After hearing stories about the incredibly challenging, rewarding, and often dangerous task of walking the Appalachian Trail, Casey Heard began packing.
Months of hiking up and down mountains in all sorts of weather, accumulating blisters and knotted hair, may seem undesirable to most. But to Heard, a junior women’s studies major, the idea was refreshing and important to establishing a connection to “Mother Earth.”
At 20 years old, Heard and former boyfriend Casey Leonard decided they would hike the Appalachian Trail, ending on the peak of Mount Katahdin. The two enthusiastic hikers spent a total of six months on the trail covering over 2,000 miles. Heard said the experience was extremely rewarding and there were few problems.
“Overall the hike was fantastic, although there was a stretch of 23 days where our clothes were wet because of the rain during the day and humidity at night,” said Heard.
Currently, Heard is preparing a slide show for a panel discussion called “Women and Long Distance Hiking: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail.” The event, set for Thursday, March 15 at 7 p.m. in Luther Bonney Auditorium, is part of Heard’s independent study and is aimed at encouraging women of all ages to engage in long-distance hiking.
The event is one of many designed to celebrate Women’s History Month.
“They are doing an amazing job representing Women’s History Month,” said Heard. “Honoring women of past and present allows people to see how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.”
During Thursday’s panel discussion, students and members of USM and surrounding communities will have the chance to share stories and experiences out on the trail.
When she was just seven, Heard and her family moved from St. Augustine, Fla. to West Rockport. She remembers the move to Maine as one of the best experiences of her childhood. Her memories of climbing massive rocks and spending seemingly endless days exploring forests instilled an appreciation for the environment and set a course for her life. A few years later her family moved to Camden, which harbored plenty of her favorite outdoor activities including hiking, skiing, sailing, and rock-climbing.
“My parents always put a huge emphasis on enjoying and respecting the natural world,” said Heard. “I came to look at the Earth as a child. If a child is injured you wouldn’t hesitate to help. The environment is family.”
Heard’s interest in the environment, though always present to some degree, was sparked during her junior high days in Camden. As a student involved in an alternative private learning program called Chewonki Foundation’s Maine Coast Semester, Heard participated in what she refers to as natural science-based community living. Along with six other girls, she lived in the Wiscasset woods in a small cabin with a wood stove.
In addition to attending regular classes, Heard participated in several environmental and domestic chores to ensure the community would thrive. Cutting wood for the stove and basic farming helped Heard become more self-sufficient.
The chores were also a good base for survival during the Appalachian Trail hike.
Prior to her six-month journey in the fall of 1997, Heard was a freshman environmental studies major at the University of Vermont. After a successful year of college, she decided she was eager to explore aspects of life outside of school and returned to Camden. Heard believes the three-year departure from school was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.
“The adventures I took during those three years off were extremely valuable,” she said. Experiences outside of school are definitely as valuable as academics.”
Heard came to USM in 1999 and quickly switched her major to women’s studies after taking what she calls “compelling” introductory classes.
Heard said that besides the core curriculum, “you have the opportunity to study history, art, English, anthropology, and many other areas of academics.”
“Casey is a model USM student,” said Wendy Chapkis, associate professor of women’s studies. “She’s an outstanding scholar and activist who makes exceptional use of her time and energy.”
“She’s very dedicated,” said Beth Martin, coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center. “It’s amazing to see her incorporate her major with her activities in the community.”
Despite juggling academics and volunteer work, Heard has made dean’s list all three years at USM.
“Academics and learning are extremely important to me,” says Heard. “I’m your classic nerd. I love it all.”
After graduation, Heard hopes to get a graduate degree and work in a nonprofit organization dealing with issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, or mental health.
Currently, Heard works with several nonprofit organizations, including Mainely Girls, where she serves on the board of directors. The group works statewide with rural communities to assist them in focusing on girl’s needs in a preventive, proactive and positive manner, and at the state level to bring about positive change for young girls.
Staff Writer Ryan Milliken can be contacted at: [email protected].