WAYNESVILLE, NC (Citizen-Times) -- Hiking the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, one of the longest footpaths in the world, is an exercise in the outer limits of human will and strength. And usually, left to the youth of the world.
But 80-year-old identical twin sisters Elrose Couric and Sue Hollinger completed the trail this summer, finding the secret to completing the brutal journey – setting a goal and having a glass of red wine every night on the trail.
Having wine with cold pizza, even better.
“We’re very goal-oriented. We always need a goal,” said Hollinger of the massive hike. “We wished we were daring enough or young enough to do a thru-hike. It would have saved lots of time, but we couldn’t.”
It took the twins 14 years to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, which they completed July 7. They hiked it in sections, rather than in one shot, which takes the average hiker about six months.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit that manages the footpath, some 3 million people hike the trail each year. About 3,000 attempt a thru-hike and 1 in 4 complete it.
The section-hiked journey was no less difficult. Besides sore muscles, bruises and broken bones, the sisters had bear encounters, a near-drowning experience, yellow jacket attacks and a near brush with a murderer.
But overall, they said in unison, “It was such a fun time.”
Unlikely late life hobby
Making up for some 30 years of separation, the twin sisters wanted to spend as much time together as possible.
“We were both widowed within two years – we didn’t plan it,” Couric said. “We hardly saw each other when we were married because our husbands didn’t get along.”
In 1995 the twins, now 80, bought a house on a mountainside in Waynesville, where they live half the year, and live the other, colder half of the year in Key Largo, Florida.
They were both trained nurses but hadn’t worked in that field much either, Couric said.
“My husband was a lawyer, and we lived in Virginia. Susie’s husband was a physicist in D.C.,” Couric said. “Susie has two boys and three grands and they call us both Mom. I raised three cats and two dogs.”
To get in all those missed long talks and the unspoken bonds that twins share, Couric and Hollinger, neither of whom had hiked much in their lives, took up the local pastime and joined the Haywood Hikers.
They quickly got the hiking bug in their blood. Starting in their 60s, they began hiking every trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The finished all 900 miles in 1998.
That massive project out of the way, the sisters climbed all the Western North Carolina peaks over 6,000 feet, such as Mount Mitchell and Cold Mountain.
They had also joined the Carolina Mountain Club, an organization known for its strenuous guided hikes and its mountain-size trail maintenance projects.
They enjoyed the hard work, armed with a chain saw and loppers, packs and gear easily exceeding half the weight of the sisters’ 5-foot-2-inch, 105-pound frames. They adopted 5 miles of the Appalachian Trail in the Snowbird Mountain area, clearing out fallen branches, cutting overgrown vegetation, and cleaning the ditches of fallen leaves to help prevent erosion.
But they needed another goal, and remembered a teenage dream they both had to hike the Appalachian Trail. “But girls didn’t do that sort of thing then,” Couric said.
They started hiking the AT in earnest in 2002 in North Carolina.
They were accompanied by Haywood Hikers and CMC club members in the beginning, traveling to a section, sometimes sleeping overnight in a trail shelter or campsite, sometimes coming back home to sleep. As they ventured farther from home, Hollinger and Couric would have to hike alone, shuttling themselves, leaving their car at a trailhead and renting a car to leave at the end of the hike.
“We kept upgrading to lighter weight gear,” Couric said. “We only weigh 105 pounds, so we couldn’t carry so much. We would carry a tent that we didn’t have poles.”
Days of living dangerously
Some days the sisters would cover 18 miles, some days only 7, depending on the terrain covering about 200 miles a year. Whether they stayed in a hotel or slept in the woods, they would always end the day with a glass of Merlot.
But things weren’t always wine and roses.
“I do all the planning, and I get us there,” Hollinger said. “My sister is the verbal one. She talks to all the people on the trail."
But Couric was also the more accident prone.
Maine and New Hampshire had the most treacherous terrain, sometimes slowing them to 1 mile an hour. In Maine, Couric tripped and fell onto her hiking pole, fracturing a rib. When they were almost finished, hiking from Maryland into Virginia, Couric tripped again, this time falling in a way that bent all her fingers back to her wrist, breaking her fingers and ending up in a cast for six weeks.
“Ooh, that hurt,” she said.
Once they had to cross a stream where a rope was strung across to help hikers ford safely. Couric was having trouble holding on to the rope while practically swimming across with her heavy gear.
“I couldn’t step down because I couldn’t reach the bottom,” Couric said. “I tried to fling myself across, but tore my rotator cuff. I needed an operation when I got back. But I couldn’t let go, I would have been swept away. That was scary.”
The sisters met at least 10-12 other hikers a day, sometimes hiking with them for a while. As is custom on the Appalachian Trail, hikers give each other trail names. The sisters had the same name – “Trekking Twins.”
“One time we were hiking with someone in the early part of Virginia and they left,” Couric said. “The next day, someone came and said beware of a man with a dog, who killed two women last night. Who did we see the next day, but a man with a dog. We decided, 'No more hiking this year.'”
In Maine, they hiked with a woman named Inchworm but eventually fell behind her. The next day, they came across massive search party with law enforcement trucks and search dogs. Inchworm was reported missing. Couric said her body was found three years later, in her tent and sleeping bag, with her journal.
“She was 3,000 feet off the trail. It was frightening.”
But even more frightening was coming across a mama bear on the trail and trying to scare it away with loud growls, and getting swarmed and stung by yellow jackets. They carried an epinephrine injector, and they had to use it.
The sisters took winters off each year to recuperate, walk the flat lands of Florida, work out in the gym, and quilt.
In July, they finished 14 years of an epic adventure. For the last several miles, they were joined by all their family members, hiking from Hawksbill in Virginia to the Pinnacle Picnic Area on the Skyline Drive.
“How did we celebrate? I think we just rested. We were so exhausted,” Hollinger said.
Looking back at the 14 years, Couric said she can’t believe they actually finished the trail. What kept them going was their eyes on the prize and love of the outdoors.
“Our religion was being in the woods,” she said. “We love maintaining the trails and just being in the woods. It doesn’t matter how or when or why. Both of us were so lucky. We couldn’t have done it without each other.”