By Doug Doughty, Guest Writer
After word started circulating about an Alaskan grandmother who was hiking the Appalachian Trail, Melissa DeVaughn was flooded with memories.
DeVaughn, who grew up in the Roanoke Valley, now lives in Eagle River, Alaska in the same Anchorage suburb as 56-year-old grandmother Elizabeth Pearch.
Pearch has been treading the same path that DeVaughn followed in 1993, when she took a leave of absence from The Roanoke Times and subsequently wrote a six-part series on her Appalachian Trail experience.
DeVaughn, who was born in Baltimore, moved to Botetourt County when she was 5.
“We moved there in 1973,” she said. “My dad had fallen in love with the Blue Ridge Mountains and always wanted to live in Virginia. My mom still lives in the house where we grew up in Rainbow Forest.
“I went to Colonial Elementary, where my mom also taught second and then fourth grade. When I got to middle school at Botetourt Intermediate (in Fincastle), it felt like the school was on the other end of the earth.”
DeVaughn, who lived in Montgomery County as an adult, had graduated from Lord Botetourt High School before heading to Virginia Tech, where she was an English major and 1990 graduate.
She subsequently took a job at The Roanoke Times’ New River Valley Bureau, where one of her bosses was Michael Stowe, with whom she recently reconnected.
It was Stowe who had heard about the tale of Pearch’s plans to hike to Maine and thought that it might bring back old memories for DeVaughn,.
DeVaughn remembers that she began the Appalachian Trail on March 18, 1993 in Georgia, not long after the “blizzard of the century,” as she recalls it.
“I got a horrible flu and was literally delirious in Hot Springs, N.C.,” said DeVaughn, who has few memories of those two days spent recovering other than losing one of her toenails.
Her sojourn, on which she was accompanied by her dog, Ruby, ended atop Mount Katahdin in Maine, on Sept. 11, 1993. It was there that she finally hiked her first “30,” hiking 34 miles one day on a section of the trail known as the Hundred Mile Wilderness.
Her companion, Ruby, survived the trek but died several months later after being struck by a car in Christiansburg.
“I was just sort of shattered,” DeVaughn writes. “I was young, and my dog was my kid. I have better perspective now, but at the time, it was devastating after experiencing the AT together.”
Although she had never been to Alaska, she was drawn to that part of the country.
“My dad had been stationed in Thule, Greenland, when he was in the Air Force, and had shared photos of all the snow and remoteness of that wild place,” DeVaughn recently wrote. “It stuck with me and that’s when I started thinking about Alaska.
“I’m not sure what made me go through with it, but I decided to see if I could get a job in Alaska, earn some money, then go down to the California/Mexico border and start the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) a few years later. I figured, once I was done, I’d return back to Virginia and figure it out from there.”
So much for that. She pursued jobs at smaller newspapers in the Anchorage area and settled for the Peninsula Clarion, which was published six days a week out of Kenai, three hours south of Anchorage.
“I loved the job at the Clarion and was always busy,” said Melissa, who lived in a 400-square-foot cabin on a bluff overlooking the ocean.
Not long after that, she met a fellow journalist, Andy Hall, a native Alaskan who previously had been the editor of the newspaper in Kodiak, Alaska. When he took an editor’s job at the Clarion, their desks faced each others.
They were married one year and four months later in Floyd County before Andy took over as editor and then publisher of Alaska Magazine. Their son, Roan, was born in 1998. A daughter, Reilly, followed in 2001.
Mom and Dad eventually turned to the salmon fishing business and have been out of journalism for more than a decade.
In her days at Lord Botetourt, Melissa thrived as an athlete, running track and playing volleyball for coaches whose names she can quickly reel off to this day. Now, she is in her 10th year as head coach of track and field at Chugiak High School, where she also coaches cross country. Her athletes refer to her as Coach Hall.
Hardly to anyone’s surprise, she also has managed a dog sled team.
“Ha ha,” she writes. “I was what we call a recreational musher (there are many of us!) as opposed to professional mushers who do things like running the Iditarod. I like to run dogs for the joy of it, not to race or anything.”
In her world, there’s always another mountain to climb.