From peaks to pavement: local coach completes Appalachian Trail

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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By Ellen Brabo, For Washington Daily News

For most people, completing the entire Appalachian Trail is a monumental feat that requires months of dedication, rigorous planning, and unwavering determination. Local cross-country coach, Dawn Landen, took an unconventional approach, transforming this ambitious goal into a unique family adventure. Over the course of seven years, Landen completed the entire trail one segment at a time, finishing her last hike in April 2022.

 “I really didn’t start out with the goal of hiking the entire trail,” explained Landen.

 Her journey evolved from a 10-day backpacking trip with a friend and her daughters. Starting at the southern terminus of the trail in Georgia, the group was accompanied by Landen’s father, who met them daily with food and water.

 “We were all hooked and just continued planning our way up the trail, going on trips during breaks from school,” shared Landen.

 Throughout their journey, Landen and her hiking companions faced numerous challenges, particularly in the rugged terrain of the White Mountains of New Hampshire; however, Landen found rewarding moments along the way. She reminisced about the breathtaking sunrises and the triumphant feeling of summiting peaks like Mt. Washington and Mt. Katahdin.

 One incident that stands out vividly in Landen’s memory occurred during a backpacking trip through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Encountering a bear near Cosby Knob Shelter, Landen and her family employed creative tactics to ensure their safety, emphasizing the unpredictable nature of the trail.

 “A bear came out of the woods as soon as the sun started to set and hung around the shelter all night and into the next morning,” recalled Landen. “We had to throw rocks and sing loudly to get it to retreat far enough away to allow us to get our packs down from the bear cables.”

 Reflecting on her journey, Landen offered valuable advice to aspiring hikers. She emphasized the importance of preparation and recommended section hiking for those with time constraints, allowing them to enjoy the trail at their own pace. She also stressed the significance of adapting one’s packing list and highlighted essential items such as high-calorie snacks, water filtration systems, rain gear, and, in bear country, bear spray.

 “The first section hike that we did, we were scared to filter our own water,” shared Landen. “My dad would carry around bottles of water in his trunk and we would refill our bottles each day when he would meet us. After the first trip, and the bruises on my hips and shoulders from the heavy pack, I learned that filtering water was a necessity.”

 One of the cherished aspects of Landen’s journey through the Appalachian Trail was the involvement of her relatives. Recalling a memorable hike with her sister’s family near Greyson Highlands State Park in Virginia, she shared an endearing moment that encapsulates the essence of this familial camaraderie.

 “As we came across a grassy field about halfway through the day, we saw our crazy father up on top of a rock outcropping called Buzzard Rock,” recalled Landen. “He was standing there with his walking stick like he was king of the mountain, hollering like a werewolf.”

 Landen’s Appalachian Trail journey has seamlessly woven into the fabric of her coaching philosophy at Washington High School where she is the girls’ cross-country coach. Landen is also a sixth grade social studies teacher at P.S. Jones Middle School.

 She provides runners with more than just anecdotes of wilderness adventures. Through her tales, she imparts invaluable life lessons, illustrating the unpredictable nature of challenges that lie ahead.

 “I think by sharing my trail stories with my runners, I can give them a taste of what life is going to be like for them: some days are cold and rainy, and you just have to embrace the suck, other days are going to be full of adventure and beautiful sights,” said Landen.

 Whether it’s pushing her team to “get the miles in” or recounting the less glamorous hiking days, she instills in her athletes the tenacity needed to navigate life’s varied terrains.