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At 74, woman plans Appalachian Trail hike

June 17, 2018

DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — A lot has changed since Fay Ferrell trekked a portion of the Appalachian Trail in December 1971 with seven other hikers.

They used chlorine-based tablets to purify drinking water and ate Spam, deviled ham, and Vienna sausages. The food should definitely be better this time. Not to mention hiking clothes, socks, shoes, and supplies have all improved over the last 47 years.

Ferrell was 28 when she did the 1971 hike. Now Ferrell, who turns 75 in August, is ready to hike the Appalachian Trail once more with two others from the original group of hikers.

For Ferrell, the attempt is a personal goal as so many of her high school classmates have died — including four since the first of the year.

“We’re thankful to be alive,” Ferrell said. “It’s nothing heroic; we’re just celebrating that we’ve lived to retirement age.”

A Seale native, Ferrell was an instructor at Tennessee Tech in 1971. She was invited to go on a five-day, 60-mile hike with a group of students who were active in the university’s caving and climbing club. Being that it was December, they had the trail to themselves as they hiked through North Carolina and into Georgia. Of the original party of eight, only three will be making the journey this time — Ferrell, Patterson Griggs, and Kathleen McKenzie. They will start at Wayah Gap near Franklin, North Carolina. Instead of going south as they did in 1971, they’ll head north (which is actually more downhill).

This time, the hikers will aim for 21 miles over three days, ending their journey on June 21. Ferrell said it’s a modest venture considering the full Appalachian Trail is nearly 2,190 miles long.

Ferrell, the oldest of the trio, has gotten approval from her doctors, including her internist, a vascular specialist, and an orthopedic doctor. She has support braces for her knees and moisture wicking socks for her feet. She’ll even have compression hose and recovery hose to wear during and after hiking to help prevent leg cramps. And she’ll be using trekking poles for balance. She’s been taking hikes along Dothan’s Forever Wild Trail to get accustomed to her backpack and work on her distance and stamina.

Ferrell’s no stranger to climbing and hiking. When she lived in California, she climbed Yosemite’s Half Dome and made five climbs up Devils Tower (she even married her second husband at the base of Devils Tower).

Age has never stopped Ferrell.

After years working on college faculties as a neuroscientist, Ferrell decided at the age of 43 to get her medical degree.

“On my 44th birthday, I was in the anatomy lab holding my cadaver’s heart in my hands, looking at these tiny fibers that open and closed the valves, and thinking ‘What in the world am I doing here?’” Ferrell said.

Ferrell jokes that medical school was her mid-life crisis.

By the time she was in her 40s, Ferrell had done many of the things someone might do during a mid-life crisis — she had climbed Devils Tower and Half Dome; she had finished three Heart of California double century bike rides; and had made a tandem jump out of “a perfectly good airplane.” A friend suggested she take her academic experience and pursue a medical degree.

Her son was out of college and married, so Ferrell decided to go for it.

“I’m not the type for a little red sports car because I’m autumn colors — you know the earth tones,” Ferrell said. “It was the first time since 20 years old that I was only responsible for me and a $10 mixed-breed dog.”

She got her medical degree from Chicago Medical School and did a residency at Duke University Medical Center before moving to Dothan in 1995. She has worked as a psychiatrist, treating both veterans and active duty soldiers with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. She spent seven years as the medical director at SpectraCare. Now, she works a few days a week and spends the rest of her time caring for her foster and rescue dogs.

For the upcoming Appalachian hike, Ferrell and her fellow hikers plan to have a good meal at the start of their journey and celebratory meal when they reach the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina.

Then, they plan to raft down the Nantahala River.

“We call it our Summer Solstice Geriatric Jaunt,” Ferrell said. “We might get the first day into it and say, ‘What were we thinking?’”

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