The family that hikes together

When mother, daughter and granddaughter go hiking together, the payoff is much more than just exercise.

Gail Stephens (right), with daughter Catherine Cameron and granddaughter Jordan set out for the top of Kennesaw Mountain.
View from the top with Atlanta in the background.
One of cannon exhibits that await you along the park's many trails.

The other day, while hiking the trail to the top of Kennesaw Mountain, I discovered something that’s good to know: It’s hard to keep up with Gail Stephens.

When I finally did catch up, Gail was already a quarter mile up the trail toward the mountain’s summit. It’s a moderately serious climb, but Gail was making it look like a walk in the park.

But wait. There’s more. With her was Catherine Cameron, one of Gail’s daughters – and Catherine was carrying her own daughter, baby Jordan, in a backpack seat and not missing a beat.

Wow. Just wow.

With an elevation of 1,808 feet, the summit of Kennesaw Mountain rises almost 700 feet above the surrounding terrain. The trail to the top is a popular hike, one that gives you a good dose of exercise with some up-close history thrown in too.

The trail makes that climb in roughly a mile, and let’s just say that if you didn’t feel your leg muscles at the start of the hike you’ll certain be feeling them at the end.

The same commanding topography that makes this hike such a good workout also gave Kennesaw Mountain a key part to play during the Civil War. It was one of the last barriers between Union General William T. Sherman and the nearby city of Atlanta, on Sherman’s march to the sea, and Union and Confederate troops came face to face at Kennesaw Mountain in June of 1864.

The defenders, under Confederate General Joseph E. Johnson, dug in on the mountain, fortifying their positions with earthworks and gun emplacements. You will see plenty of each as you hike the trail today. The attackers fought their way uphill, battling not only the Confederates but also the mountain itself. Looking now across the quiet forest, it’s hard to image cannon roaring and bullets splintering the branches overhead.  But they were, and they did, and for those who fought here it was a rough start to a summer that history tells us was about as hot, wet and humid as it can get.

It was hot and humid on the mountain the other day, too, as I pushed to keep up with Gail and company as we climbed ever nearer to the summit.

“What does all that weigh?” I asked Catherine when we took a break for rest for us and a few goldfish for the baby.

 “Jordan weighs about 23 pounds,” Catherine said, “and the baby carrier and all is probably another 10 pounds.”

Thirty-three pounds and a trail that’s all uphill…

Two ladies hiking back down the trail passed Gail and Catherine and the baby. As they came within earshot, one of them said. “That’s amazing! Hiking this trail with a baby in a backpack! I couldn’t do that.”

“I couldn’t do that either,” said her companion. “That woman is awesome. She’s my new hero!”

Hiking together has become a regular thing for Gail and her kids and grandkids, and it got started as way for them all to be together. Gail works fulltime as director of the Mother’s Morning Out program at Alpharetta First United Methodist Church, and two of her three daughters have full-time jobs too. Everybody was busy, and finding time to enjoy each other’s company was a challenge sometimes.

So, about five years ago, Gail decided to make family hiking outings a priority.
“We wanted to enjoy the outdoors and get some good exercise,” she says, “but especially we wanted to spend time together. Sometimes hiking is the only time I can get my girls to myself.”

These hiking adventures have now become weekly events. Everybody can’t make every hike, but once in a while it’s an expedition – Gail and three daughters and six granddaughters.

“Whoever it happens to be, we try to do a short hike every Saturday,” she says, adding that she prefers Saturdays to Sundays “because Saturdays are usually less crowded on the trails.”

“We start planning the Wednesday before,” she says, “deciding where to go and checking the weather and finding a time that works.” Mornings seem to be best, she adds, especially in the summer months when midday can be sweltering.

Are there longer hikes in the future?

“I’d like to do some day hikes on the Appalachian Trail,” she says, adding that daughter Catherine and her husband Roger have already hiked most of the Georgia portion of the AT.

“But I only want to do day hikes,” Gail adds. “I’m just not into sleeping in a tent!”

What advice would Gail give to other women who would like to begin hiking with their daughters and granddaughters? There’s the practical stuff, of course – bring water (“Lots of water,” Gail says) and plenty of good snacks for everyone.

A basic first aid kit is easy to carry, too, and is helpful in the event of a scraped knee. Sunscreen and a hat are important, too, and will help keep the sun at bay.

“And have the proper shoes,” Gail advises. “You’ll see lots of people hiking in flipflops, but remember that hiking is more than just walking.” Good shoes provide support and make the whole experience much more enjoyable.”

But the most important thing, she hastens to add, is to “make it fun.”

“That’s the number one goal,” Gail explains. “It’s not to get to the end but rather to have fun along the way.”

She adds, “If all you say is ‘we’ve got to get there,’ then it will not be fun for the kids.” Instead, she says, make the journey itself the adventure.

And that’s good advice for just about every aspect of life. ■


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