Friday, October 22, 2004

Indian Hill woman carried sister's memory on journey



By John Johnston
Enquirer staff writer

Denise Hill on Katahdin's summit in Maine.
(Photo provided)
The tears started when Denise Hill saw the summit of Katahdin, the Maine mountain that marks the northern terminus of the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail.

Hikers she'd befriended on her 51/2 month, 14-state adventure shouted her trail name, Ladybug, as the Indian Hill married mother of three trekked onward. When she greeted them on the mountaintop, "Everybody was crying," she says. "They just knew what a big moment it was."

Hill, 48, set out on April 4 from Georgia's Springer Mountain carrying a 40-pound pack and the memory of her late sister. Cheryl Rose Walden was 44 when she died in February 1998 after a 10-year battle with breast cancer.

Before her death, Walden told her sister she feared people would forget her. Hill saw the hike as a way to ensure that wouldn't happen, as well as a means of raising money for Hospice of Cincinnati. (Donations can still be made to the Cheryl Rose Walden Foundation in care of Fifth Third Bank, 7101 Miami Road, Cincinnati 45243. Information: www.walkingforwalden.com)

"I feel real satisfied, and lucky, and sore," Hill says. "I also feel real proud. I feel I did a really good job of honoring my sister's memory."

Several thousand people attempt to "through-hike" the Appalachian Trail each year. Only about 15 percent succeed, according to the Appalachian Trail Conference.

"It's the hardest thing I will ever do in my life, on a day-to-day basis," Hill says. "It's mentally hard to keep going, and it's physically hard."

She suffered a scorpion bite and four nasty bouts of poison ivy. Fetching water barefooted in Virginia, she nearly stepped on a poisonous copperhead snake. She sidestepped several rattlesnakes, including three within a few feet of each other. She encountered snow, rain and hail.

"Every time something came up," Hill says, "I just thought about Cheryl and how she handled her cancer." In comparison, a five-month hike that would end with a reunion with family didn't seem so bad.

Still, self-doubt crept into Hill's mind on the Pennsylvania segment of the trail, notorious for its sharp, uneven rocks; hikers say it's where old boots go to die.

But she persevered, just as she did in New Hampshire's White Mountains, where she faced boulders several times her height. With no roots or vines to grab onto, she would hurl her body against a boulder and inch her way up.

A fall from such a boulder shook her. Although physically OK, "I had real fear then," she says. She got over it by using her cell phone to call an experienced hiker, who coached her through it.

She returned home last month a different person. "Having been a resident of the woods for six months, it changes you forever," she says. "I'll never be the same. That's a good thing."

She has a deeper appreciation for nature. She was awed by the natural beauty that unfolded around her, the glorious sunrises and sunsets. She saw a bull moose, a bald eagle, longhorn steer. She shared shelters with mice.

She also says she has a closer relationship with God, which is what her sister Cheryl wanted for her.

Hill's hike had two endings. Sept. 19 was the last day of her trek. But concerned that bad weather might delay her, she jumped ahead on the trail and reached the summit of Katahdin on Sept. 11. Full of emotion that day, she thought about her sister Cheryl and sprinkled forget-me-not seeds on the mountain.

Hill is available for speaking engagements. Contact her at ladybug@walkingforwalden.com.

E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com




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