Mississippi couple finishes 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail

Published 4:13 am Sunday, April 10, 2022

When Wayne and Margaret VanLandingham retired, they set their sights on hiking all 2,193 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

The New Albany couple achieved that goal in March after hiking through 14 states in four seasons across all 12 months of the year.

Having each read several books about hiking the trail, Margaret, 59, and Wayne, 64, made their own plans to take on the trail in 2018, the year Wayne VanLandingham retired.

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The couple researched and purchased their gear in 2019, the year Margaret VanLandingham retired.

The VanLandinghams started their long hike on March 15, 2020, following a family vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. But just four days into their hike, the journey was cut short when the spread of COVID-19 across the country forced trails to close.

Their dream was put on hold for more than a year.

The VanLandinghams restarted their trek on April 17, 2021, and finished March 4, 2022. They did six-and-a-half months of active walking during that time.

They resumed their trek at Neels Gap in Georgia, the place they’d stopped when the pandemic began. Heading north, they hiked to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and got off the trail.

To avoid weather-related closures towards the end of their journey, they traveled from Harpers Ferry up to Maine, crested the summit of Mount Katahdin and worked their way south until they got back to their stopping point in West Virginia.

After that, they only had a small section of the hike to complete — the portion they’d completed before having to stop for the pandemic.

For the second time, the VanLandinghams hiked the first 40 miles of the trail and descended the 604 steps at Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia, to complete their journey.

“We weren’t experienced hikers,” Wayne VanLandingham said. “We weren’t experienced campers. There wasn’t anything extraordinary about us, but we did it.”

When the VanLandinghams began their hike, it was a first for the couple. Although they’d biked the Tanglefoot Trail, they’d never hiked it. And aside from the occasional 1-mile trail on trips to Gatlinburg, the VanLandinghams had no hiking experience.

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, more than 3,000 people attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail each year, with only about a quarter finishing it.

In the beginning, it seemed they might be among those that wouldn’t finish the feat.

“That first 8 miles from Amicalola Falls to Spring Mountain, that’s called the approach trail,” Wayne said. “It’s not even included in the AT. I told Margaret, ‘If it’s all like this, we’ll never make it.’”

But following guidance they’d given their children years earlier, the VanLandinghams were determined to finish what they’d started. After all, they’d spent months and months preparing for this.

They each carried a backpack filled with hundreds of dollars worth of gear. They stopped for food, supplies and overnight stays in hostels throughout the journey.

The couple encountered most everything they’d been warned about in the books before setting out: Heat, sweat, cold, wet, mud, bugs, snakes and bears.

But there are some things no hiker can prepare for.

The VanLandinghams decided during their preparation for the hike that they would only get off the trail because of injury, illness or a family emergency.

By the end of their thru-hike, they came off the trail a total of four times for various reasons: doctor’s appointments and rehab; the birth of a grandson and the death of a nephew; the admittance of Wayne VanLandingham’s sister into hospice care; and two cataract surgeries for Margaret VanLandingham.

The couple had their share of milestones during the hike as well. Each celebrated a birthday on the trail; the couple celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary; and they spent Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day hiking.

“It made you realize, ‘I did that. I climbed that mountain. I came off that mountain, and we made it,” Margaret VanLandingham said.

They made memories hiking in the snow, waking up inside a frost-covered tent and spending an entire day sheltered in the tent during a round of thunderstorms.

Along the way, the VanLandinghams ran into many friendly hikers — from meeting a fellow hiker from Massachusetts who later picked them up and took them to his house for showers and a meal to people making “trail magic,” which is setting up to provide snacks, meals and drinks for thru-hikers.

The VanLandinghams found everyone they met along the trail more than willing to help their fellow hikers. Wayne VanLandingham joked that stopping to talk with strangers along the way added a month-and-a-half to their journey.

When the VanLandinghams reached the end of the trail at Amicalola Falls in March, all of the aches and weariness faded away, replaced by excitement by the accomplishment.

“Somebody asked us, ‘How are you going to celebrate when you get to the end? Are you going to have champagne on ice?’” Wayne VanLandingham said.

He paused, then added with a laugh, “I said, ‘Well, I was thinking more about knees on ice.’”

Finishing the trail was a bittersweet moment, Margaret VanLandingham said.

“You’re happy to be through because you can come home,” she said. “But you’re going to miss it. Because it was good exercise. You felt good.”

Despite all of the breathtaking scenery and friends they made along the way, the couple’s favorite part of hiking the Appalachian Trail was sharing the experience together.

“It was a partnership,” Margaret VanLandingham said.

Some couples split up on the trail, with the husband or wife walking ahead at their own pace. But not the VanLandinghams. They spent nearly all of their time on the trail hiking at least within sight of each other.

“We’ve always done things together,” Wayne VanLandingham said. “From going to college football games when the kids were growing up to white water rafting, snow skiing, skydiving.”

The couple’s next adventures include kayaking the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and hiking the Natchez Trace.

Whether people decide to hike from Georgia to Maine or vice versa, Wayne VanLandingham encourages others to find their own Appalachian Trail.

“That might be taking care of a sick loved one. It’s the same thing,” he said. “It’s something hard, you stick with it, you get it done. If that’s hiking, being a caregiver or walking around your block — don’t focus on what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do.”