71-Year-Old Physician Nears Goal of Hiking Entire 2,100 Mile Trail
“Most people go by trail names such as ‘Slow Motion,’ ‘Too Slow,’ ‘Been There,’ or ‘Lost,’” Anthony “Tony” Bedsole, MD, says. “My trail name is ‘Papa Doc.’ That’s what my grandkids call me.” The Birmingham native retired in January 2009 after 35 years in practice at Eastern Urology at St. Vincent’s East. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama, his MD from Medical College at Alabama and his urology training from UAB.
Bedsole has always enjoyed the outdoors and a challenge. At age 60, he began marathon training. “I ran the inaugural Mercedes, the Chicago Marathon, the Huntsville Marathon and, my ultimate goal, the Boston Marathon.”
After that, he joined a local hiking club, eventually setting himself a new goal: completing the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. This mountainous challenge stretches through 14 states, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine and features daunting 6,000-foot peaks.
Hikers who tackle the trail in one continuous trek are called thru-hikers. About 3,000 thru-hikers begin the trail each year but only 400 to 500 complete it. Bedsole is a section hiker, meaning he breaks the hike into segments, returning each spring for stints of 100 to 400 miles at a time. “I just wasn’t interested in being away from my family and friends for six months,” he says about his choice.
Kay, his wife, enjoys hiking “but she likes a lodge and a shower at the end of the night,” he says. The couple raised two children, Kathy, who died at age 16, and Susan Harris, mother of the Bedsoles’ grandchildren, Sally, 16, and Emma Grace, 13. “Some people think it’s strange that I would like to be away from my family out in the woods hiking,” Bedsole says. “But my wife goes to the beach and I go to the mountains. It’s just something we do every spring.”
When he was still practicing medicine, Bedsole says, “I started off just doing 100 miles at a time because I could only take 7 to 10 days off.” He upped his commitment after he retired, going for a month and covering more miles. “For this past section I started at Harper’s Ferry [West Virginia] and went almost to Connecticut.”
Training takes three to four months. “I hike at Oak Mountain about three times a week, 14 or 15 miles at a time,” he says. The determined doctor also runs, rides his bike and does the stair master. He needs to be in great shape. Bedsole’s backpack, carefully packed with food, water, tent, stove and enough essentials for at least a week between replenishing stops, weighs around 35 pounds.
“Papa Doc” has treated hiking cohorts for blisters, sprains, joint disease, and dysentery. “Ticks are the most dangerous thing because of tick-borne diseases,” he says. Then there’s the mercurial weather, ranging from excessive heat to snow to rain. Critters, too, must be contended with. One particular shelter houses a “resident rattlesnake.” Copperheads are common, also.
On one trip, a black bear prowled a mere 20 yards from the three-sided, open lean-to where Bedsole and his fellow hikers holed up. They warded off the bear’s all-night aggressiveness through sheer numbers. “The bear circled and circled and circled, trying to get our food,” Bedsole says. Indeed, the animal did steal one hiker’s food and destroyed two tents. Hikers chipped in so the man wouldn’t go hungry until the next supply point.
Bears, ticks, snakes, inclement weather…sound like fun? Bedsole thinks so. “I’m a goal-oriented person so I enjoy the physical challenge of hiking,” he says. Then, too, “you meet so many nice people from all over.” And, he says, “I enjoy seeing the culture of these small quaint towns that we get into.”
This past spring, he hiked 400 miles and reached the 1,400-mile marker of his quest. Only 700 miles remain. “The 400 miles was really an endeavor for me,” he says. “I just don’t need to push myself that hard at this age,” the 71-year-old says.
So, next time, he plans to hike a mere 300 miles. If the good doctor’s idea of slowing down means covering 300 miles instead of 400, he seems in little danger of retiring to a rocker.
“No,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll find something else to do.”