What Does it Take to Hike The Appalachian Trail?

A Former Penguin Hall Teacher Shares Her Courageous Tale

Sherry Cook, a former math and economics teacher at The Academy at Penguin Hall, set the upbeat and inspired tone for 2020 Symposium Week with her keynote address, “My AT Adventure: A Courageous Journey?” In October 2019, Cook finished a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT), covering 2,192 miles in 6 months. The title of her presentation was as much an introduction as a question; though one might assume it takes a great deal of courage to complete a thru hike of the AT, Cook encouraged students and faculty to draw their own conclusions on what makes a journey a courageous one. “Everyone sitting in this room has a dream that’s a little bit scary, so let’s embrace that,” she said.

For Cook, this hike was a bucket-list item. She felt the time was right for a number of reasons: exploring a career transition, a sudden empty nest after her son left for college, and the recognition that time is short and there are no guarantees in life. “I was 56 when I started on the trail, and that was the exact same age my mother was when she was diagnosed with Early-onset Alzeimers; I was 30 years older than my father was when he died from a brain aneurysm,” Cook shared.

When Cook first told people her plans to hike the AT, she said their number one reaction was — “you’re going alone?” She wondered aloud if the same question would have been posed if she were a man. For her, it was more a question of mental toughness than physical endurance or the need for protection. Cook related this experience to a quote pulled from “A Woman’s Place is at the Top,” a biography of Annie Smith Peck, written by APH Humanities Teacher Hannah Kimberley: “Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.” Among other pioneering roles for a woman in the 19th century, Peck was a mountain climber. “In reality, [hiking the AT] is the single most independent thing I’d ever done in my life,” Cook exclaimed.   

Exercising her love for math, Cook drew on data to help address the risks of hiking the AT. “Statistically, it’s more risky to drive on highway 128 than to hike the AT,” she explained. “But, was I secure enough to trust myself enough to be alone?” she pondered. It turns out, says Cook, that the AT is far more social than people realize. “I was hiking alone but also with hundreds of friends I hadn’t met yet,” Cook said. 

Cook addressed common things people assume are risks of hiking the AT, including animal encounters and injuries Yes, animals are very much a part of the experience, said Cook, who saw a few bears on the trail, plenty of rat snakes, and even a porcupine. But most east coast bears and rattlesnakes, she explained, are more scared of hikers than the other way around, and a threatening encounter is unlikely. But, of all wildlife on the AT, Cook shared that ticks are the most probable and scariest, due to the risk of contracting Lyme Disease, so daily tick checks are essential. 

Beyond animals, weather — especially in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Southern Maine — requires respect. Cook also boldly addressed the reality of menstruation, and shared solutions: scent-controlled bags, diva cups, and other personal choices (who knew?) “Ladies, do not ever let your period keep you from doing something courageous,” Cook emphasized.

Then there’s the real risk of injury. For a while, Cook tracked how many times she fell, then asked herself, “Why don’t I just count the number of times I get back up? Or better yet, why not just stop counting?”’ When it came to sure footing, Cook drew inspiration from Ms. Martins. “Molly Martins always speaks about everything you do being intentional — I embraced that and took every step with intention.” 

“I never wanted to quit. I did want to be done, by the time I hit Vermont,” Cook admitted. “If you set a goal, be kind to yourself if the ultimate goal that you envisioned isn’t met; think about the things you have accomplished already,” she said. But don’t let your thoughts stop you from going all the way, Cook advised.“We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.” You pick and choose, and that’s okay, says Cook. There’s a time for everything in life. 

So, was it a courageous journey? “Part of what drew me to this journey was that I finally reached my 50s, and I thought I was mentally strong… I couldn’t have done it in my 20s, I had too much going on that didn’t allow me to trust myself,” she said, and elaborated that it took years of hard work and journaling and thinking and testing her mental strength to feel ready. 

This inner work was necessary for learning to trust one’s self, which Cook suggests is a type of courage necessary for anything you do in life. “Prepare. Do some homework… whether you’re a freshman in high school or getting ready for college, do some research. Read memoirs or talk to those who had great experiences, and also those who didn’t — rest on the shoulders of those who went before you,” she concluded. 

As with anything we face in life, whether it’s thru-hiking the AT or deciding what college to attend, Cook’s story and message of courage in the face of risk and fear reminds us that courage is  about putting one foot in front of the other and trusting ourselves enough to know what we’re capable of in that moment, and in the next.