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[at-l] Family completes Appalachian Trail



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Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Family completes Appalachian Trail

By MARK TAYLOR, The Roanoke Times

Homer and Therese Witcher and their children, 11-year-old Taylor and
8-year-old Bennett, reached the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail,
high atop Mount Katahdin.

In reaching the 5,287-foot summit of Katahdin, the Daleville, Va., family
accomplished their goal of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail in one crack=
,
and brought to an end a 2,168-mile hike that began March 23 at Springer
Mountain in Georgia.

They finished the trip Sept. 21, two days ahead of schedule.

Father and pacesetter Homer Witcher admitted he sometimes had his doubts th=
at
the family could complete the odyssey.

"There were some times in North Carolina and Tennessee when I thought we'd
never make it this far," he said.

As they hiked through 14 states, they met plenty of challenges. They faced
freezing cold, stifling heat, depressing rain, yellow jacket stings, close
encounters with rattlesnakes, and homesickness. Homer Witcher lost about 20
pounds. Fifty-pound Bennett nearly got blown off a Tennessee mountain by 70
mph winds.

But the family =E2=80=94 known on the trail as the Odd Couple, Cascade and =
Rockslide =E2=80=94
 kept moving.

The same can't be said for most through-hikers. Typically, fewer than 15
percent of those who attempt to hike the trail all at once complete the tri=
p.


This year, about 2,400 people attempted the trip, said Brian King, spokesma=
n
for the Appalachian Trail Conference, the organization that oversees the
trail.

"Half of them dropped out before Virginia," King said.

Unlike some through-hikers, the family didn't seek out hardships. They hike=
d
with light packs or no packs when possible, stayed in motels when they coul=
d
and ate restaurant meals when they had the chance.

"We weren't out to prove how tough they are," Homer Witcher said of the kid=
s.
"Or to prove how tough we are."

Luck played a part in the family's being able to cover every foot of the
trail, said Homer Witcher.

"No one got really sick or hurt," he said.

In fact, the farther along the family got, the stronger they seemed to
become. They took a few days off. But when they hiked, they usually walked =
at
least 10 miles a day and sometimes covered as many as 19 miles a day.

Homer and Therese Witcher are Appalachian Trail fanatics who had long dream=
ed
of through-hiking the route. When 60-year-old Homer Witcher retired from hi=
s
job managing the lab at Alleghany Regional Hospital, the timing seemed righ=
t.


Having taken several long practice backpacking trips, they figured the kids
could endure the physical demands of the trail.

So Therese Witcher, 40, quit her job as a clinical lab scientist at Carilio=
n
Roanoke Memorial Hospital. The couple withdrew the kids from school and hit
the trail.

Long hours of hiking made it tough to follow a home-school curriculum, whic=
h
Homer and Therese Witcher had hoped to do. Still, the children learned
plenty, including plant and animal identification, and geography. By readin=
g
maps and adding trail lengths, Bennett became something of a math whiz.

As they covered the miles, they also inspired other hikers.

"It was fantastic," said Dave Rainey, a 37-year-old pharmacist from Memphis=
.
"It was very inspirational to see them on the trail."

Taylor and Bennett said they had mixed emotions upon finishing.

"I'm happy and sad," Taylor said.

The two said they would miss new friends such as Rainey and fellow
through-hiker Dave Martinaye of Nashua, N.H. On the other hand, they were
also looking forward to getting home to see old friends, and even to gettin=
g
back to school at the end of September.

As the family arrived on Katahdin's peak at the end of a grueling 5.2-mile
climb, Martinaye shouted, "These kids made it all the way from Georgia."

The proclamation drew gasps and applause.

Bob Goldberg of Germantown, Md., was among the several dozen day hikers to
have made the climb that morning.

"Did you just finish the AT?" he asked Homer Witcher.

"Yeah," Witcher said.

"The whole family?" Goldberg wondered.

"Yeah."

"Wow," said Goldberg, smiling and shaking his head.