Take a Hike

Although he hits the woods as often as he can, hiking the Foothills Trail was a particularly taxing endeavor for Yates, who trained for months prior to making the 77-mile trek.

72-year-old proves it’s

never too late to hit the trails


By Caitlin Herrington
Courtesy The Journal

At age 72, Tom Yates is aware any day could be his last, so when he was told hiking the[cointent_lockedcontent] Foothills Trail was too dangerous for someone in his 70s, he added it to his bucket list.

In mid-April, Yates — whose trail name is “Gizmo” — took to the trail for eight days 8-5 Page 1B.inddand completed the 77-mile trek plus a few side trips, for a total journey of 116 miles. But that wasn’t the part that shocked Foothills Trail Conference executive director Heyward Douglass.

Yates not only convinced his friends and family the trip was safe — he talked them into donating money for every mile he completed on the trail, which winds its way from Table Rock State Park to Oconee State Park, even stretching into North Carolina along the way.

“He said he’d raised money with his family and former co-workers and friends, and I thought he might have $50 or $100 or something,” Douglass said. “When we met and he handed me this envelope that was full of checks, none of them were huge, but there were a lot of them. When I finished counting it, it was over $900. Nobody’s ever done anything like that before.”

Yates’ dog, 5-year-old Cassie, accompanies him on day hikes 6 miles or less and loves to be his co-pilot when he goes kayaking.

Yates’ dog, 5-year-old Cassie, accompanies him on day hikes 6 miles or less and loves to be his co-pilot when he goes kayaking.

Yates completed months of training prior to his weeklong journey, but said it wasn’t necessarily about training for the hike. There’s just something about being out in the woods by himself that he can’t explain.

“There’s just something about hiking alone — you get back in touch with nature,” he said. “I’m not really a religious person, but I’m spiritual. When you sit down and study bugs and look at plants or mosses, you’ve got to think, ‘There’s got to be something that put this here.’

“You just can’t explain it to somebody who’s never done it before.”

Yates’ pack contained the necessities for an eight-day hike, plus a few extra things trail angels Dave and Alicia Spivey came and picked up to make his load lighter.

“When Tom said that he really wanted to do the Foothills Trail, David and I had already done it as section hikes,” Alicia Spivey said. “So, being the hikers and backpackers that we are, we decided to step in and help — whether he wanted it or not.”

Yates brought his backpack over, and the trio reviewed what was inside, tossing things he didn’t need and caving when he protested — those were the items later picked up by the Spiveys.

“He called us several times on the trail, and we raced up the mountain to accommodate him,” Spivey said. “That’s part of the fun of being the back-up crew. We tried to help as much as we could, and he got out safely, so I guess we did.”

The necessities that made it through several rounds of review included water purifying tablets, hiking poles, a tent, utility kit, freeze-dried meals and Snickers bars. There’s no reason hikers can’t have dessert, after all.

“The best thing I brought was freeze-dried ice cream and freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches,” Yates said. “It was the best thing at the end of the day. It looks like Styrofoam, but as soon as it hits your mouth it just explodes.”

Aside from the food, Yates enjoys hiking because it affords him the opportunity to push himself mentally and physically, sleep under the stars and get some fresh air. As long as he’s able, he’ll be out on the trails — which he said means it’s not too late for anybody to start.

“Once you get all the equipment, it’s cheap,” Yates said. “And it’s great exercise — beats walking on a treadmill. The main thing is to get a good pack. Go to an outfitter like REI or Appalachian Outfitters and they’ll fit you.

“There’s videos on YouTube that will show you how to pack. Take a first-aid class, train and do it with somebody who’s done it before. Join a hiking club — join our hiking club.”

The Oconee Hiking Club, lead by “Fearless Leader” Alicia Spivey, meets the first Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at the Love and Unity Church in Walhalla and is open to anyone who wants to hit the trails.

“There’s lots of trails in both the state parks around here and, in general, the national forest,” Spivey said. “But the Foothills is probably the best maintained one. As you do it more and more, the more you come to appreciate it.”

The donation from Yates’ friends and family will help maintain the trail and signage for those who decide to make the same journey.

Douglass recommends hikes to Whitewater Falls or King Creek Falls for those who want a refreshing summer hike. Both offer shorter treks with the promise of cooling off in mountain water, but if that doesn’t sound appealing, offers plenty of information on other routes, nearby waterfalls and trail conditions.

As for Yates’ next steps, he was probably on the trail this morning while the sky was still gray so he could find a spot to watch the sun come up, knowing that he marked one more thing off his bucket list.

“It’s just as dangerous to drive downtown,” Yates said. “I don’t want to be sitting at the home and the guy next to me says, ‘I hiked through Petra, Jordan, years ago,’ and I’d be wishing I’d done that.

“I’m still here, so I get to hike another day.”