It’s About Time, and Distance: Wilcox, Daughter Turn Through-Hike Into Lesson

Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Lyme — Dylan Wilcox was just 6 days old the first time she joined her father, Russell, to provide Appalachian Trail through-hikers with trail magic — gestures of kindness to help them along the way, commonly food and drink — at the Trapper John shelter in the woods of Lyme. This year, the father-and-daughter tandem got to experience all of the trail’s magic for themselves.

After two years of planning, Wilcox, who turned 46 during the hike, and Dylan, who turned 11, embarked on the journey March 27 with plan to start southbound from Trapper John shelter and continue that direction just long enough for snow to melt off of New Hampshire’s White Mountains and the peaks of Maine. They then doubled back to travel northbound from Lyme to the AT’s northern terminus at Maine’s Mount Katahdin before continuing from where they’d left their previous southbound route, at Bear Mountain State Park in New York.

A Lyme School student who still had about three months of fifth grade left at the start of the hike, Dylan never fully departed from the classroom until school let out in June.

She was home-schooled by her father while on the trail — the first algebra equation she solved was how many steps it would take to finish the trail (around 6.5 million) — and the pair would periodically return to their Woodsville home thanks to wife-mother Jenn Wilcox. Russell estimated Jenn, a Lyme School first-grade teacher, drove approximately 4,000 miles to transport the pair back and forth to trailheads so Dylan could incrementally return to the classroom.

“Fifth and sixth grade is a really formative, social time, and we didn’t want her to miss the whole last three months of fifth grade,” said Russ Wilcox, Woodsville High’s girls basketball coach, who previously coached the same sport at Chelsea High and Rivendell Academy. “The school was really supportive in helping us develop a home-schooling plan, knowing she would still be spending some time in the classroom. We certainly couldn’t have done it without Jenn. She ended up driving probably double what we hiked to make it work.”

Dylan’s fascination with the AT — and desire to complete it — had developed steadily over the years while accompanying her dad to Trapper John shelter to surprise tired through-hikers with goodies. Sometimes, they’d show up at 7 a.m. with coffee and doughnuts; other times, it would be burgers or pizza in the afternoon. A couple of years ago, the idea of hiking the trail together was brought up. It was something Dylan simply wouldn’t let go of.

“We have a night-time family tradition called ‘happy thoughts and favorite parts,’ where we talk about our favorite parts of the day and happy thoughts of things we’re looking forward to,” Russ Wilcox said. “(Hiking the AT) was consistently her happy thought for two years, and I kept looking at her face to make sure she was serious about it. It’s easy to say you want to hike over 2,000 miles when you’re hanging out with a bunch of happy through-hikers eating pizza.”

After being convinced Dylan was ready, Wilcox informed customers of his restorative masonry business that he would be unavailable to perform work for most of this year. “The good thing about working on old stone walls is that they’ve already been sitting there for 200-300 years, so a few more seasons isn’t going to hurt them too much,” he joked.

The pair began through the snowy, hilly woods of Lyme and Hanover, joined in downtown Hanover by Steve Colby, former Rivendell boys basketball coach who is now Wilcox’s assistant for the Woodsville girls. Colby, who uses a wheelchair, hiked with them from Lou’s Restaurant over the Ledyard Bridge to Elm Street in Norwich, where the AT re-enters the woods.

The Engineers’ Dee Martin and Ida Kruse, the latter a former player at Rivendell, joined them for parts of the trail in Vermont. After reaching Bear Mountain and returning to Lyme to head northbound, other Wilcox-era Raptors such as Kathleen McCarty, Stephanie DeSimone and sisters Kye and Tao Ameden joined the hike for various parts of New Hampshire and Maine. Former players of Wilcox-coached AAU teams Caitlyn Roberts, of Thetford, and Spaulding High’s Brittany Huntington also came along for parts of the journey.

“That was a huge morale boost. I’ve always thought of those girls as my fake daughters, and Dylan looks up to every one of them like a big sister,” Russ Wilcox said. “To have that much family with us along the way meant the world to us.”

They’d reached Andover, Maine, before returning to the area for the final time for Dylan to finish fifth grade. On Dylan’s 11th birthday, July 15, they celebrated with a whitewater rafting trip on Maine’s Kennebec River and reached the northern terminus at Katahdin in early August.

On Aug. 6, they were back in New York continuing southbound.

“I definitely had my trail legs by then,” said Dylan Wilcox, whose trail name was Baby Blue, derived from the song It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue by the artist for whom she’s named, Bob Dylan. “Growing up, I’ve done a lot of day hikes on Mount Moosilauke and Mount Cube, places like that, but when you’re doing the whole trail, you really have to keep going when you’re tired to get your trail legs.”

The pair also had to withstand dry, hot conditions through the mid-Atlantic, which were particularly oppressive during a 60-mile stretch of southern New York in August.

“We went from getting rained on a lot in Maine — the saying is, ‘No pain, no rain, no Maine’ — to 100 degrees and absolutely no water in New York,” Russ Wilcox said. “You can only pack so much water; a liter weighs about 2.2 pounds. There were times when we felt stuck because it was so hot. Luckily we were interacting with other people like us on a daily basis, and they would always leave some water for us when they found some.”

Dylan added, “And we always made sure we left some for the people behind us, too.”

The pair continued through the rocky, relatively flat sections of the trail in Pennsylvania and Maryland. They encountered more elevation in Virginia, though at much more winding, gradual grades.

“New England doesn’t know what switchback trails are compared to Virgina,” Russ Wilcox noted. “There are elevation changes that are about 10 miles in Virginia that would be more like three miles in Maine. Sometimes it’s nice to go back and forth, but other times you just want to get to the top.”

By the time they reached the southern Virgina town of Damascus, in early November, the Wilcoxes realized they could feasibly complete the trail and be home in time to celebrate Thanksgiving with family three weeks later — but only if they committed to some serious progress. They decided to do just that, trudging hard to cover 421 miles in 21 days, more than 20 miles per day.

“In a way it was unfortunate, because our whole mentality changed,” recalled Russ Wilcox, whose trail name, Desolation Row, is another Bob Dylan reference. “We hadn’t been thinking about dates, and we weren’t trying to break any speed records. Once we realized that we could realistically make it home for Thanksgiving, we started thinking about (Jenn), we started thinking about the dog (Guthrie) and how much we missed them. Up to that point, the hike was really about growing our own relationship and meeting people, but those last three weeks kind of became more about finishing it.”

Another one of Wilcox’s former Rivendell players, Deva Steketee, intermittently hiked with them along those final 400 or so miles, driving a support vehicle when she wasn’t on the trail.

The Wilcoxes focus proved contagious — also motivated by Thanksgiving, a half-dozen other southbound hikers joined in on their speedy pace. They finished as a group on Nov. 24, two days before the holiday, Russ and Dylan sharing a long and tearful embrace on Georgia’s Springer Mountain summit.

“It was really emotional, a lot of mixed feelings,” Russ Wilcox said. “You’re proud of yourself for finishing, proud of what you’ve done, but you’re also sad to leave the trail and the friends you’ve made along the way. You’re going home to your real family, but you’re leaving behind your trail family.”

Despite all of the physical challenges and being away from home, Dylan said she would recommend an AT excursion to others, even fellow elementary school students.

“If you can get the time off, you should definitely do it,” she said. “Once you get your hiking legs, it’s awesome.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.

“It’s easy to say you want to hike over 2,000 miles when you’re hanging out with a bunch of happy through-hikers eating pizza.”

Woodsville High girls basketball coach Russ Wilcox, on gauging the interest his daughter, Dylan, had about an Appalachian Trail through-hike this summer