Rozet woman completes Appalachian Trail

By: 
Jonathan Gallardo with the Gillette News Record, via the Wyoming News Exchange
Rebecca Gray, a 2016 Campbell County High School graduate, earned the trail name “Scout” during her six months hiking the entire Appalachian Trail this year. From late March to early October, Gray hiked 2,198 miles from northern Georgia to Maine.  ~ News Record Photos/Ed Glazar 
 

GILLETTE — In sixth grade, Rebecca Gray participated in a district-wide track meet for Campbell County. She got “last place in the last division,” earning her an unenviable title.

 

“I was the worst runner in the county,” she said.

 

In early October, Gray accomplished something that Campbell County’s slowest runner never would’ve thought possible: she hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.

 

Gray hiked the Appalachian Trail from March 29 through Oct. 3. She traveled 2,198.4 miles on foot in six months and a week, or 189 days. That’s an average of 11.6 miles per day. She carried between 25 and 35 pounds on her backpack, and she went through five pairs of shoes.

 

“Every fear that I had, every reason I had for not doing it, if I had let that stop me I would’ve regretted it for my whole life,” she said.

 

While the hike itself was a physical achievement, Gray also went through a journey of personal growth, learning lessons that will stick with her for the rest of her life.

 

According to Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that protects and manages the trail, about 3 million people hike on some portion of the trail each year. The number of people attempting to hike the entire trail is much smaller, at about 3,000 each year, and only 25% of them complete it.

 

Gray, who graduated from Campbell County High School in 2016 and lives in Rozet, said she knew that she was going to complete the trail, barring a serious injury or family emergency.

 

The trail starts at Amicalola Falls in northern Georgia and goes through 13 more states, ending up at Mount Katahdin in Maine. In total, Gray hiked 2,198 miles and gained more than 90 miles in elevation.

 

About six years ago she listened to a guest speaker with Americorps who had hiked the trail. At the time, she thought it would be cool to do it, but she didn’t think it was realistic. For five years, it was “a secret dream” of hers.

 

Then, in early 2022, she decided that she was going to tackle the roughly 2,200-mile hike.

 

“There were a lot of things I wanted to work on personally, and it just seemed like the perfect challenge,” she said.

 

Gray had never done anything like this before. The longest hike she’d done up to that point was a 6-mile hike up and down Crow Peak near Spearfish, South Dakota. The Appalachian Trail is 366 times longer than that.

 

“I was really unathletic growing up,” she said. “I’ve done some kind of adventurous things, but this was a whole new level.”

 

When she broke the news to her parents, “they were absolutely petrified,” she said.

 

“They were trying so hard to be supportive but I know they were just terrified for me,” she said.

 

Gray said she received a lot of support, but she also “got a lot of really negative reactions” from people.

 

“I had so many people fear-mongering, telling me horrible things about girls who went missing in the woods,” she said. “Yes, there’s risk, but I don’t think the risk outweighs the benefits.”

 

She worked two jobs for a year to save up money for the trip. She did research, talking to a friend who’d completed the trail before, and she also read books and watched videos. She went to the gym and practiced hiking by going on the stair climber with a weighted backpack.

 

Gray also went with some friends on a couple of short backpacking trips, one in Jackson Hole and one in Black Elk Peak near Custer. She recalled the trip in Jackson Hole.

 

“I was so scared, I remember crying to my friend and I was like, ‘I don’t think I can do it,’” she said. “The biggest thing was just getting over how vulnerable you are.”

 

More than just a walk in the woods

 

And on March 29, 2023, Gray began her journey. She hiked the first 10 days with her aunt, and she came across other thru-hikers that she hiked with for a good portion of the trail.

 

She estimated that she did half of the hike with other people, and she was by herself for the other half. She met some other thru-hikers along the trail.

“I enjoyed being with a group a lot more, but I learned a lot more when I was by myself,” she said. “Being by myself was better for me.”

 

When she was by herself, she had to go with her gut on a lot of decisions. She couldn’t ask anyone to give input.

 

“I connected with myself, and I really got to the point where I really trusted myself and built up a lot of confidence,” she said.

 

She went into it with the mindset that this was going to be a learning experience, and that she didn’t need to be the best backpacker in the world. Even so, she quickly learned that this was going to be a very humbling process.

 

“I thought, ‘I’ve watched all these YouTube videos, I’ve read all these books, I know exactly what I’m doing,’” she said. “Then you get out there with people who’ve been doing it for years, and there’s just so much you don’t know and can’t know until you do it.”

 

At the start, she averaged 8 to 12 miles a day. As she built up her strength and endurance, that number started to grow, and at the peak she was averaging 15 miles a day. The most she hiked in a single day was 24 miles in Pennsylvania.

 

Gray saw a rattlesnake and a copperhead on the trail, as well as lots of deer and birds. She even saw wild ponies at one point in Virginia.

 

She would take a rest day about once a week, and she would go into a town every so often to stock up on supplies. Her diet on the trail included a lot of ramen and instant mashed potatoes.

 

“You’re burning up to 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day, so you’re always hungry, you’re just starving all the time,” she said.

 

The battle with hunger was a constant in her mind.

 

“I’m starving, and I know I have four Snickers bars in my pack but I can’t eat them because (if I do) I’ll be starving in three days,” she said.

 

She was in the middle of Virginia when she started to get sick. It was close to the halfway point, and Gray was very fatigued, but she kept going. At one point she tripped and fell and didn’t want to get up. But she ended up hiking six more miles before setting up camp for the night.

The group that she’d been hiking with continued on without her. Gray was all alone.

 

“That’s honestly one of my biggest fears, is being alone and being lonely,” Gray said. “And being totally forced into complete loneliness and not having social media or anything to fall back on is kind of liberating.”

 


 

She went into town and saw a doctor. She had an iron deficiency, and on top of that, her thyroid levels were really low. The combination of those two things led to her being intensely fatigued. She took a few days to recover before getting back on the trail.

 

For much of the trail, Gray was hiking through dense forest, so there wasn’t much in the way of views. But by the time she got to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, she was able to put everything into context.

 

While she understood in the back of her mind that she was climbing mountains, it didn’t sink in until she looked back and saw the mountains she’d completed.

 

“It was a huge moment for me, I sat up there for three hours and took everything in, and really appreciated it,” she said.

 

“Until you can see the five mountains behind you that you just climbed, and the five mountains ahead of you that you’re going to climb, and knowing you’re doing six of those in one day, in that moment, I’m like, ‘I’m actually accomplishing something cool.’”

 

But going up those mountains was the toughest part of the entire trail, Gray said. The terrain was rough, and it was raining most of the time. Plus she was so close to the end yet still had quite a ways to go, and she’d cut her daily mileage almost in half, so she felt like she wasn’t making much progress.

 

At one point in the White Mountains, Gray was going up a rock scramble when she slipped and fell face first onto a rock.

 

“I convinced myself that I had a concussion and I was going to die,” she said. “I really went into panic mode and was freaking out.”

 

It was the scariest part of the whole hike, she said, but she was able to eventually get her bearings and calm down.

 

Gray’s favorite stretch of the hike came near the end, in the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine, a 100-mile stretch where there’s no access to civilization. The sun came out and “the weather was perfect for the entire time” she was there, and all of the leaves were changing color.

 

The trail ends at Mount Katahdin, the highest point in Maine at 5,269 feet. The mountain is visible from 15 miles. The first 10 of those miles are pretty flat, but hikers gain more than 3,000 feet in elevation over the next four miles.

 

A hiker she’d met earlier on the trail had finished a week before she did, but he drove from New York to Maine to hike the final summit with her. Another one of her trail friends, a 64-year-old woman, summited Mount Katahdin that same day.

 

“When I got to the top I just started sobbing, and she started sobbing, and we held each other and cried and had a moment up there,” she said. “I’m really glad I got to have that cathartic release because it is so monumental, it did feel really big.”

 

Going through changes

 

Any number of things could have gone wrong on Gray’s journey, but she said that she didn’t let that sit on her mind too long.

 

“You just have to face it dead-on,” she said. “Our fears are usually much worse than reality.”

 

“The first time I saw a bear I was absolutely terrified, totally frozen, but the bear growled and ran away,” she said. “By the time I got to my seventh bear, it was like, ‘OK, whatever, get out of here.’”

 

Besides gaining a lot of self-confidence, Gray became a lot less judgmental after completing the hike, both of herself and others.

 

“Before the trail, when I saw a homeless person, my initial reaction was fear, there’s this stigma, that homeless people are mentally ill, dangerous, dirty,” she said.

 

But while she was on the trail, she came across many people who, if they were out in the city, would look like they were homeless.

 

“It’s a wakeup call to what we value and how we see people,” she said. “At their core, everyone’s just a person. We’re so judgmental with what people look like, and everyone is so much deeper than that.”

 

She also learned not to obsess over how she looked. She only had one outfit, but so did everyone else who was hiking the trail. She didn’t have to worry about her makeup or whether her hair was messy.

 

“It was so liberating to not have to be worried about what I look like,” she said.

 

For years, Gray would worry about what other people thought of her.

 

“That was a big reason why I wanted to do the trail,” she said. “My whole life I’ve just been so dependent on pleasing others, on caring what other people think about me and being afraid to do something wrong because it would upset somebody.”

 

Gray doesn’t foresee doing another long hike for a while. She’s now focused on her career. She wants to work in the nonprofit sector, and she’s interested in community development and food access.

 

She now enjoys the freedom that comes with living life free of those worries. She’s more confident in herself and her own decisions, while also not looking down on others who may do things differently.

 

“Ultimately the journey is different for everybody,” she said. “Everybody has their own purpose for doing it. Who am I to judge?”

 

While Gray has completed the Appalachian Trail, her personal journey has just begun.

 

This story was published on October 28, 2023. 

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