Dennis and I have been together for 42 years. He introduced me to backpacking in 1974 with our first climb of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. When hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT), Dennis started using the moniker K1, short for his amateur radio call sign, K1YPP. On my first long-distance hiking trip in 2011, I became K-Fun. (My call sign in KA1FUN).
Before moving to Sarasota, Florida in 2003, we lived in Hampstead, New Hampshire for twenty-four years. There, we enjoyed day hiking and climbed twenty of the forty 4,000-foot mountains in New England. I celebrated my 30th birthday with a five-day hike in the Presidentials. To be honest, this was more to escape turning thirty than for a love of the outdoors. In 1980, I was conflicted by two popular beliefs: you couldn’t trust anyone over 30 and yet, if you “hadn’t made it” by 30, you never would.
In 2007, Dennis decided to hike the AT. Driven to finish by a promise to his brother who was killed in Vietnam, Dennis carried Tom’s Purple Heart medal. After walking 600 miles (Pearisburg, VA ), he noticed a peculiar sensation in his throat and returned home to have a six-artery heart bypass operation. After taking 300 zero days, he returned to complete the AT. During that time, I joke that I slaved at a 9-to-5 job to support his hiking habit.
Our first long-distance hike as a couple was the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I was 61 years old and Dennis was 64. It took us 43 days to hike 500 miles. Now, we both were infected with wanderlust. In 2013, we returned to Europe for five and one-half months to backpack through sixteen countries. There, we hiked about 390 miles on the Camino Portugues (22 days), 100 miles on the South West Coast Path in England (5 days), and 84 Miles on Hadrian’s Wall Path (10 days). In 2014, we spent another two months traipsing around Europe, including the 87-mile long, 7-day hike on The Ridgeway National Trail in England.
In 2015, I attempted my first long-distance wilderness hike, The Vermont Long Trail (VLT). The rain, cold, and terrain were challenging. After the first week, hiking in all-time record rainfall, we knew we could not complete the hike in the time allotted because my pace was just too slow. In Middlebury. after 134 miles in 22 days (including four zero days,) we jumped off the trail to fulfill commitments in Florida. Two weeks later, I dropped Dennis off at the Middlebury trailhead so he could complete the hike while I went to Massachusetts to help our daughter relocate.
As he prepared for the second section, I had been envious of Dennis and his going forward on the LT, but as I watched him head out in the cold pouring rain, I didn’t regret my not going along with him. It took Dennis another 21 days (with two zero days) to reach Trail’s End on the Canadian border.
Dennis is more adept at wilderness hiking than I am. For one thing, my fear of falling slows me down on steep climbs or narrow ridges. I am slightly faster on the uphills while Dennis seems to run downhill. He usually goes at his pace and then takes a nap until I catch up. Throughout his life, he enjoyed a nap but felt guilty doing so. Following his heart surgery, Dennis was ecstatic when the heart surgeon prescribed taking a daily nap, he no longer had to make excuses to me for his slothfulness. On level ground, Dennis and I have a similar pace. At various times, we walk alone, hand-in-hand, or pair up with other hikers for a change of conversation/pace.
Unlike Dennis, I am intolerant of the cold. Having Renaud’s syndrome makes it difficult for me to use my hands in cool weather (the symptoms start with temps in the mid-60s). I could not wilderness hike in the colder climes without my personal Sherpa. When did I become such a princess?
Dennis’ pack weighs about ten pounds more than mine. We each carry food and water, but he totes the tent and his amateur radio gear. His size 15 shoes also contribute to the difference in weight.
Unless I am having a problem with the cold, we share in camp chores. Dennis is a better fire starter than I, so I gather firewood while he gets the fire going. Feeling that it was an important survival skill to master, Dennis learned to build a fire by rubbing sticks in preparation for his AT hike. (You can watch him do this on his Youtube video.) Because of my aversion to the cold, Dennis usually filters the water. On the VLT, Dennis did most of the chores but in Europe, it was 50-50, which is typical of life at home.
When not using a shelter, we use the Hubba-Hubba two-person tent. On the Camino, we put up the tent 7% of the time. It was quieter than the hostels, gave Dennis an opportunity to use the amateur radio, and provided a place for intimacy. When backpacking in Europe, we camped or used hostels and B&Bs.
Dennis and I carry a whistle and have a code for emergencies. On the VLT, I blew the whistle once when I thought I was lost. Since I was beyond hearing distance, it was of no help. Or was he taking a nap? Beyond that, our custom when walking apart is to wait for the other for a break, at meal times, or at major intersections.
As sexagenarians, the need for coupling may not be a strong as with younger hikers. Nevertheless, Dennis and I are affectionate on the trail, often touching or kissing. Whether we are intimate depends on the temperature (we each have a mummy bag), on how tired or dirty we are, and if there are others nearby. We always look forward to stopping overnight at resupply towns. Vermont’s many B&Bs have an allure that is hard to resist after fighting severe weather for days on end.
Dennis and I like being together. On the trail and without the interruptions of daily life, we have time to reacquaint. While some people may get on each other’s nerves on these hikes, we grow closer. We are comfortable with sharing silence. If we need time to be introspective, we just walk alone.
While on the AT, Dennis called home daily, if there was phone service. He did the same for the second part of the VLT. He didn’t call just to let me know he was okay; we missed each other and enjoyed the chat. Even after his heart surgery, I did not fear his being alone in the woods. It’s not so much a faith in his abilities as it is an acceptance that life is fatal and we might as well go doing what we like.
Dennis enjoys being alone on the trail as much as hiking together, especially in Europe when the pace is more similar and the environment is more social.
I am grateful that Dennis and I are healthy enough in our retirement to be able to backpack together. Though I count my blessings each day on the trail, there are times when I am especially thankful for his being there. On the Camino de Santiago, I developed tendinitis, and could walk no further. Dennis carried my backpack along with his for about three miles while I hobbled to the next hostel where I had to remain immobile for three days to let the injury heal.
During this period, Dennis shopped for food and cooked meals while I rested my leg. I’m fluent in Spanish and French. For most of that journey, Dennis had let me do the talking in shops and stores. Without me, he used pantomime and charades to communicate his needs to the shop keepers. I would have loved to have seen that! Later when he became ill, I was happy to reciprocate the pampering though I was unable to carry his pack.
On the VLT, Dennis not only picked up my chores when I suffered from hypothermia, he was there for me in countless ways. His knowledge of wilderness hiking proved useful in fording overflowing rivers, starting fires with wet wood, and finding the easiest ways up/down difficult areas. Without him, I would not have hiked as far as I had.
Hiking these long trails has reinvigorated our marriage. It has taught me just how special Dennis is and what he means to me. Knowing that it is limited, the time we spent hiking together has helped us appreciate what time we have left together, and how much more we want to do as a couple. Back to everyday life, we long for our next shared adventure.
When we were newly wed, we promised each other to make as many memories as possible so that in our dotage we could sit in our rocking chairs and reminisce. We are still making memories or planning them.
For couples considering a long distance hike together, we advise:
- Go on the hike only if you really want to do so, not because you want to appease the other’s wishes.
- Find out before hand if you have similar walking paces. If not, determine how you will handle the difference.
- Decide on the division of labor before you go.
- Settle personal conflicts before facing the trials of the trail.
- Decide beforehand if you will continue forward if the other person drops out.
- Carry enough equipment to be self-sufficient if you should separate.
About Jane and Dennis Blanchard
Jane V. Blanchard is the author of the Woman on Her Way series. Since her retirement in 2011, she has visited sixteen countries by foot and by bicycle and written two books about her wanderings. Now 65 years old, she plans more backpacking trips and books.
- Author’s Website
- Hadrian’s Wall Path
- Woman On Her Way
- Embracing the Camino
Dennis R. Blanchard is the author of Three Hundred Zeroes: Lessons of the Heart on the Appalachian Trail. Dennis is a retired electrical engineer and pursues his avocations of hiking, biking, reading and amateur radio full-time. Currently 69 years old, he keeps adding to his “bucket list” and hopes to bike across the United States in 2016.