A group of Pocahontas County High School teachers embraced the term “take a hike,” and began to take weekly excursions on the trails in the county.
It began simple enough with two teachers, “The Sole Sisters” – Mary Sue Burns and Susan Chappell – and soon, it grew to include anywhere from four-to-eight teachers and guests, and a hike.
“Retired library-media specialist Susan Chappell is the original instigator behind all this hiking,” Burns said. “She is an avid outdoors woman who also loves exercise. We have taken many hikes together over the years.
”The duo has hiked with their sons as well as with fellow teachers and family members. Three years ago, they decided to make hiking a more regular event in their lives, and colleagues began to join in the fun.
“Laurel [Dilley] was the first to join us,” Burns said. “I started taking a photo during every hike and posting it [on Facebook]. Laurel’s Facebook friends would ask what she was doing with those ‘old ladies.’ I told her that when you live in a sparsely-populated area like Pocahontas County, you cannot be too picky about the age of your friends. We invited all our colleagues to join us on these hikes and gradually the number grew.”
While Dilley’s friends thought her new group of friends was odd, it was a great way for her to get to know her fellow teachers and to learn more about her new home – Pocahontas County.
“The Sole Sisters was a great way for me to get to know teachers at PCHS my first year here,” she said. “That first year, Susan, Mary Sue and I hiked regularly every week and we covered a lot of ground. Others started joining us as the year went on and sometimes we would have a group of seven-to-ten.”
Dilley quickly learned that she might be hanging out with a bunch of “old ladies,” but that definitely didn’t slow them down.
“I thought that we’d call it quits when the weather got bad in the wintertime, but Susan and Mary Sue laughed at me and told me to bundle up,” she said. “We go every week, year-round, unless there are extreme circumstances.”
Along with getting to know each other outside of school, hiking allows the teachers to talk about issues they have in their classrooms or bounce ideas off one another.
“We do talk about school a bit, but usually only for the first ten minutes or so of the hike, or maybe a bit longer if someone is seeking advice about something or wants to share something really cool that is going on in their classes,” Burns said. “Then the conversation branches out to other topics – travel, hikes in other places that we have taken or want to take, families, hobbies, weird things we see along the trail and hiking gear.”
For Dilley, the club offers a great way to spend time with her colleagues with the added bonus of a physical activity.
“It’s a great way to relieve some stress after school, get some great exercise and get to know the teachers personally and not just professionally,” she said. “You have a lot of time to talk when you’re on a four-mile hike through the woods and so we’ve all gotten to know each other really well. I think it helps our work environment at school because we all know each other better and have shared fun experiences together. It makes life better when you’re good friends with the people you work with.”
Four of the hikers, Burns, Dilley, Sherman Taylor and Jennifer Nail have hiked all the trails in Seneca State Forest – 17 in all.
“At some point last fall, we realized that we only lacked a few so we decided to try to finish them all,” Burns said. “We had mostly been doing loops, so we had these odd sections of trail that we had missed. Several others are pretty close to this accomplishment, as well.”
“It was really exciting this year when we finished every single trail in Seneca,” Dilley added. “It was cool to know that we had hiked every bit of trail. The Michael Mountain trail is my favorite, and we do that one fairly frequently.”
During the hikes, the group takes pictures to document their achievements, as well as to remind them of the fun they had.
“We always try to take a photo,” Burns said. “This started out as a just-for-fun thing. Now I’m glad we did it because we have a documented history of where we went and who went each week. This is fun to look back on.”
With all the hiking trips they’ve made, the group has many fun and not-so-fun stories to tell, including times when a hiker has fallen or lost keys, or even the time they ran into a fellow hiker’s spouse on a trail.
“A large group of us hiked to the Elephant Rocks on the weekend hike that Laurel missed,” Burns said. “We were surprised to run into Laurel’s husband, Justin Dilley, and friend, Aaron Tumblin. They had been camping and were hiking out. We included them in our hiking photo. We agreed to keep it quiet to see if Laurel noticed them in the Facebook photo. Needless to say, she was quite surprised to see our newest hiking buddies.”
Dilley’s favorite hike was on her favorite trail at Seneca – Michael Mountain.
“We were up on a ridge line by Michael Mountain last winter and we witnessed frost forming on the branches of the trees,” she said. “You could actually see the crystals growing, and we all thought we were seeing things, and going crazy. I guess we were just up on an exposed ridge line at the exact right time. The whole woods turned into a glittery wonderland in seconds before our eyes. I felt like I was in Disney World.”
Through it all – the good times and the bad falls – the group continues to hike and make memories.
“I think we have all benefited from sharing this interest in hiking,” Burns said. “Walking in the woods is good, both mentally and physically. The camaraderie of such a mixed age group has been great.”
“Overall, it’s been such a great experience for me,” she said. “I’ve made a lot of great friends and explored some beautiful parts of Pocahontas County. I look forward to our hiking day each week and know that we’ll always have a good time.”