Trail Angel Spotlight: The Trekking Twins
Each year, the Appalachian Trail is maintained by a dwindling, aging population of volunteers. This is a story about two exceptional trail angels and maintainers.
For many years, while hiking up a stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Green Corner Road to the top of Snowbird Mountain, I’d noticed evidence of someone cutting weeds back from the trail. In my mind, I always imagined a tough, burly lumberjack-of-a-man lugging a heavy trimmer and gas can up this relatively steep section of trail, and I appreciated the hard work he did.
One day, on a hike on this section, I rounded a corner and ran straight into something totally unexpected: two petite, white-haired ladies—identical twins—each carrying her own large, commercial grade gas-powered weed trimmer. Not only that, but one of them also had a metal gas can while the other had a large pair of loppers hanging from her trimmer.
The first thought that popped into my head was, How are these fragile little ladies able to do all this hard work? At around 5 feet 1 inch, they couldn’t weigh much more than 100 pounds apiece. I later discovered they were a little over 110 pounds each.
From the moment I began talking to them, I discovered the ladies possessed a delightful sense of humor. The first thing Elrose told me was that Sue “says I boss her around because I’m the older one. I’m 10 minutes older and I don’t ever let her forget that,” to which Sue quipped, “She looks older, doesn’t she.”
I learned these 83-year-old widows were former section hikers turned trail maintainers, they go by the trail name the Trekking Twins, and they have been maintaining this section of trail (and others) for over 14 years. I knew I had to get their story and arranged to meet them at their nearby mountain cabin.
A Journey into the Past
Driving out to visit the Trekking Twins was like going backward in time. I exited I-40 several miles into North Carolina and started driving down a paved country highway. The deeper into the foothills I got, the road transitioned from asphalt to gravel. Soon, the goat farms and old barns that dotted the narrow pastures between wooded hills gave way to deep, primordial forest. On and on the twisty road climbed, winding through stands of glossy rhododendron, eventually narrowing to barely wide enough for a single car. Soon the forest opened onto a grassy clearing called Cabin Creek Cove, where two cabins stood—one very old and one newer—surrounded by the towering mountains of the Smokies. I had arrived at the peaceful home of the Trekking Twins.
A Long and Happy Life
Walking to greet me were the smiling faces of Elrose Couric and Sue Hollinger. Standing in the shade of towering tulip poplars, the story of their long and interesting lives began to unfold.
Born in 1936, Elrose and Sue Plentovich were raised in the Tidewater region of Northeastern Virginia. Identical twins born ten minutes apart, they were two of eight children. Throughout their youth, nature played a big part in their lives. They talked of living on their family’s 100 acres of property—mostly woodland adjacent to a river and wetlands—where they would spend carefree hours playing in nature. They participated in the Girl Scouts and loved going to camp in the summers. These experiences led to their lifelong love of nature.
Becoming Adults in the 1950s
As they entered adulthood, the sisters attended Madison College, a women’s junior college in Virginia. They went on to the University of Virginia, where they graduated in 1959 with nursing degrees. Animal-lover Elrose said that “there was no women’s lib back in those days or I would have become a veterinarian.” They attribute their academic success to their older brother, who encouraged them to go to the University of Virginia. They both worked as nurses until they got married, and Sue went on to earn a degree in zoology, working several years in a research facility.
Just a year after graduation, Sue got married and her husband went on to become a physicist, followed by Elrose a year later in 1961, her husband becoming a lawyer. Their husband’s careers caused them to live far apart. Sue lived in the DC area of Virginia and Elrose in Florida. While Sue had children, Elrose said, “Sue had children—I had cats.”
After 37 years of marriage, Elrose’s husband died suddenly of a massive heart attack. During this time, Elrose had the freedom to reconnect with Sue in Virginia, spending happy times with her sister once again. During this period Sue’s husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away less than two years later.
Starting Another Life Together
For the next few years, the two planned what they were going to do with the rest of their lives. The thought of remarrying never once entered their minds. When I asked why they never remarried, Sue said, “We didn’t need to; we had each other,” while Elrose chimed in, “Been there, done that!”
Starting over again was particularly challenging, as both of their husbands had taken care of the financial side of life. However, Elrose said, “For many years my husband would listen to the financial shows, and though I didn’t pay much attention, the things I’d heard over the years came back.” Soon she was trading stocks and has done well with her investments. Sue relayed she “never paid a bill, never wrote a check.” However, when he knew the end was near, “Being 100% German, he meticulously showed me how he took care of all the bills, so that when the time came, I could do it all.” After her husband’s death, Sue began reading books on money management, which ended up paying off quite well.
The first thing the twins did was to go down to Key Largo and rent a condo where they could spend the winter planning their next move. They ended up liking it so much that they bought their own place, but it wasn’t long before they felt the calling of the mountains. During Elrose’s years with her husband, they would vacation in the cool mountains near Hendersonville, NC, not far from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With fond memories of the Appalachians, she and Sue decided to take a trip and look for a summer home.
Within a week, they found a secluded, 100-acre plot of land—part of which bordered the Smokies—perfectly suited to their needs. The moment they laid eyes on this property, with its two cabins, an 1850-era cabin and a modern cabin, they knew this was where they wanted to live the rest of their lives.
Not only did they waste no time in getting their new cabin the way they liked it, they also turned their attention to the broken-down historic cabin. They saw the intrinsic value in restoring it and set about finding someone who could not only restore it, but would set it on a modern foundation and bring it up to code so it could be habitable. They found a builder who specialized in antique building restoration and he succeeded in making the cabin look better than it ever had.
Trails Become a Way of Life
Over the next 25 years, Elrose and Sue’s lives became centered around trails. The first thing they did after setting up their homestead was to join a local hiking club, the Heywood Hikers. From there, they heard about the Carolina Mountain Club, and they’ve been working with them ever since. During this time, they also began taking on bigger hiking challenges, starting with the “92 in ’98,” where they hiked all 92 miles of trail the Carolina Mountain Club maintains, followed soon after by the 6,000-Foot Challenge, where they hiked 40 mountains over 6,000 feet in elevation, then on to the ambitious 900-Mile Challenge, where they hiked all 900 miles of trails within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During this time they began to section hike the Appalachian Trail, starting in 1998 and finishing in 2016 when they were 80 years old.
When Elrose and Sue section-hiked the AT, they didn’t set out to break any endurance records. Determined to make it all about enjoyment, they would hike 200-300 miles at a time, staying in motels or hostels almost every night. The way they accomplished this was by “leapfrogging”—driving their car near the section they were going to hike, then renting a car and parking at both ends of the daily section. They were able to slackpack most of the AT. In the White Mountains they hiked from hut to hut, enjoying the comfort of warm food and lodging every night.
They loved every step of the trail—even the rain—and were thrilled because they were still physically able to hike 15-mile days in Maine in their 70s. “At our age, just being able to do it was an achievement.”
However, hiking the AT has not been without its hazards. On one occasion, Elrose slipped and fell, impaling her side on the blunt end of one of her trekking poles and breaking several ribs, which led to pneumonia. Another time, while attempting the Four State Challenge—a 59-mile hike where hikers try to hike from West Virginia to Pennsylvania in one day—just a mile shy of the finish, Elrose fell and bent three of her fingers back to her wrist, breaking them all.
Dedicated Trail Maintainers
Throughout the years they have faithfully maintained their 4.7-mile assigned section of trail from Green Corner Road to the top of Snowbird Mountain, which comes with a hefty 2,463 feet of elevation gain. Every two months during the heavy floral growth season, they trudged their gear up Snowbird Mountain, taking four consecutive ten-hour days to complete.
By the time they turned 80, the Carolina Mountain Club had cut the section they were required to maintain in half, as they did for other trail maintainers so nobody would be burdened with too much work. Though this cut their workload in half, it still takes around four 8-10 hour days of maintenance work every few months.
An Uncanny Bond Between Twins
Elrose said the name for their type of twin is “Mirror Twins,” for though they are identical in many ways, they are very different in others. For instance, Elrose is left-handed, while Sue is right-handed. They both have very different personalities; Elrose is more outgoing while Sue is more introverted and reserved. They tell of an ESP experiment the psychology department conducted back in their college days, where flash cards were used to determine if they could read each other’s minds. When one was shown a card with a picture or symbol on it, the other could guess what was on the card. The test revealed that they were accurate over 98% of the time.
But that was not the only thing they had in common.
- They both married less than two years apart.
- Both of their husbands died less than two years apart
- Both smoked for ten years at the beginning of their marriage, quitting independently of each other in the same year.
- Both independently took an interest in botany and became amateur botanists. Elrose boasts that she was able to identify every plant in Florida before she moved away.
- Both kept physically active and physically fit all their lives.
- Both have a love for hiking and the outdoors
Sue’s son, Jason—who lives in the restored 1850 cabin—started a career in computers, but Sue said he followed his heart and transitioned into field of study he really loves: lichenology—the study of lichens. Like Sue and Elrose, he has a love for plants that has propelled him into an exciting career that often calls upon him to travel around the world to research and identify lichens.
Ikigai: Getting up Every Day with a Sense of Purpose
What is the secret to a long healthy life? For the Sue and Elrose, it means getting up each day with a sense of purpose and enjoying life to its fullest. Their sense of purpose seems to always center around trails and nature.
Not only do Sue and Elrose take care of their 2.3-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail on Snowbird Mountain, they also maintain several little trails that crisscross their property. As if that weren’t enough, over the years they have cleared a half-mile trail from their cabin into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where they have cleared and maintain a 4.7-mile inactive trail inside the GSMP that used to be called the Asbury Trail. This trail allows them access to other trails within the park without having to drive many miles to various park entrances to hike in the GSMP. As it turns out, the trail they cleared is useful because they said that others, including biologists, have also used their trail to access remote regions of the park.
As we strolled about their property, the Trekking Twins took me for a walk on one of their many little “wildflower” trails, where quaint homemade bridges span lively streams and all trails are marked with neatly engraved wooden signs naming the trails, most of which are names of many of Elrose’s cats she’s had over the years.
Not only were these trails free of rocks, weeds, and branches, they were paved with plush, green moss. When asked how they managed to have so much moss carpeting their trails, Elrose smiled and said, “The secret is to blow all the leaves off.” Not only do they lug heavy weed trimmers around, these badass ladies go throughout their dense forest with backpack mounted gas-powered leaf blowers.
As we walked farther into their forest, they took me to a little secluded shelter they had built near one of their many streams. With whimsical smiles on their faces, they told me, “This is where we sometimes come to sit and drink wine.” However, Sue made sure to quietly tell me, “We don’t drink anything fancy, just jug wine.” As we sat there, warm sunshine flowing down between the leaves, we talked about how their lives are now that they are in their mid-80s.
They said that they exercised and followed a healthy diet most of their lives and that they have very few health problems. However, Sue did have a condition several years ago called stenosis of the spine, but since her surgery, “It feels completely fine.” Although both Sue and Elrose have a little bit of arthritis in their hands and knees, they feel good. They eat a low-salt, organic diet and take lots of vitamins. It must be working because they told me they haven’t had as much as a cold in several years.
What do they do with their time every day? Do they sit and talk about the past, or dream about the future? Not at all. They get up each morning and sit on their porch overlooking their clearing, watching the wildlife and planning what they are going to work on that day. It mainly consists of tasks around their property, and often includes what trails they are going to concentrate on maintaining next. They always have something planned.
While I was sitting beside these charming ladies on the porch of their rustic cabin, they pointed out three elk that strolled into view, coming to eat apples from their tree. Looking out upon the wild natural beauty that surrounds them, I couldn’t help thinking that these beautiful ladies live a life that many only dream of. Yes, Elrose and Sue have managed to put the “Gold” into their golden years.
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