Former Homewood Resident
Spends Six Months Backpacking
By Keysha Drexel
She raised two children, retired after a successful career as a kindergarten teacher and had thousands of miles of backpacking with her friends under her belt, but 61-year-old Cathey Leach still felt she had something to prove.
So in April of last year, the former Homewood resident who now lives in Columbiana laced up her favorite hiking boots and set out to backpack the entire Appalachian Trail to make the point that she – and other women just like her – can reach any summit they aim for in life.
“I was tired of being thought of as invisible or incapable,” Leach said. “Just because I’m a woman and just because I’m a quiet person, people want to put me in a box. I was ready to break out of that box.”
Leach said she has always enjoyed being outdoors and being active but got serious about hiking and backpacking only after she and three friends from Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church decided to take a trip to the Grand Canyon.
Leach and her friends — Peggy Honeycutt, Ty Howell and Cynthia McGough, all of Vestavia Hills – decided a few years ago that they wanted to organize trips like a men’s group at the church did.
“My husband and some of the guys at church were always going on these great trips, so we decided to have our own big adventure,” Honeycutt said.
The women dubbed themselves the Trail Mixers and set about planning their first backpacking and hiking excursion.
While Honeycutt, Leach and Howell had backpacked and hiked before, the foursome’s inaugural trip to the Grand Canyon was a first for McGough.
“I had never backpacked until we went to the Grand Canyon for the first time back in 2006,” McGough said. “My very first night in a tent was on that trip.”
Howell said despite careful planning and research, the women were a bit apprehensive as they started their backpacking trip at the Grand Canyon.
“We read a lot and talked to other women who had done it, but I remember that when we got out there and were ready to start, we all wondered aloud if we could do it,” Howell said. “But we said that we’ll just start, we’ll just try and see what happens. Four days later when we came out of the other side of the canyon, it was just amazing to think of what we had accomplished.”
On the first night of their trip, the women had just set up camp and were settled in their tents when it started raining.
“I didn’t know how I would handle it, but that gentle rain started falling and I was in my tent and so tired — but in a good way — from hiking all day, and I just loved it,” McGough said.
In fact, McGough said, that trip with friends to the Grand Canyon was a major milestone for her.
“What we did changed my life,” she said. “It was very empowering because most women have never been in a situation where their safety and wellbeing completely depended on other women, and we put ourselves in that situation and not only did we survive, we thrived.”
The hike around the rim of the Grand Canyon also helped McGough face her fear of heights, which she sees as a metaphor for facing any kind of obstacle life has in store.
“You face your fears — whether it’s heights or being out in the wilderness with the bears — and then when you get back to your everyday life, you think about challenges in a different way,” she said. “My philosophy is, if I can sleep with bears, I can do this.”
Honeycutt, too, said the inaugural Trail Mixers trip to the Grand Canyon was an empowering experience.
“Most of us have relied on our husbands to make us feel safe, and I was a little nervous at first without my husband,” Honeycutt said. “But when we finished that first rim trip, it made me realize that I can do anything if I put my heart and mind into it.”
Since that trip to the Grand Canyon, the foursome has backpacked together through the Grand Tetons and Cascade Mountains and around Crater Lake in Oregon and Glacier Park in Alaska.
“My friendship with these women has made my life better, and the adventures we’ve had together have made me a better person,” McGough said. “I think we all feel this way about the challenges we faced and overcame together.”
Those challenges haven’t all been related to mountain summits.
Honeycutt said her friendship with Leach, Howell and McGough and the lessons she learned on their backpacking adventures helped her cope when she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago.
“What I learned on our trips was that sometimes, you just have to focus on putting one foot in front of another,” she said. “I thought a lot about that when I had breast cancer, and it helped me get through it. And that’s exactly what Cathey has proven by completing the Appalachian Trail — you just have to keep going.”
Leach said the lessons she learned through her friendship and trips with Honeycutt, Howell and McGough served her well as she made the nearly 3,000-mile trek from Georgia to Maine.
“I thought about all we had accomplished together, and I felt like they were with me through the whole thing,” she said.
Not only were her friends with her in spirit during her journey across the Appalachian Trail, but they also managed to join her for a few days of hiking along the way.
“I joined her for several days in Virginia and hiked with her, and then later, I hiked across part of New York with her,” McGough said. “I was honored to be a part of her effort.”
Leach’s son, Cully, also joined her during the last leg of her trek across the Appalachian Trail.
“That’s what I asked for for Christmas,” Leach said. “Both my son and my daughter are big hikers.”
Honeycutt fell and broke her wrist on the way to meet Leach in New Hampshire but said she had every confidence her friend would complete the journey successfully.
“What she’s accomplished is so amazing,” Honeycutt said. “Only a handful of people complete this each year, and she’s 61 years old and only weighs about 90 pounds — and she did it in six months and three days.”
In those six months and three days, Leach said she pushed her 90-pound body to its limit.
“The most challenging part was paring down my equipment and trying to keep my pack light,” she said. “I didn’t even carry a stove because I didn’t want that extra weight. That meant I didn’t have hot food at all. I lost 33 pounds during the trip.”
But while she was physically lighter when she made the summit of Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, on Oct. 13, Leach said she felt she had learned some very heavy lessons.
“I did a lot of soul-searching, and it was a very spiritual journey in a lot of ways,” she said. “What I learned is that I will never let the fear of failure hold me back from anything.”
Leach said she also learned that with the support of family and friends, no goal is out of reach — no matter what preconceived notion some people might have about the capabilities of a small woman.
“Making it to that summit made me feel big because a lot of people probably thought I would never make it,” she said. “But I did make it, and other women can, too.”