After two nights of practice camping in a tent in Florida, former Wiscasset native Carla Urquhart Pierce set off on the adventure of a lifetime hiking the Appalachian Trail to Maine. Although she started the epic hike in late March with her cousin, Pierce would spend almost five months of the trip as a solo hiker, often teaming up with a community of trekkers she met along the way.
Pierce’s roots go way back in Maine, where her 2,198-mile adventure ended on the peak of Mount Katahdin on Tuesday, Sept. 12. She grew up in Wiscasset, and graduated in 1983 from Wiscasset High School where her mother, Gracie, worked for 45 years. Lincoln County locals may remember Pierce by her maiden name of Urquhart. She taught at Wiscasset High School in her hometown for almost two decades.
In 2009, her husband’s career steered them to the Deep South, first to Alabama and then on to Ocala, Fla., where they now reside. Although she doesn’t live in Maine, her family, including her brother, daughters, and eight grandchildren, is still based here and she visits them regularly. The fact that the Appalachian Trail ends in Maine was another inspiration for her to complete the journey.
Pierce’s trail name is Justcuz, which initially was meant to represent both how she would be partnering on the trail with her beloved cousin, and as a riff on her hard-to-pinpoint reason for taking on a challenge like hiking the Appalachian Trail in her late 50s.
“When you get a little older you realize that life is short,” Pierce said. “I was feeling healthy, and I always wanted to do something extra challenging, and out in nature. I didn’t have an exact reason for hiking the AT like some people. I took it on ‘Justcuz’ it felt like the right thing to do.”
When her cousin ended up pulling out after three weeks, Pierce’s trail name took on an unexpected meaning as it was suddenly just herself hiking north. She was faced with a tough decision on whether to continue.
“I missed my cousin, but I’m so thankful I kept going,” said Pierce.
Prior to the trip, Pierce had completed a lot of day hiking, but not overnight camping. Although she didn’t have much experience backpacking, she made up for it with meticulous preparation. Pierce researched the best gear for hiking the Appalachian Trail, watched YouTube videos with backpacking tips, studied water filtration devices, and mapped out a detailed plan for where to resupply along the route.
“A key item I researched was shoes,” Pierce said. “I chose Hoka, and despite their comfort and sturdiness I went through four pairs due to the rocky terrain.”
After her cousin left the trek, Pierce would cautiously join other groups she befriended along the way, especially to camp in a group at night.
“I felt like I was part of a hiking family,” said Pierce. “The AT has a strong sense of community, so I didn’t feel lonely or unsafe,” said Pierce. “I had a fuel canister run out, and someone gave me one. When I depleted my snacks, a hiker gifted me some, and when I fell and got hurt, people helped me out. I tried to do the same for others.
“Even though I was hiking alone, you meet groups traveling in sync with you, so you get to know them and feel safe with emergency support because they’re either a little ahead of you or close behind,” she said.
Pierce also stayed in regular touch with her husband regarding her day-to-day hiking and overall plans for each week.
She especially enjoyed meeting the community of through-hikers, day hikers, and section hikers that all had different plans and approaches.
“We were all out there to enjoy nature and fresh air,” said Pierce.
One of her biggest challenges on the trail, however, was caused by poor air quality in New Jersey and Pennsylvania due to smoke from Canadian wildfires. While experiencing the smoke and high heat of 90 degrees daily, Pierce had fevers and headaches that sidelined her for a week.
“I thought maybe it was a tick bite, but I went to urgent care and tested negative,” Pierce said. “When I finally felt better, I got back on the trail.”
Her other scare happened in New Hampshire on the approach toward Mount Washington. Setting out for Lakes of the Clouds, Pierce was going hut to hut when she and other hikers encountered 65-80 mph winds.
“I needed poles to prevent getting blown over,” Pierce said. “I was leaning hard into the steady wind, and then it stopped suddenly and I pitched forward onto rocks.”
Pierce got banged up and was very sore the next day but realized it was nothing serious and just soldiered on.
She also saw a fair amount of wildlife during the five-month hike, her most memorable sighting being a big bear in a marsh.
“I was walking across a boardwalk and a bear was 20 yards away looking at me while climbing a tree,” Pierce said. “I backed up real slow and after a while it just went on its way.”
She saw eight bears on the Appalachian Trail, including a mother and her cubs.
The highlight of her journey was the Bigelow Range in Maine.
“The vista overlooking Flagstaff is so beautiful,” said Pierce. “Another special moment was meeting my brother in the 100 Miles Wilderness section of the AT in Maine, near the finish.”
Outside of Maine, Pierce said that Virginia was her favorite state to hike.
“The Shenandoah Valley was very pretty, and I loved the Grayson Highlands where I saw wild ponies,” Pierce said. “The whole Triple Crown of Virginia region, including the summit of McAfee Knob, was truly special.”
While most days on the Appalachian Trail are rigorous and spent hiking and camping along the trails, Pierce also enjoyed downtime in small towns adjacent to the route where she would eat, rest, and shop for supplies. Although she mostly camped in her tent, Pierce also stayed at hostels and an occasional hotel.
“I was typically hiking with five days of food at a time,” Pierce said. “So I was usually stopping once or twice a week to resupply and recharge myself off-trail.
Nourishment on the trek was pretty basic. Pierce would stock up on tuna packets, dehydrated meals, high energy snacks, peanut butter, Pop-Tarts, and similar items. Even though she would snack all day to satiate hiker hunger, Pierce lost 15 pounds on the trail.
“Sometimes the AT goes through a town and that’s a good time to resupply, or treat yourself a little,” Pierce said. “Even though you’re far from civilization in some parts of the AT, you’re still just days away from a resupply opportunity. You can have stuff shipped to you – a lot of hostels accept packages.”
Her brother met her in Maine and delivered yet another pair of shoes after the mud and rocks of New Hampshire were tough on them.
Adequate drinking water was always a concern, but Pierce was prepared, carrying two water bottles, including a Sawyer Squeeze for filtering water she gathered along the trail at least once per day.
Pierce noted that Pennsylvania and New Jersey were hard places to find water sources to filter. Trail angels would leave dozens of gallons of water strapped to a tree to help hikers.
She had no problem finding wild water sources to filter in New England, however, due to all the rain.
In Vermont, Pierce started to get the feeling that she could complete the Appalachian Trail.
“I was getting close enough to Maine that I was thinking, ‘I can do this!’” she said.
Although she doesn’t plan to hike the whole Appalachian Trail again, Pierce said it’s likely she’ll revisit favorite sections.
“I think my husband and I will explore some other trail systems and regions such as the Long Trail in Vermont or maybe out west in Colorado,” said Pierce.
While hiking the Appalachian Trail alone at age 58 might sound scary to most people, Pierce hopes her trek will inspire others, including her grandchildren, to try something outside their comfort zone.
“My adventure shows that you’re never too old to try something challenging,” said Pierce. “For almost six months I hiked 2,198 miles, and I’m a grandmother!”