Great Strides: Peace Pilgrim, the First Woman to Thru-Hike the AT, Never Stopped Walking

Great Strides is an occasional feature of The Trek exploring some of the greatest walks and walkers in history, literature, and film.

Between 1948 and 1951, just three men walked the entire Appalachian Trail, then 2,050 miles long, in a calendar year. In ’48, Earl Shaffer became the first NOBO thru-hiker, and in ’51, Gene Espy became the second. Chester Dziengielewski became the third successful thru-hiker, as well as the first SOBO, also in ’51.

Many modern hikers assume the first woman to hike the AT was the (justly) famous Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, who first hiked the then-2,168-mile trail in 1955 and in 1963 became the first person to complete three calendar-year AT hikes. In fact, Grandma Gatewood was the second woman to thru-hike the trail.

The first was Mildred Norman Ryder of Philadelphia, who with her friend Richard Lamb hiked the trail from April to October 1952. They also were the first couple to hike the trail and the first flip-floppers.

Peace Pilgrim in the 1970s. Courtesy Friends of Peace Pilgrim.

The following year, Mildred changed her name to Peace Pilgrim and spent the remaining 28 years of her life walking more than 25,000 miles across the United States in a personal pilgrimage for peace (she stopped counting in 1964, but others have estimated she walked some 43,500 miles all told).

“When I told my friends I was going to change my lifestyle, they thought of a comfortable retirement home,” she once told a group of college students. “When I told them I was going to walk across the country, they thought I had taken leave of my senses and that I’d probably kill myself the first year.”

Despite being one of history’s most prodigious long-distance walkers, most 21st-century Americans have never heard of Peace Pilgrim.

A Spiritual Awakening

She was born Mildred Lisette Norman in 1908 and grew up on her family’s poultry farm in Egg Harbor, New Jersey. She eloped with Stanley Ryder in 1933; they divorced in 1945.

As a girl, Mildred Norman was more interested in becoming a flapper than a walker. Courtesy Friends of Peace Pilgrim.

A member of the World Quaker Fellowship, Mildred had been meditating for years when, in 1938, she experienced a “spiritual awakening” during an all-night walk in the woods. She vowed to live a life of service, began simplifying her life, and started walking.

“Mildred’s passion for walking and her deep love for the beauty, inspiration, and peace she found in the natural world had lured her to the trail,” writes Bruce Nichols, a board member for the non-profit Friends of Peace Pilgrim.

The First Flip-Flopper

Though the term had yet to be invented, “Dick and Mil,” as they referred to themselves, were the first flip-floppers. Starting April 26, 1952 at Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia, the original Southern Terminus of the AT, they reached the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania in early July. From there, they took a car to Maine and started walking south from Katahdin (tossing in a 165-mile yo-yo hike to the Canadian border on Vermont’s Long Trail just for kicks).

Peace Pilgrim corresponded and consulted with Earl Shaffer throughout her journey.

“Mildred sent me a series of postcards written so finely that the contents could have filled an ordinary letter,” Shaffer wrote in 1998. “After ending the trip, she visited me at home.”

Earl Shaffer, the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Mildred Norman, who would later become Peace Pilgrim, kept in close touch with Shaffer during her pioneering hike and visited him when she’d finished.

Shortest Gear List Ever?

Peace Pilgrim was not just a trailblazing thru-hiker, but also a proto-ultra-lighter. She carried only a pair of pants, a pair of shorts, one shirt, and a sweater. She carried what may be the airiest combined shelter and sleep system ever devised, using “two double plastic sheets, into which I sometimes stuffed leaves” for protection from the elements.

“I was not always completely dry and warm, but I enjoyed it thoroughly,” she wrote in her autobiography, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words.

She was also a dedicated cold-soaker, eating two cups of uncooked oatmeal soaked in cold water and flavored with brown sugar for both breakfast and dinner. For lunch, it was “double strength dried milk” and “any berries, nuts or greens found in the woods.”

Peace Pilgrim walking in a forest, date and location unknown. Courtesy Friends of Peace Pilgrim.

The simplicity of life on the AT helped shape Peace Pilgrim’s life philosophy.

“How inspiring it is to walk all day in the sunshine and sleep all night under the stars,” she wrote. “You learn quickly that unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. You soon realize what the essentials of life are — such as warmth when you are cold, a dry spot on a rainy day, the simplest food when you are hungry, pure cool water when you are thirsty. … You soon experience and learn to appreciate the great freedom of simplicity.”

Lifelong Pilgrimage

And somewhere on an unknown hill in New England, Mildred experienced the epiphany that would lead her to start her long pilgrimage a few months later.

“I went out for a time along with God. While I was out a thought struck my mind: I felt a strong inner motivation toward the pilgrimage — toward this special way of witnessing for peace. I saw … myself walking along and wearing the garb of my mission. … I saw a map of the United States with the large cities marked,” she wrote. “I knew what I was to do.”

On Jan. 1, 1953, rechristened Peace Pilgrim, she pulled on her soon-to-be-famous blue t-shirt, which read “Walking Coast to Coast for Peace” on the back and “Peace Pilgrim” on the front, and started her first cross-country walk from the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California. She reached New York on December 16.

After a 45-day fast for peace in 1954, she started her second pilgrimage in San Francisco in 1955, walking at least 100 miles in every state. In 1957 she walked 1,000 miles in Canada. She undertook pilgrimages again in 1964, 1966, 1969, 1973, and 1978. And talk about ultra-light: she carried only a pen, a comb, a toothbrush, and a map.

Mildred Norman Ryder, aka Peace Pilgrim, near Topeka, Kan., in the late 1970s. She had walked 25,000 miles by 1964, and continued for almost two more decades. She carried only a pen, a comb, a toothbrush and a map. Photo by James B. Burton/Courtesy Friends of Peace Pilgrim

For Peace Pilgrim, walking led to continuous revelation and spiritual growth.

“I began to really live life when I began to look at every situation and think about how I could be of service,” she said. “I learned that I shouldn’t be pushy about helping, but just willing. Often I could give a helping hand — or perhaps a loving smile or a word of cheer. I learned it is through giving that we receive the worthwhile things of life.”

Peace Pilgrim was killed in a car accident on July 7, 1981 in Knox, Indiana. She was in the midst of another cross-country walk and had been on her way to a speaking engagement at the time. In 2017, she was inducted into both the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame and the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

Sources

Friends of Peace Pilgrim

Peace Pilgrim’s 1952 Appalachian Trail Journey by Bruce Nichols

Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words

The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

If you are interested in receiving a free copy of Peace Pilgrim’s book, visit peacepilgrim.org or call Friends of Peace Pilgrim at 203-926-158. The organization will not send you mail or email.

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