Meet Old Lady on the Trail: 81-Year-Old Triple Crowner Mary E. Davison
Mary E. Davison — trail name “Medicare Pastor” — is the Old Lady on the Trail, and she’s proud of it. A retired pastor and grandmother of ten, she began long-distance backpacking at age 60 and completed her Triple Crown (the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail) 16 years later. Her current project is the roughly 4800-mile American Discovery Trail (ADT), which she is set to finish this fall at age 82.
Davison has authored two books: Old Lady on the Trail: Triple Crown at 76 and Aren’t You Afraid? American Discovery Trail from Atlantic Ocean to Nebraska. She’s working on a third book right now.
I was thrilled to speak with her by Zoom this past week to discuss how she’s changing what it means to be a backpacker and, especially, an old backpacker.
“If I don’t, I can’t.”
Bespectacled and sporting a gray pixie cut and an infectious giggle, Mary sat in front of a wall of theological books looking strong and athletic. I assumed she had good genes, but she immediately set me straight.
“I do not have good genes! The best thing I ever did for my body was take up long-distance backpacking. That’s motivated me to stay in shape because if I don’t, I can’t.”
She has new knees and other bodily repairs, so she has to be methodical about preparing for the trail by getting in her 10,000 daily steps and practicing carrying weight. Still, she admits she takes off a few winter months to enjoy the holidays and “fall apart” just a little.
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“It’s not good weather that makes you have fun.”
Davison was born in California and, as a child, traveled frequently with her father, a pastor who worked for the Council of Churches. “I grew up camping because it’s a cheap way to travel. A fond memory was taking a month to travel across country. In those days, right in the middle of Washington DC was a little trailer park with a small square of grass for tents. I learned how to set up camp and keep a neat tent.”
But it was Girl Scouts that sealed her love for the outdoors. “On a 10-day backpack trip, it rained every day and hailed every other day. We were lost half the time, but I never had so much fun! That trip taught me it’s not good weather that makes you have fun!”
Later, as a member of The Mountaineers in her 20s, Mary learned to use an ice axe and crampons while climbing the major peaks of the Cascades.
Despite all of this, the decision to become a long-distance hiker kind of snuck up on Davison. “My daughter liked hiking, and her husband was stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. We went to the Smokies as tourists, and I realized we’re on the Appalachian Trail. That same summer, one of my parishioners had set a goal to hike the Washington parts of the PCT, and I thought, ‘Well, gee, that looks fun.’ So I just sort of started.”
When I asked Davison whether the trail called to her like the ministry had, she responded that it was simpler than that. “I always loved to hike. I always loved being in the out-of-doors. I was just about to retire, so thought, ‘let’s do it!'”
That’s when she made retirement goals to complete both the AT and the PCT in sections. “After that decision, I just haven’t stopped!”
Two Trails at Once
Mary began her quest by walking both trails in the same season. She lives in Washington state and her daughter lives on the east coast. “I wasn’t just flying across country to hike, but to see her and her growing family. But, you know, as long as I’m here, I might as well hike!”
The PCT and AT are very different trails in tread, flora and fauna, and hiker culture. Davison’s style added variety to her hikes. Plus, she met a lot of people, many she’d run into on different trails over the years she walked.
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Making so many friends has helped her create a support group as she ticked off sections of the ADT, allowing her to hike shorter distances before being resupplied (thus carrying less weight) or slackpack.
“I always do backpacking. If I can find a way to do it easier, I’ll do it easier. I’m not stupid — and I am old!” Mary has led many group hikes as a pastor and enjoys introducing other people to backpacking.
It’s also just fun to be with other people, and Mary has been joined by many friends as she’s hiked the trails.
But although Davison often walked with others at the outset, she began spending more than half the time hiking alone as the years wore on. “I don’t hike alone because I hate people,” she explained with a laugh. “I hike alone because it’s very hard to find someone who hikes at your pace and who wants to do the crazy things that you want to do.”
Adding people to a party creates complexity. “When I’m hiking alone, for one thing, I can do whatever I want! I’m not adjusting to someone else’s need. I wouldn’t have finished all these trails if I hadn’t gone alone some of the time.”
Still, it wasn’t easy to get in the mindset of solo hiking since both the Scouts and the Mountaineers advise against it. “The very first time I camped out alone was on the PCT. I had someone coming to meet me the next day, and I only have to be brave for one night.” She’s had one serious fall and knows hiking alone raises the risk level. At 81, she’s more careful with each step.
But hiking alone has its own joys. “I get a feeling at the beginning of a hike, like, ‘wow, this trail is out there just waiting for me! The whole world is right in front of me. I think I’ll go see what’s there.'”
Mary uses a word I love: “expectantly.” She describes how she approaches the trail — and life — by simply letting it unfold and reveal itself without trying to control it.
“It’s not just a trail thing. I’ve had a long life. I’ve had some real down pieces and some great joys. I can’t tell which is happening until afterwards. The trail is the same – I don’t know what will happen until it does. We fool ourselves if we think we do.”
This was especially true on the eastern portion of the ADT, where camping is often prohibited, so Mary needed to knock on doors and ask if she might set up her tent on a stranger’s lawn.
“All I need is a place to put my tent, have some water, a bathroom is a bonus. I don’t know if the person behind that door will say no or be my next best friend.”
Still, Mary is a meticulous planner. Part of the reason is that as a section hiker, she needs to meet a plane at a particular time and at a particular place. Also, as an older hiker, she wants to know ahead of time what the conditions will be, like elevation gain and loss, to ensure she can complete a section.
“Last year, because of fire and flash floods, was remarkable because I started out with plan A, then Plan B, then C, D, and E. You do have to be flexible. But I have a lot of experience planning and can switch plans quickly!”
Old Doesn’t Mean Done
As I mentioned at the outset, Mary Davison wears her title of Old Lady on the Trail with pride. She is very much against the idea that the word “old” is pejorative. “It’s funny because some of the people who read my book get it, and some of the people say, ‘I wish she wouldn’t talk about being old so much. I’m of that age, and I don’t think I’m old.’ And it’s like, that’s because you don’t want to own up to the fact that you have that many years and other people think you’re old. I refuse to think it’s a bad thing!”
In her 80s now, Mary is losing friends and colleagues to death. She accepts that she can’t do everything she once could but realizes she can still do something meaningful. There’s no reason to stop doing something just because of the number of years she’s lived.
“It doesn’t mean that old ladies can’t have goals and desires and things to do, and I hope I still have goals yet to meet when I die.”
Davison is a consummate planner who thrives when able to space out projects and chip away at them systematically. “When I felt called to the ministry, it was so seemingly impossible, she recalled. “And yet as long as there was a step to be made, I felt I should take it even if I couldn’t see that it would get me to the end — to being ordained.”
That same faith and step-by-step determination shaped Davison’s personality as The Old Lady on the Trail. It’s no wonder she stuck to her goal of completing the Triple Crown over 16 years.
And that made me curious to know if she might have words for her younger self after all she’d accomplished. “I went through some very horrid down times in my life,” she replied. “At one time, I was suicidal. I would like to tell my self in those hard times, ‘that’s not all there is.'”
Life Is Good
Part of the reason Mary has been able to write so extensively about her experiences is that she kept careful journals on trail, disciplining herself to chronicle the adventure as it happened. Her tagline on each entry is “Life is good.” And the mantra itself forced her to look for the good in each day. Even when it’s raining all day, and you’re up to your knees in mud? I asked cheekily.
“Well, occasionally, I’ve said life will be good tomorrow though I’m not so sure it was good today! But it’s a way of looking back and being thankful for what was good. ‘It rained, but I had a raincoat!'”
Mary is an inspiration to all of us aging hikers still wanting to experience that “wow” feeling she described on trail. Perhaps it’s not only the trail and nature that needs to be accepted as it is and approached expectantly, but ourselves too.
“I like myself, and I’m my whole self, including those very hard times. And I’m eternally grateful I didn’t commit suicide when I was suicidal. Look at all the fun I would have missed!”
Featured image: Mary E. Davison hiking the Sierra section of the PCT in 2012. All images, including featured image, courtesy of Mary E. Davison.
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