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Hike of a Lifetime

71-year-old EC man will be among oldest to complete Appalachian Trail

Bonni Knight

A WALK ABOVE THE WOODS. If all goes as planned, Ron Buckley of Eau Claire will complete his 2,200-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail in October.
A WALK ABOVE THE WOODS. If all goes as planned, Ron Buckley of Eau Claire will complete his 2,200-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail in October.

The Appalachian Mountains, at 1.2 billion years old, are one of the oldest ranges on the planet. Stretching along the eastern United States, these ancient hills and mountains are home to a unique footpath, known as the Appalachian Trail. The A.T., as it’s called, begins at Springer Mountain in Georgia, and arrives, some 2,200 miles later, at the summit of Mount Katahdin, in Maine.

This past spring, about 3,500 people began the hike, hoping to earn the coveted title of “thru-hiker,” the name bestowed upon someone who completes the entire trail in one season.  But only about 10 percent will finish. In fact, only 16,000 people have ever been officially registered as thru-hikers. One person vying for that title this year is Eau Claire photographer and adventurer Ron Buckley. And if he finishes, Ron, at age 71, will be among an elite group of fewer than 30 people over age 70 to ever conquer those old mountains and become a thru-hiker of the A.T.

If he finishes, Ron Buckley, at age 71, will be among an elite group of fewer than 30 people over age 70 to ever conquer those old mountains and become a thru-hiker of the Appalachian Trail.

It was chilly on March 4, when Ron – or Huckleberry, as he is called on the trail (all thru-hikers are given nicknames) – set out on his 2,200-mile trek, but the cold soon gave way to long hot humid days. You’ve got to wonder what would make a 71-year-old man leave his comfortable home and loving wife to spend some seven or eight months hiking up and down some pretty miserable mountains. According to Ron, it started in 1968, when he was in college at UW-Stevens Point. He took his girlfriend to see a slideshow about the A.T. As Ron tells it, “I said to her, ‘Someday I would really like to hike the A.T.’ Well, I married that girlfriend” – he and Chris have been married 48 years – “and now I’m hiking that trail.”

The trip almost didn’t happen. A few years ago, Ron set aside two weeks to hike a section of the trail, but quit after only seven days. He said, “I went up a mountain, came down, and there was another mountain.” He found it difficult to persevere through the monotony of the constant ups and downs, literally. But then he realized that if he wanted to achieve his dream, he’d need to change his mindset. So he did just that.

This is not Ron’s first big adventure. Over the past 40 years as a fur-trade re-enactor, he has built nine birchbark canoes and paddled them more than 3,000 miles following traditional voyageur routes and enduring the hardships of historic camping.

So, in some ways, with his high-tech gear, the A.T. may be easier. Or at least his current pack weighs a lot less than his 90-pound voyageur packs. For the trail, Ron has whittled it down to 28 pounds. With this, he can last about five days until his next re-stocking stop along the way. He doesn’t carry much more than a tent and sleeping bag, some lightweight gear, and his phone, from which he updates his trail journal and stays in regular touch with his wife. He averages about 15 miles per day, and has lost at least 25 pounds, surviving mostly on dried noodle dishes and water, although he waxes poetic about meals he scores in towns along the way, and “trail angels,” kind souls who set up along the trail and offer free cooked meals, known as “trail magic,” to passing hikers.

Although he is completing the thru-hike alone, he has been joined for segments along the way by his 72-year-old brother, Val; his wife, Chris; his son, Jon; and Jon’s two young sons, Nathan and Ben. When his family can’t join him, he hikes with people he meets along the way, and he has made some close friends on the trail. But often he hikes alone, which can be problematic.

On July 3, Ron left the main trail to take a short detour to snap some pictures overlooking Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Having just re-stocked, he was reaching to cache his now-heavy pack in the woods when he fell off an 8-foot ledge, then rolled off a 12-foot cliff, eventually landing on his back. The fall was so hard that the titanium cooking kit in his pack was flattened, his head was split open, and he lost his glasses. It was a sobering experience for Ron, who said, “It was just a stupid accident. I could have broken my neck, could have bled to death.” After determining that all his extremities worked, it took him 40 minutes to climb back up to the trail, but he still went on to the detour and took his photo. Without his glasses.

In spite of the challenges, most of Ron’s stories light up his face. The pinnacle for him so far, literally and figuratively, was reaching McAfee Knob, in Catawba, Virginia, with his son and grandsons. The iconic and picturesque rock juts out over a spectacular panorama of green valleys.

Time constraints on earning thru-hiker status are strict. The official trail end is at Mount Katahdin, located in Baxter State Park in Maine, which closes for the season on Oct. 15, at the latest, or sooner, if an early snowstorm hits. Aware of the fickleness of weather, Ron recently made the decision to leap-frog up the trail, or flip-flop, as it is called on the A.T. He drove north, summitted Mount Katahdin while it was still open, and is now heading south until he gets back to Salisbury, Connecticut. This is an accepted A.T. strategy, and, if all goes as planned, having covered all 2,200 miles on foot in one season, Ron will be the 28th thru-hiker over 70 years old in A.T. history.

Ron is fully cognizant of how lucky he is to be following his dream after 49 years. He is grateful to his family and friends for their support, and proud that his 71 year old legs can still carry him up and down mountains.  He appreciates that not everyone is as fortunate. Around his neck, he wears a pendant of three nickels, given to him by his brother-in-law, Bruce, who has multiple sclerosis. The nickels bear the birthdates of Bruce, Ron, and Chris (Bruce’s sister and Ron’s wife). Ron points out, “Bruce cannot walk, but he is following me online,” adding, “I walk for Bruce. He is going to Katahdin with me.” He is also walking for his grandson, Nathan, who has Type 1 diabetes. Ron has pledged to donate 25 cents for every mile he hikes to help find a cure for diabetes, and he is seeking pledges. And, whether he knows it or not, he is walking for all of us who’ve ever had a big dream.

Chris remains Ron’s biggest supporter and fan, and will join him for the finish in mid-October, when he hopes to complete what he calls “the adventure of a lifetime” and finally become a good “old” official thru-hiker.

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