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 booksOld 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.”

female hiker with short grey hair and orange vest standing on hill with pinyon-juniper forest and mountains sky in background

Davison on a Utah section of the ADT in September 2022. She expects to complete the 4,834-mile trek this fall.

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.

READ NEXT – A Tale of Two Hips: Thru-Hiking After a Double Hip Replacement

“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

female backpacker with grey hair and backpack standing amid tall grass and wildflowers with alpine lake and granite cliffs in background

Davison in 2014 hiking the Wind River Range on the CDT.

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.

READ NEXT – The Four Major Differences Between the AT and the PCT

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.'”

Hiking Expectantly

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

grey-haired female backpacker wearing shorts and black sports bra in rocky landscape with tarn and mountains in background

Davison at 69 on the Sierra section of the PCT.

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

Davison on the ADT in 2016.

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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Comments 31

  • Angie : Feb 9th

    Great article, Alison! Mary is a very inspiring lady, especially to those of us who are on the cusp of being an old lady.

    • Alison Young : Feb 9th

      thanks Angie! I am practicing “Life is Good” these days and finding it has changed my entire attitude. Life is good that i got to meet this amazing “old lady!” kia kaha and happy trails, alison

  • Belle : Feb 9th

    Wonderful article! What an inspiration Mary is! As an almost 50 year old hiker myself (that recently took up long distance backpacking) I love reading stories like this!

    • Alison Young : Feb 10th

      aweseome! gotta start where you are. 60 is co,ing into view for me and I am thinking of the looooong view 🙂

  • Art : Feb 9th

    She’s DA beast. I wish I’ll be in same shape as she in her age. Great job.
    Alison, thanks for sharing this. Now, I’ll go and lift some weights.

    • Alison Young : Feb 10th

      haha, me too! my heroine

  • Dottie Rust : Feb 10th

    Loved this article…The Old Lady is so realistic about how she hikes…she instills confidence in me as I hike on into my later years…thank you OL!

    • Alison Young : Feb 10th

      Mary is such an inspiration! I am no longer afraid to say I’m old too 🙂

  • Bob Palin : Feb 10th

    I am the Utah coordinator for the American Discovery Trail ( and have helped Mary in Utah the last couple of years (my dog Biff is in the picture where Mary is wearing orange). I don’t think I’ve ever met a more determined person, Mary is an inspiration.

    • Alison Young : Feb 10th

      That’s so awesome, Bob! I was wondering who’s dog that was. sweet Biff.

      Mary is an inspiration, and risking a pun, so grounded in reality. For me, I need that more than her accomplishments. The way she proudly qwear “Old Lady” and just goes out and does things anyway.

      • Philip Agnew : Feb 10th

        I enjoyed reading about Mary . I am preparing to hike the Colorado Trail in August. If all goes well, I will turn 85 as I finish.

        • Alison Young : Feb 10th

          WOW! All the best on your Rocky Mountain High! alison

        • Sharon : Feb 23rd

          Amazing! What an inspiration you are to others.

  • Linda Cullum : Feb 10th

    Wonderful true story Alison! I did my AT hike in 1979. Made it halfway. I decided I wasn’t cut out for the all at once long distance thing. Since then tho I have continued to hike Colorado and New England mountains. I can truly relate to what she says, especially having someone join you when on one’s personal journey!
    I am really inspired by her. It’s incredible. I wish her the very best!

    I will pass this on to my friends who have completed the AT and other long distance accomplishments, most now in their 70’s or fast approaching! I wrote and recorded 2 songs for 2 of them “Anni Takes To Mountains” and “Sister Of The Earth” Anni was written in 1977 when I started hiking and Anni had done the AT in 1975. These songs will be on my Spotify page in a couple weeks or so. I don’t usually plug myself but thought you and other hikers may enjoy them! Plus it will get me into gear and get those songs streaming!

    “Oh to be alone in the mountains
    Where the trees and the streams are yours
    With the exception of the solitary hiker
    That these endless trails lure” -Anni Takes To Mountains

    Thank you for your article; youhve accomplished quite a bt as well!

    • Alison Young : Feb 10th

      Love this! Please keep me looped in when the songs go up. I sing a lot while hiking oftentimes making up new words to old tunes. Happy hiking! alison

  • David Davison : Feb 10th

    Extremely proud of Mary, must be in the genes having hiked many mountains myself in Colorado and California.

    • Alison Young : Feb 10th

      Keep it up, David!

  • Jason : Feb 10th

    This was great.

    I’m currently in training to become the oldest Calendar Year Triple Crowner ever.

    I have a few decades to train so I should be good.

    • Alison Young : Feb 10th

      Fantastic! Keep me looped in on your progress, Jason. ~alison

  • Beckie : Feb 10th

    Thanks to Alison for sharing Mary’s story, and thank you Mary for doing this! I am 65 and am doing physical therapy for bilateral osteoarthritis in my knees. Not considered bad enough for surgery and the PT is working. We spend most of our time in the Whites, which will wreck anyone’s knees! I am slow, my daughter is my partner. This is great inspiration for me to keep going. Hope you can keep going too! Thanks so much!

    • Alison Young : Feb 10th

      Way to go, Beckie! The Whites are a tough place to hike but so worth the work. Keep it up, alison

  • Tammy : Feb 11th

    Thank you for sharing this story Alison. Mary is the inspiration I needed and it’s heartening to hear there is no age limit on enjoying the outdoors. I just turned 61 last year and finally accomplished two goals I have always wanted to do. Mount Kilimanjaro last month and Everest Base Camp last May. And the training has brought me to the tops of all our local mountains. It was the kind of life changing experience I needed even though I have been hiking and running most of my life. I have met so many wonderful people and women like myself along the way.

    I have always wanted to do the PCT but thought maybe that time has come and gone at my age. This article has changed that thought! It’s been wonderful reading all the other comments from us older peeps 🙂 keep it up. Your are all inspiring!!

    • Alison Young : Feb 11th

      That’s fantastic, Tammy! What a testament to setting big goals. Mary started long distance hiking at 60, so we have no excuse 🙂 Keep me posted on your trails. ~alison

  • Julie : Feb 11th

    Thanks so much for this interview. I’ve had one of Mary’s books on my wishlist for a while. Now it’s going off the list and into my cart. 🙂 I’m also chomping at the bit to check out your podcast, Alison. At 52, I feel that I’m just learning how to live, and it’s SO fun to do things that I was too self-conscious to do when I was younger. And people like you and Mary help me believe it’s possible ecen in those moments when my spirits flag. Thanks!

    • Alison Young : Feb 11th

      Thanks, Julie! There’s no time like the present and Mary shows us we can get started at any age. Strat really living 🙂 ~alison

  • Mark : Feb 15th

    Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

    I am truly inspired by Mary, and other older hikers out there.

    Recently hiked the best of Alta Via 1/2 with my 76 yo dad. I had hiked many times before, but never really appreciated it as much as when I went with him.

    With age comes wisdom, with wisdom comes perspective. I think the perspective of an “older” hiker is to maximize there enjoyment of the be whole experience, whereas the younger hiker tends to focus on FKT. I am thankful for this article, for people like Mary sands my dad that inspire me to continue hiking, living life expectantly and enjoying the journey.

    Thank you Alison for sharing this, truly inspirational.

    All the best to you, Mary and the countless hikers out there.

    Enjoy the good tidings of the trails, slow down to smell the flowers and enjoy the natural world, be grateful for this life that we are blessed with.

    Kind Regards,


    • Alison Young : Feb 16th

      Thank you so much, Mark! So true that once you let go of going fast and “crushing miles,” the sweetness of being there really permeates the soul. There’s certainly a place for speed and competition, but in my middle age, I’ve been going for the SKT’s and savoring every moment.

  • Bo : Mar 22nd

    And just last week I told myself at age 62 i would be too old to do the triple crown, lol. This article now has me thinking to just go for it. I am 59 right now and have 3 more years to retirement and hopefully I will catch up to Mary.

    • Alison Young : Mar 22nd

      You and me both! I am right on your heels and Mary seems to have given us permission to “catch up.” happy hiking, alison


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