(Posted Dec. 2, 2020)
By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
One of the most enduring images Kayla Percy has of her childhood is watching her mother, Donna, lace up a sturdy pair of shoes and step out of the house with a combination of a smile and a grimace.
Too young to join in this extended journey to the outside world, Kayla would track her beloved mother through the window as she took off at a sprint, becoming smaller and smaller as she established a pace fit for a marathon runner.
While the conditions outside the window changed as the seasons passed, the one sustaining image was that of Donna pushing through the elements.
“Watching my mother go out there day after day left a huge impression on me,” said Kayla, a London resident. “It laid part of the foundation of who I would eventually become.”
As Kayla grew, so did her desire to emulate her mother. As soon as her mother put on those sturdy shoes, Kayla would grab her own and step outside with a wide grin, ready for the adventure of marathon running–or at least a dogged attempt.
“No matter the age, I could never keep up with her,” Kayla said. “She would humor me sometimes, but I knew and she knew that I couldn’t keep up.”
Those running sessions, or running attempts, were both competitive and full of encouragement.
“Whenever I was behind, which was often, she would remind me that I could do anything that I put my mind to and that I was stronger than I believed,” Kayla said.
For most of Kayla’s life, her mother took pride in knowing she helped to shape someone who had confidence in her abilities and the grit to face hardship with steely determination. That changed, however, in the past two years.
“She has definitely started to question whether she raised me right,” said Kayla with a big laugh. “But if you think about it, we are where we are today because of her example.”
In addition to being an avid runner, Kayla is an avid hiker who often dreamed of going on a grand adventure while traipsing through the woods of her childhood home in Cincinnati.
“My parents would send my brother and I out there whenever we were getting on their nerves or when they needed time to themselves,” she said. “During our time out there, I grew to have a real love of the outdoors and nature in general.”
One of the grandest hiking adventures never crossed Kayla’s mind until her uncle completed a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail nearly a decade ago. As she listened to his stories of life on the path, an idea that she could hike those 2,000-plus miles began to percolate.
“I knew I didn’t want to wait until I reached retirement to attempt this like he did,” she said. “First, with this economy, I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to retire, but I also wanted to try it when I was younger and felt more capable.”
Fast forward to 2018. Kayla felt it was time to get serious about her plan to attempt a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. She began to put aside funds to purchase gear and started incorporating more challenging hiking routes to “build up trail legs.”
When she felt comfortable with her idea, or as comfortable as she could be, she sat down with her family and told them that not only was she planning the through-hike attempt, but she also was planning to bring her daughter, Fynleigh, with her.
“They were not really supportive at first,” Kayla said. “I think they were less worried about me doing it and more worried about their baby Fyn doing it alongside me.”
She said she had, and still has, those worries, too.
“I wondered for a long time whether I should just try this solo, but I know I couldn’t leave Fynleigh for six months,” she said. “And to be honest, I’m not so sure she would let me.”
“We’re doing this together,” stated the 6-year-old.
Like Kayla did with her mother, Fynleigh has grown up watching Kayla put on sturdy shoes and step out of the house. It wasn’t long before she started to put on sturdy shoes of her own to brave the world alongside her mother.
Fynleigh said that for as long as she can remember, she has been going on nature walks and hikes with her family and feels entirely comfortable in that environment. Or, mostly comfortable.
“I still don’t like spiders or snakes,” she said. “I know they’re going to be out there, but I’m OK with them as long as I don’t see them.”
She said when her mother broached the subject of through-hiking the famous footpath, she offered her seal of approval right away, despite knowing it was more than 2,000 miles and would take them approximately six months to complete.
“I’ll miss my dog and my dad and my grandma and grandpa and friends and my bed, but I’ll be doing this with my mom,” she said. “It will be OK.”
Since making their announcement two years ago, the duo–along with their slowly accepting family members–began to plan in earnest. Kayla started saving up funds for the trip; they began feverishly reading about the ins and out of the trail; they subscribed to numerous hiking pages, including some dedicated to entire families who have hiked the trail; and started incorporating longer and tougher treks in their preparation regime.
Just recently, Kayla hiked 31 miles of the Ohio to Erie Trail, Fynleigh completed 13.5 miles at Caesar Creek State Park, and the duo, along with the family dog and Kayla’s partner, Bryan, scaled Chimney Top in West Virginia.
“We’re doing just about everything we can to prepare physically for this trip,” Kayla said. “It’s mentally that will likely be the hardest aspect.”
Still, they said they are looking forward to the challenge.
“I really think we’re strong enough that we can through-hike it,” Fynleigh said. “But if we don’t, that’s OK for now; we could always try again some other time.”
In late February, the Percy family will travel to Georgia to see Kayla and Fynleigh off on their grand adventure. If all goes according to plan, the duo will put on their gear and their sturdy shoes and begin their 14-state trek underneath the Appalachian Trail approach arch on Springer Mountain. They will do so with generations of instilled confidence, determination and encouragement at their backs.
A fundraising effort is underway for Kayla and Fynleigh Percy’s journey. Supporters can purchase “Take a Hike” t-shirts at www.bonfire.com/mommy-and-me-take-the-at/. All proceeds go toward funding resupply boxes along the trail. Their preparation journal can be found on the YouTube channel, “Mommy & Me Adventures.”