This spring, while her classmates went to prom and ordered graduation robes, Mary Bradley loaded a backpack with a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, hammock, dried fruit, meat and nuts, toilet paper, a water filter and a change of clothes.
Bradley didn’t walk at graduation with her Franklin Community High School class Friday. She had arranged her final years of high school to allow for another walk: the nearly 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
Walking the trail started out as a joke. When she first learned about it, she wondered why anyone would want to walk that far. But over time, the joke became “we should do that someday.” And eventually, the joke became a goal, Bradley said.
“And then it just kind of sat in the back of my mind for a year or so, and it just kind of popped into my head, and I realized this is something I have to do,” she said.
School: Franklin Community High School
Parents: Jeff and Emily Bradley of Franklin
Siblings: Will, 21, and Katie, 17
Plans: To hike the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine
College: Planning to attend IUPUI next year
Hiking the Appalachian Trail was the 18-year-old’s first big goal, and she focused all her attention on making it happen, she said.
She began planning the trip about two years ago and decided she wanted to hike the entire trail in 2013. With that goal in mind, she set up her class schedule so she could finish high school one semester early.
Bradley had taken some advanced classes, was a little ahead in high school and only had to make some scheduling tweaks to graduate early, her mother Emily Bradley said. She plans to start college in January 2014, one semester late, at IUPUI, where she plans to major in engineering or computer science.
“She enjoys backpacking and wants to do something that’s very challenging and very few people have done,” her father Jeff Bradley said.
“She’s goal-oriented. The goal of doing the trail was more important to her than walking across the stage.”
Jeff Bradley started the hike with Mary in April, then left her to complete it with her brother, 21-year-old Will.
Jeff and Emily Bradley are paying for most of the trip, though Mary and Will did save money to buy supplies for the six-month adventure. The trip’s total cost should be about $8,000, including the price of traveling to the trail from Franklin, some brief hotel stays, hiking gear and food.
This week, Mary and Will Bradley finished their trek through North Carolina and headed into Tennessee, where they will spend the next week. A little more than a month-and-a-half in, Mary Bradley said the journey is even better than she imagined it would be. She has been hiking and backpacking with her family before, but nothing like this, she said.
“Every climb is higher than we have ever done, every view has been larger than life. There are no views you can get in Indiana that can compare to the stuff we are seeing,” she said.
She wakes up tired, especially after a day of climbing. Sometimes she wonders how she will be able to hike the 18 miles she needs to get through that day. But she has kept going, she said.
“She’s very strong-willed and she likes a challenge. My kids are very unique. They don’t follow the crowd very much,” Emily Bradley said.
Mary Bradley set out on the trail April 14 in Georgia with her father and plans to finish the 14-state hike in September in Maine. The trail follows the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains.
“She’s just focused her life around this for the last couple of years and planned for this goal,” Emily Bradley said. “I think my hopes have already been realized — that my daughter would be able to see through this plan that she had in her mind and make it happen.”
For Mary Bradley, the trip has shown her what she is capable of and showed her just how far she can push herself.
“I’ve never really had such a big goal in my life and I am doing it, I am going to complete it, hopefully. You can’t underestimate yourself after doing this. You find how far you can go,” she said.
Mary Bradley, her dad and brother have been sleeping on hammocks strung between trees or in three-walled shelters along the Appalachian Trail. They only carry enough food for about one week at a time, so they stop weekly in towns near the trail. Occasionally, the rural trail cuts through towns between mountains. Usually, though, Mary and Will have to call for shuttles that are prepared to pick up hikers so they can go buy supplies.
They meet people at shelters, who are walking the trail, too, and talk about their experiences. They meet others while just walking through town. Some stop her to say how impressed they are that she is hiking the trail or to tell her stories of others who have made the trek.
Dangers along the trail include rattlesnakes and injuries from missteps on the rugged, mountainous path. The black bears in the woods are timid and typically aren’t dangerous, Jeff Bradley said.
The days on the trail that are both cold and wet have been the hardest, he said. Rain and unseasonably cool weather aren’t dangerous separately, but both at once for days on end can cause hypothermia, he said.
He and Mary returned to Franklin in April for one week so they wouldn’t risk hypothermia.
The two did meet rattlesnakes but scooted them off the trail with long sticks without any trouble, he said.
A mother bear with two cubs wandered into the Bradleys’ campsite one night. The bears drank from a spring shortly after the Bradleys did and the cubs climbed nearby trees, Jeff Bradley said. Sitting by a fire pit just 25 yards away from the bears, the Bradleys and the bears watched each other.
“That was probably one of the highlights of the trip for us,” he said. “We were sitting there having our supper. We sat there quietly and watched. It was fabulous.”
Emily Bradley does worry about her children, but Mary and Will check in nightly with text messages from their cellphones. Cellphone reception is typically bad or nonexistent, but Mary and Will have a Spot Connect satellite messaging device that can send a text message to their parents even without phone service.
The same device can send a signal to local police in an emergency.
On the Appalachian Trail, Will and Mary Bradley help each other ensure they’re both staying hydrated and stepping carefully. They rely on a trail guide for information on terrain, nearby towns and cellphone service availability.
“Obviously, I’m concerned, but my son is with her,” Jeff Bradley said. “I never wanted her to be in a position where she was alone on the trail.”
Jeff Bradley got extra vacation time from Eli Lilly, where he works as an engineer, so he could spend two weeks on the trail with Mary. He plans to spend another week hiking with them later this year.
Emily Bradley and 17-year-old daughter Katie have taken trips out to the Appalachian Trail to visit the hikers and provide supplies as needed, but aren’t hiking. Emily Bradley has visited the hikers three times so far, but will probably limit her trips in the future to about one per month.
“It’s been a big family project to which we’ve all grown closer together,” Emily Bradley said.