A 16-year-old Marilou Wegert is featured on the cover of the 1973 edition of “The Compleat Backpacker,” a now-yellowed, compact paperback; she’s smiling as she poses in front of Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
It was a fluke job — she and a friend were each paid 20 bucks to model for the pictures, a stock photo that would circulate in a number of hiking magazines and outdoor guides, her teenage self captured freeze-frame in boots, a bandanna and a hefty backpack.
Fifty years later, Wegert, now 66, finished her seven-and-a-half year journey on the Appalachian Trail, 2,200 miles across 38 different trips, a mission that was, she said, all her own. After raising and homeschooling eight children with her husband, Bill, in Amherst County, she said she wanted to prove to herself she could take it on.
“Seems Marilou was destined to hike the AT,” said Bill Wegert, who dug out another publication featuring the stock photo: an undated edition of “Argosy” magazine, with the words “hike the Appalachian Trail” blazoned over the cascading water of the falls. It’s not a trail Marilou would have been familiar with at the time, a world away; the trail was not yet as mainstream as it is now.
Marilou Wegert’s true journey started in May 2013 in Damascus, Virginia. Over the next seven-and-a-half years, she conquered the white-blazed trail in week-long trips, 50 to 100 miles at a time. The shortest stretch she did at once was 42 miles, and the longest was 275, spanning five weeks through Maine and New Hampshire.
The Appalachian Trail is a public footpath thousands of miles long that traverses the East Coast, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. While some “thru-hikers” attempt to complete the journey in a single season, other hikers, including Marilou, parcel it out across a number of distinct trips. Virginia contains more miles of the AT than any other state, with about 551 miles traversing the commonwealth.
Over the eight years, Marilou Wegert took on the trail with a number of different hiking partners, but Bill was her constant. He calls himself her “support,” helping ferry them on the trips, meeting her at pickup points, and taking on more than half of the trail himself. They slept in tents, in shelters, in their van, when necessary, dragging the kids along when they could convince them to come out.
At their home in Monroe in Amherst County, Marilou unspooled a number of paper maps at the kitchen table. At the beginning of her journey, she used disposable cameras to catalog the hikes, and she has fat photo albums full of glossy 4-by-6 inch prints, and spiral notebooks dense with detailed notes marking shuttle times, telephone numbers and mileage logged.
With their kids, who range in age from 21 to 39, now grown, Bill and Marilou Wegert live in a log home tucked away down a long, gravel road. There are wind chimes on the porch, and a husky, black-and-white cat named Bull picked his way through the yard on a warm February day.
Even now that the first trip is over, Marilou is far from burned out. She still takes miles-long hikes every day, and the 2,200-mile journey of more than 5 million steps is a microcosm of the last eight years, intersecting relationships and landmarks that extend far beyond the trail.
She first met her daughter-in-law-to-be on one of the hikes when her son brought her with him, a trial by fire with future in-laws, and has made lasting friendships and found “big realizations” along the way.
“It was such an adventure, and every single section has such unique features,” Marilou Wegert said. “It’s not just the landscape, it’s the people. It’s the unbelievable community out there.”
Growing up, her family ran The Bristol Hotel in Steamboat Springs, and though hiking was a primary pastime, the AT cemented for her that she would always rather be outside. She and Bill are waiting for the right time to ditch their belongings and set out in a converted van.
“That was the big realization,” she said, “that I could live with just what I could carry on my back.”
While homeschooling eight kids, Bill said, things didn’t get to be “about her,” and hiking the AT was about fulfilling her dreams.
“This was about you,” he said to her, smiling.
“There are a lot of people hiking the trail for a lot of different reasons,” Bill Wegert said. “They’re coming off relationships, they’re trying to find themselves, they’re just escaping. It’s a fascinating community, why people are out there, and what they do it for.”
They spoke about “trail magic,” a concept that can include finding what you need when you least expect it, unexpected acts of generosity or hidden moments of inspiration. Be it a six-pack of beer left trailside for hikers to take along the route, a jug of water in a dry stretch or the helping hand of locals who live alongside the AT community, there were moments of beauty and magic even when things were at their worst, Marilou Wegert said.
“Even though there are all kinds of people, doing it for all kinds of reasons, there’s a lot of good out there,” Bill said.
The first hike on Marilou’s route, a 175-mile stretch through Virginia that encompassed Mount Rogers, the highest natural point in the state, had some hiccups. Marilou sliced open her head on a low-hanging branch, the kids who came along got sick, and there was a feeling of general misery in those low moments — escalated by exhaustion, heat and the steady, onward tread.
She said she was nearly crying when she rounded a corner and came upon a “flaming azalea tree,” bright and in bloom. That sight alone, “the gift of the trail,” she called it, helped her pick herself back up.
“There are little things like that,” she said — like the tiny salamanders you only see in pouring rain — special things that are more than just the scenic views.
Bill dubbed her “Mountain Mama,” the trail name she would go by across the course of her journey, and she said it was a perfect fit.
The adventure far from over, they next plan to tackle the Colorado Trail, which stretches more than 500 miles from Denver to Durango.
When asked if she would miss the AT, Marilou Wegert laughed, “I’m planning on doing it again, but this time in a different way.”
Hoping to take it on in four big sections this time, she said, she’s up for the challenge.