GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Veteran hikers Nancy East and Chris Ford have logged hundreds of miles together. Over the past year and a half, they've been training for what they hope will be a record-breaking trip through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"I'm almost in my late 40s and I've always wanted to do something big athletically to prove to myself that I could do it," East said.
When training, Ford said they took a slow and steady approach to add up the miles while avoiding injuries.
However, long days on the trails often mean large orders at the drive-thru afterward.
"She sees me order like five sandwiches and all this other crazy stuff," Ford said about his wife, Jamie, who helps the pair get from trailhead to trailhead.
They're training to cover 900 miles of trails within the national park, all within 43 days.
"We're seriously going at it when we train. There'll be these long periods of time where you're kind of a zombie. You just walk and crawl, and get in your own head. Then, something that somebody will say will just start you both giggling and chuckling for the next two hours," Ford said.
The adventure isn't without its own purpose though. East works on a Search and Rescue Team on the North Carolina side of the park.
"We do get called in to quite a few searches, especially the ones that become extended multi-day searches in the Smokies, and so my team was involved in the search for Susan Clements," East said.
Clements, a 53-year-old woman mother from Ohio, died in the wilderness near Clingmans Dome in 2018 after she lost her way.
"As a mom, that search rocked my world like no other. It was just so tragic," East said. "I'll never forget sitting in my kitchen and thinking, 'how can I raise money for the park? For more preventative search and rescue efforts?' I knew that was something they wanted to devote money to, but they just didn't have the funding."
That's when she decided to pair the 900-mile hike with a fundraiser to raise $60,000 for Friends of the Smokies' Preventative Search and Rescue program so they can hire a seasonal ranger to help direct visitors within the park.
As the two prepare for their month and a half long journey on Sept. 5, their families have been cheering them on.
"He's not surprised that I wanted to do this because we just know each other's hearts so well, but he's been incredibly supportive as have my kids," East said about her husband and three kids.
Ford's wife, Jamie, will be helping the pair get to their locations throughout the journey, and Ford joked that she'll also help them cut down on drive-thru runs.
"I think Jamie's gonna try to give us a little more healthy options. We'll get some fast food along the way, but she's incredibly supportive and has been a big part of my success with all the hiking," Ford said.
The two hope to embark on Sept. 5, 2020. East plans to post blog updates throughout the journey on hopeandfeathertravels.com. She says she'll focus on tips to keep people safe and prepared on the trails.