‘Dirty Girls’ tackling Pa. section of Appalachian Trail on weekends
In recent months, Paula Purnell and Judy Parker have found themselves scrambling over towering rocks, donning ponchos against the rain and deciphering trail code like Nobo (northbound) and Sobo (southbound).
They have walked beneath a canopy of migrating bluebirds, come across an old cemetery dating to the 1700s, and found a field of milkweed, the sustenance of monarch butterflies.
They’ve met hikers accompanied by small dogs in chest carriers and larger dogs outfitted with their own backpacks.
They smile as they recall gems along the way: early morning mist hanging over the path, colorful autumn leaves outlined in frost and blooming rhododendron.
“You could cry, it’s so beautiful. You get choked up,” Parker says.
“Around every corner is something different,” Purnell says.
Both 61, Purnell of Greensburg and Parker of Mt. Pleasant Township decided last year to hike the entire Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail, about 230 miles.
The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, 2,190 miles ranging from Maine to Georgia.
The two longtime friends and former business partners who call themselves the Dirty Girls — and yes, there’s a story behind the name — decided to forgo through-hiking and camping.
They started at the Pennsylvania/Maryland border, PennMar, and have put in about 100 miles to date, covering 10 to 15 miles per day.
They break the trail into weekend chunks, and reward themselves at day’s end with Uber rides and Airbnb digs.
“We like to have a nice meal, a glass of wine and relax. … Then I feel like I’m ready for the next day,” Parker says.
They also appreciate electricity and indoor plumbing — and space to share with friends who sometimes join them.
Parker is a private contractor for the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh.
Purnell, well known as a member of the NewLanders folk music band, is a former Indiana University of Pennsylvania instructor and owns Sense of Place Learning, which presents programming for students focusing on history, heritage, ecology and the arts.
They formerly worked together as the musical duo Mainstreet Music, offering puppet and music assemblies for elementary school students.
Following a hike through rain and mud in the Laurel Highlands last year, they and friend Bobbie Hineline, a Greensburg pastor, walked into the lobby of Seven Springs Mountain Resort.
“We had no idea how dirty we were. But we were hungry. We show up at the beautiful Sunday brunch,” Purnell says, laughing.
A little girl dining with her grandmother, who was an acquaintance of Hineline’s, pointed at the women.
“She said, ‘Grandma, look at those dirty girls.’ And the grandmother said, ‘I know one of those dirty girls,’ ” Purnell says.
“Now we invite other friends to go on our Dirty Girls adventures,” she says.
Soon after, Parker and her husband were hiking in Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio. One of the trails is named Grandma Gatewood Trail, for Emma Gatewood, a 67-year-old mother of 11 who, in 1955, walked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail alone.
With a birthday gift certificate from Parker, Purnell bought the book “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” which details the Ohio woman’s adventures.
It fell open to an entry from Purnell’s birthday, May 10.
“This is what they call ‘trail magic.’ I thought, OK, maybe I’m supposed to read this,” she says.
By Sept. 1, they had begun their adventure.
Family members, from spouses to grandchildren, were quickly on board.
“They had a passion for it, and they went for it,” says Parker’s husband, Rich.
“These two are very capable. This is their M.O. When they had their company and someone would call and ask, ‘Do you whatever?’ they would figure it out. They do this and have a good adventure,” says Bruce Adamson, Purnell’s husband.
“It’s not particularly a new way of hiking. We at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy encourage hikers of all ages and athletic abilities to hike the trail in their own way,” says Samantha Rokos, trail conservancy spokeswoman.
Technology, she says, is helping hikers access an increasing number of trail community resources as well.
Covering the trail in sections can be convenient for those without a lot of time, or who look forward to a shower and a bed at day’s end, Rokos says.
“Camping is not for everyone,” she says.
Parker and Purnell laugh as they recall early missteps, from GPS readings that led them off-course to trying to recall where they had parked their car.
“We were babes in the woods,” Purnell says.
One recent morning, the two pored over maps, tracing their routes and the remaining miles. Their North Face backpacks — Parker’s is hot pink and Purnell’s red and black — were nearby.
On trail days, the packs carry drinking water, a few snacks, cameras and whistles, should they get separated.
And bear spray.
“We saw bear evidence, trees clawed. You want to see one, but you don’t,” Purnell says.
They’ve learned that a good pair of boots — with gel inserts — and a pair of hiking poles are must-haves.
During the winter months, the two keep in trail-shape on treadmills at the Greensburg YMCA.
They will head out again in late April, having mapped a route that includes a “zero (free) day” to visit Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania during spring migration.
They have no end date in mind and have not planned any excursions beyond completing the Keystone section of the trail.
But resting on their laurels appears unlikely.
“It just gets under your skin. You wonder, ‘When are we going again?’ ” Purnell says.
“I think as long as we can walk, we will be walking,” Parker says.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or email@example.com.