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On Top of the World

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

A Dugspur woman was known for six months as "No Nails" as she trudged and climbed the 2,178 miles of the Appalachian Trail — despite her bad back, hurt ankle and fear of heights — and recently returned home triumphant.

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Following the tradition of trail hikers, Cathy Shouse adopted a colorful nickname to go by while slogging from Springer Mountain in Georgia through the Mid-Atlantic and New England to Katahdin, the trail's northern terminus in Maine.

"No Nails" referred to a pre-AT hike where Shouse, prepping for her upcoming trek, got her feet soaked while climbing down Roan Mountain in Tennessee through snow and rubbed her toenails off against the insides of her shoes.

The toenails turned black and peeled off one at a time, but Shouse — once she made up her mind to tackle the long-distance hike — remained undeterred.

As Shouse describes her decision, the idea to do the whole AT stemmed from a defiance of aging, its pains — and perhaps her surgeon, too.

"I never hiked a day in my life before I decided I was going to walk the AT," she said. "I had hurt my back a few years ago. The doctor wanted to operate, but I didn't.

"I wanted to do physical therapy, so that's what I did."

She undertook her therapy at the Carroll Wellness Center, where they showed her what to do and how to exercise to strengthen her back.

It worked, and Shouse found herself getting stronger and stronger and feeling better and better.

About this time, she kept running across articles about the Appalachian Trail, seeing profiles of people who'd hiked the whole thing.

Shouse started feeling compelled to take to the trail herself, but she tossed and turned about it, feeling at the same time that she couldn't leave home for that long.

But she figured that out — set up her bank account to automatically pay her bills, so she wouldn't fall behind on payments, as one example.

After preparing for more than a year, the only issue left to resolve was who to hike with. Shouse advertised in the Appalachian Trail conservation magazine to find some hiking partners.

She wanted to go with people about her age, and most female AT users are either just out of high school or college or they are older than Shouse.

Two women answered the ad — "Skittles," so named because she always wore different bright colors together, like the rainbow-hued candies; and "Moonwalker," for her space age-looking gear.

All three had a great time.

"We never had any problem..." Shouse said. "We all had the same goal to get to the end, had the same drive and the same determination."

Determination is a requirement to complete the journey. More than 2,000 hikers start with the intention of walking the whole AT, but only one-fifth make it.

"People think it's just like the New River Trail," Shouse said. "It's not. It's very difficult."

A friend gave Shouse some helpful advice that she lived by — don't think of the hike as more than 2,100 miles. Don't think about what provokes fear in her. Concentrate on that day's distance and take it one step at a time until they stopped for the evening.

On some mountain faces, it became one handhold at a time, as the hiking would change into hand-over-hand climbing.

Because of Shouse's fear of heights, pulling herself upward on scattered handholds meant narrowing her focus to the immediate surroundings.

One of the hardest parts of the journey came when she reached the face of Lehigh Gap in Pennsylvania — where she had to confront her fear for the first time.

For her, it was the scariest moment and the most memorable — even though the hikers arrived at even more massive mountains as they went on.

The climb was physical and dangerous. "It was vertical enough so that if you leaned back a little bit you were off the side of the mountain because your pack is so heavy you would have lost your balance," Shouse recalled.

Her pack weighed 42 pounds at first, but Shouse whittled it down to about 30 as the days went on. She could live without all those "lotions and potions," she decided.

When she came home, Shouse had many keepsakes from the adventure, including at least a grocery bag full of photographs:

Shouse in front of scenic mountain vistas.

All three hikers in the clouds at the 6,288-foot Mount Washington Summit.

Shouse ducking through boulders, or levering herself over rocks with her poles, or next to the biggest tree on the AT as proclaimed by the guidebook.

Washing dishes in exchange for staying at 12 Tribes Back Home Again Hostel in Rutland, Vt.

Shouse celebrating with arms upraised at Katahdin, the northernmost end of the trail.

Other pictures showed the trilliums or lady slipper orchids the hikers discovered, or the fawn that curled up and slept right next to the trail. There are somewhat fuzzy pictures of bears taken from a distance, or just the silhouette of a bear's head and ears discernable from the leaf canopy up in a tree.

There are photos of a few of the people who gave the hikers rides into town for supplies.

There were so many beautiful sights to see — every day and every leg of the trip brought new wonders when the fog would lift and the rays of sun shined.

Shouse can't decide which is the prettiest place on the AT, but she can tell you the hardest spot. "New Hampshire was the hardest state... You don't get a break... At Mount Washington, the wind blew me down three times." 

The Appalachian Trail holds many a place where the going gets tough. One time, the hikers had to go through the middle of a waterfall to stay on the trail. They would hang on tight to any rock or branch they could to make it down.

"Who would put a trail in the middle of a waterfall, I'd like to know?" she said.

"In Pennsylvania, we have 60 miles of rocks [to cross] that everybody hates," Shouse recalled. "There's nowhere to put your feet."

That stretch is all crooked and uneven and everybody's feet keep sliding back and forth. "That was the only day I hated."

After her acceptance of Jesus Christ and raising her son, Shouse considers her long hike as the greatest experience of her life.

She went through 14 states and only heard two people say that they stank — even though long-distance trekkers really do get a "trail aroma" about them.

The feat meant that Shouse has touched many lives, which came as a surprise to her. Among the people she passed on the trail, there was a man in his 20s that went by the name "Shenanigans."

One day, he burst in excitedly to the hostel that Shouse had stopped at and proclaimed her his role model.

He'd almost gave up, Shenanigans explained to her. But he kept seeing what Shouse would write in the registers in the shelters on the way, and he realized something.

"He said, 'If No Nails can do it, I can do it,'" Shouse remembered.

The kindness of many people she encountered along the way restored her faith in humanity.

She confesses that she couldn't have made it without God's hand being there to protect her from threats ranging from a man with a switchblade to hungry bears taking other campers' food supplies.

"I prayed for a lot of people while I was out there, because you have a lot of time to talk to God," she said.

After making up a section from the Smoky Mountains to Damascus in September — which she missed after hurting her ankle — Shouse can see herself taking less logistically challenging day hikes from now on.

"I'm definitely going to hike — I love it, I love it," she said. "I don't ever want to hike the whole thing ever again... I'll probably be a fair-weather hiker."