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West Virginia

Barefoot hikers return to Appalachian Trail for book tour

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — The worst thing about hiking the Appalachian Trail barefoot isn’t ice. It’s when warm feet melt the ice on rocks and make them slippery.

So said Lucy Letcher, 33, of some the difficulties she and her sister, Susan, 30, encountered when they hiked the 2,175 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia, then back again, mostly barefoot.

The sisters — whose journey lasted 15 1/2 months from June 21, 2000 to Oct. 3, 2001 — were at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry on Tuesday to launch a signing tour of their 474-page book, “The Barefoot Sisters Southbound.”

According to Lucy’s calculations, the sisters walked about two-thirds of the trail barefoot.

“It felt good,” she said.

Lucy and Susan, along with their sister, Alice, 28, grew up in Mount Desert, Maine, near Acadia National Park, where “we went barefoot a lot as kids,” Lucy said.

Susan writes in the book, “We had decided to try hiking barefoot because it was the way we had always walked, since we were kids, in the mountains near our home on the coast of Maine. We loved the connection to the ground that barefoot hiking gave us. Every surface felt different underfoot: granite, shale, pine needles, thick mud.”

Lucy adopted Isis as her trail name; Susan was Jackrabbit.

“The rough-barked roots, mud, and soft spruce needles felt good underfoot, but sharp rocks and sticks seemed to lurk in unexpected places....Unless I get better at this barefoot thing, I thought, I’m going to see every rock and tree root between here and Georgia,” Susan wrote.

The trail soon toughened the bottoms of their feet. It was easy going through Maine, Lucy said, and by the time the sisters reached Pennsylvania, their feet had become “pretty thick” to meet the “little sharp rocks” that marked the trail in the Keystone State.

They had to wear boots, even snowshoes at times, in the winter of 2000-2001 in the Tennessee highlands. By that time, they had joined 17 other hardy through-hikers, all of whom supported each other during the cold winter months, Lucy said.

They reached Springer Mountain on March 3, 2001, the final destination for north-south through-hikers. 

“We didn’t plan to hike back,” Lucy said. “We were going to buy a used car in Georgia and drive back to Maine, visiting relatives on the way,” Susan said.

“When we got to Springer Mountain, we hated to leave the trail,” Susan said. “We hiked through a hard winter, the worst in 10 or 15 years, so we decided to reward ourselves.”

So they headed back down the mountain and north toward Mount Katahdin.

Susan, who has “always been interested in writing,” took a few notes along the way, but they weren’t thinking of writing a book.

They relied on their collective memories of the trail when they began to collaborate on the writing. The book, which is broken into sections with each sister taking parts, is available at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, at book stores and online.

Lucy, left, and Susan Letcher hiked the Appalachian Trail barefoot in 2001. They posed for photos Tuesday at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and signed copies of their book about their hike.

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