Su Joffrion likes to be active. She ran marathons until her knees and feet objected, then chose cycling and scuba diving.
“I’m always challenging myself physically and other ways,” she said. “I really think if you don’t challenge yourself, if you don’t push yourself just a little bit beyond your comfort zone, you just never grow. You’re just going to sit in the same place.”
So, when Joffion, 61, thought about hiking several years ago, a stroll through the Tunica hills wasn’t enough. Joffrion wanted something big and memorable.
She wanted the Appalachian Trail. All of it. In one trip.
So on Feb. 22, she began in north Georgia. On Sept. 17, she reached Mount Katahdin, Maine, 2,160 miles away. Joffrion says she returned to Baton Rouge in a better frame of mind.
“I had become a little bit jaded toward people because crime was so bad, and what I was seeing was people just don’t treat people right,” she said. “Out on the trail, I saw so much generosity and so much kindness through the ‘trail angels’ and other hikers, so it was life-changing. It changed my attitude just tremendously.”
Trail angels are people who live near the trail who take it upon themselves to be kind to the hikers — all need it, and especially those going end to end.
Joffrion may have needed it more than most. Multi-day practice hikes last year taught her how costly mistakes can be.
The first time, her pack was too heavy. Wrestling to put it on, she got turned around and hiked five miles in the wrong direction before turning around, making the hike exhausting.
Later, during a warm rain, she didn’t put on a rain jacket. The temperature dropped, but she hiked on, fearing that she wouldn’t be able to put the pack on if she took it off to retrieve the rain gear. Despite the exertion of the hike, she was shivering badly when she finally reached a shelter and was able to warm up in her sleeping bag.
“I woke up the next morning and my clothes were frozen solid,” she said.
Learning from such experiences, Joffrion set off and discovered many ways in which the Appalachian Trail is a world apart. Hikers, she said, are known by nicknames. Joffrion chose “Dallas,” a character in a series of novels she enjoys.
“Nobody out on the trail knew me as Su. Everybody called me Dallas,” Joffrion said. “You either come up with your own before the hike, or it’s given to you on the hike, and sometimes you don’t want people to give you a name because it’s usually something like ‘Falls a Lot,’ which would have been mine.”
The trail is a remarkably social place. Joffrion spent most of her seven months hiking with people she’d meet along the way — some multiple times in different locations. She met Money Maker — so named because he was using the hike to raise money for charity — in the Shenandoah Mountains. They reconnected twice more and finished the trail together.
“That’s one of the reasons I felt safe. Hikers watch each others’ backs,” Joffrion said. “Even if I was hiking by myself, I would generally know the name of the hiker behind me and the name of the hiker ahead of me. People would pass saying, ‘Have you seen so-and-so today?’ … You’re really not by yourself, and even if I was, I felt much safer than in Baton Rouge.”
Joffrion’s favorite moment involved five Mennonite trail angels at Port Clinton, Pennsylvania.
They found Joffrion’s online hiking journal and emailed her, offering to pick her up when she arrived, take her to pick up supplies, take her out to eat and let her shower and sleep in their home before returning her to the trail.
“I will never forget them,” she said. “That was one of the big lessons on the trail for me.”
Lessons came day by day, step by step, as Joffrion experienced the trail’s idyllic beauty, including mountain overlooks, waterfalls and rivers.
“There was one day Money Maker and I took a break and sat by the side of a pond, and you could hear the loons calling,” she said. “It was windy, and the pond actually had waves rolling in. I looked at Money Maker and said, ‘We’re two of the luckiest people in the world right now.’”