future of Red Hat
When asked if she still wears a red hat when picking up and entertaining hikers, she asserted, “I don’t have to wear a red hat any more… I AM RED HAT!” Red Hat added that she is going to continue taking in hikers for as long as she’s able.
So, if you are ever fortunate enough to meet this lovely soul, remember that without Frank Markward, there would likely be no trail angel known as Red Hat. To honor Frank, the man who changed her life for the better, whenever you find yourself out on the trail and in a difficult, miserable situation, why not stop, take a deep breath, hold your hand in the air, and remember to “Feel the breeze!”
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