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Relish in the Journey: Megan Killigrew, Faculty Spotlight

Sarah O'Neill
Tilton School faculty and staff is composed of top-notch individuals who not only bring a wealth of knowledge in their chosen field, but a vast array of talents and expertise. These passions and experiences helped mold them into the educators and professionals they are today. Sharing their stories is not only a way to get to know them better, but to display with pride the variety of incredible individuals you can find on The Hill.
On March 13, 2016, Megan Killigrew (English teacher, DIVE Grade Level Leader) took her first step onto the trailhead at Springer Mountain in Georgia. With her mother by her side, this was the first of many steps on a journey along the longest hiking-only trail in the world - The Appalachian Trail. For five months, the duo endured physical, mental, and environmental challenges that constantly tested their strength. On August 8, 2016, they emerged at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine, having completed the 2,200 mile journey. This experience had a great impact on both women in many ways, but Megan finds a great correlation between the Trail and teaching.

“A big lesson (from the Trail) is patience, both with myself and my students. I think about the trail and how we needed to hike each mile, step by step, to reach Katahdin. Teaching and learning is very similar. We want to see result immediately; we want to be rewarded for our effort right away. But this can’t always be the case, and so with myself and with my students I try to emphasize the process - the steps, the miles. Relish in the hike rather than the summit, and then, once you finally reach the summit, which you will, it feels so much more special.”

Read on for a Q & A with Megan about her experience hiking the AT!


 
Your hiking partner on the Appalachian Trail was your mother - what inspired this adventure?
I would say my mom had the general idea first, but I suggest that we actually do it. For a few years leading up to our hike, my mom would occasionally mention that she thought it would be cool to hike the AT. This sounds bad, but I don’t think anyone in my family really took her comments seriously because, for starters, my mom didn’t hike, and she had never backpacked before in her life. But then during the winter of 2015, my mom and I were both at a crossroads in our careers, and I jokingly suggested we both leave our jobs and hike the AT. My mom, completely serious, goes, “Ok. Let’s do it.” We sat on the idea for another week, and we were in Georgia a year later!

What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered along the way?
Physically, I would say the heat and humidity was a challenge during the summer months. It’s tough to escape it, and it can be really tough to sleep in, especially after sweating all day. And the mosquitos were rough once the weather got warm and wet too. Mentally, there were times when I missed home. Ironically, New Hampshire was probably the toughest mentally because I knew every road crossing and how far the drive was from there to my house.

How did you overcome said challenges?
My mom was a huge support. We met other hikers who had started with a partnere, but they had drifted apart early in the trail. It can be hard to manage pace and expectations with another hiker, but hiking with my mom this was hardly ever a challenge. Because we know each other so well and are so comfortable with each other, we never felt pressure to manage the other one. We worked as a partnership and could be open about how we were doing and what we needed to complete the miles. People think it’s funny when I tell them this, but we would spend miles hiking in silence and be perfectly happy; just having her there was really important.

My dad was also incredible, and helped us out countless times during our hike. On the AT there are people called Trail Angels. They aren’t hikers, but they support hikers by providing transportation, food, housing, slackpacking, whatever the hikers need to finish the Trail. My dad was the best Trail Angel we met!

What did you find most useful on the excursion?
In terms of gear - safety pins! They’re surprisingly versatile and obviously very light, which is super important. You re-wear the same clothes day after day when you’re on a long hike like the AT, so my mom and I would rinse out our clothes when we could and would then pin them up outside our tent or on our backpacks while we were hiking during the day. This was especially important for drying out socks and helped us avoid blisters!

Any particularly interesting stories?
A great story was being surprised by some friends on the Massachusetts-Vermont border. We’re from Vermont and still have family and friends in the state, and a couple of my friends had been scheming with my husband to figure out when we would be entering Vermont. The stateline is in the middle of the woods, so my friends ran south on the AT, hid behind the “Welcome to Vermont” sign, and then jumped out right as we were walking by. I screamed, and then was laughing hysterically. Such a good surprise.
 
Also, on the Georgia-North Carolina border (about 80 miles into the Trail), we stopped to have our picture to mark our first completed state. The guy who took our picture, a fellow thru hiker whose trail name was “New Dave”, wound up becoming one of our best friends on the Trail. The three of us hiked almost all of the Trail together; we even submitted together! We’re still in touch with “New Dave” today, and he’s visited my family in Vermont since finishing. It’s true, you meet some great people on the AT. Oh, and on the day we finished the Trail, we witnessed a marriage proposal on the summit of Katahdin! It was a fellow thru hiker who was being proposed to, so that was really fun.

What was the biggest lesson you learned during your hike?
I have two big takeaways. The first is to believe in yourself and to recognize that you are far more capable than you think you are. When we started planning the hike, we had so many questions. Neither of us had much backpacking experience going into the hike, so almost everything was an unknown - what gear to get, how to resupply, how to navigate - you name it. But we were determined, and everyday we learned and problem solved and asked questions. I distinctly remember getting through the Smokies (about mile 250 of 2,200), and thinking, “Yeah, we’ve got this. We’re thru hiking”. It’s an amazing feeling, and I don’t think any other experience in my life has made me feel so capable.

The second is that there is a lot of kindness in the world. You meet so many different types of people on the Trail, but the experience of thru hiking is unifying. We received so much help and support from complete strangers; people just want to be kind and be a part of your experience. The Trail is tough and will test your limits, but it also reminds you, everyday, of the good in the world.  

How, if in any way, do you apply this experience to your teaching?
I see lots of connections between the Trail and my teaching. A big lesson is patience, both with myself and my students. I think about the trail and how we needed to hike each mile, step by step, to reach Katahdin. We couldn’t skip any miles; We couldn’t drive around. We had to acknowledge the Trail and just hike it one step at a time. Teaching and learning is very similar. We (myself included) are so result driven. We want to see result immediately; we want to be rewarded for our effort right away. But this can’t always be the case, and so with myself and with my students I try to emphasize the process - the steps, the miles. Relish in the hike rather than the summit, and then, once you finally reach the summit, which you will, it feels so much more special.

What would be your advice to those looking to hike the Appalachian Trail?
That’s an awesome question. A piece of funny advice I heard on the Trail a lot was, “Never quit on a rainy day, and never quit on a sunny day.” Sounds ridiculous, but it works! But for those who are thinking of hiking the AT, I would say if the idea has been sitting in your head for awhile, then make it happen. It’s a big commitment, both personally and temporally, and a lot of people won’t get why you’re doing it, but it’s so incredibly worth it. My mom and I never even did a test run with our equipment; we just packed our backpacks and went. We were nervous out of our minds, but I think if we stopped to consider what we were doing for too, then the doubt would have set in, and we might have never made it to Georgia.


 
 
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