Durham News

Future law student takes treacherous journey into the wild

“I wanted to explore America; I wanted to have an adventure and mentally decompress before law school,” says Maddy Mumma, seen here at McAfee’s Knob, Virginia.
“I wanted to explore America; I wanted to have an adventure and mentally decompress before law school,” says Maddy Mumma, seen here at McAfee’s Knob, Virginia. courtesy of Maddy Mumma

Maddy Mumma says she wanted to take on the challenge of a lifetime and test herself in some of the toughest wilds the East Coast has to offer.

Mumma graduated from Duke University in 2016 after studying global health and psychology. She decided to take a gap year before returning for law school. During that year, she would visit Iceland, Bolivia and Peru before taking on the Appalachian Trail in February.

The trail stretches 2,200 miles from northern Georgia to Maine. The Appalachian Trail Mountain Club says an average hiker who finishes the trail takes five to seven months, or about 165 days.

“I wanted to explore America; I wanted to have an adventure and mentally decompress before law school,” said Mumma, whose mother is attorney Christine Mumma, the director of the N.C. Center of Actual Innocence, a group that seeks justice for people imprisoned for crimes they did not commit, according to its website.

Christine Mumma had concerns about her daughter hiking alone but knew she was determined.

“When she told me she was going, I knew there was no way I was going to stop her,” she said.

Only one in five people finish the full trail, so Maddy Mumma took several preparatory hikes, practicing with the gear she would use, setting up tents and “bear bagging,” a technique where food is hung in the air to deter bears from campsites.

Unlike most hikes, the Appalachian Trail is not always clear or well maintained, especially in northern areas where the path becomes wild and overgrown.

Some areas require hikers to jump from one rock to another in order to stay on the trail. Mumma also faced 90 mph winds six miles above the tree line on Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

“You’re climbing Everest 18 times in total; I probably fell over 50 times,” Mumma said. “Any of those falls could have ended my hike. I thought a few of them might have after hitting a rock directly on my knee.”

Physical trauma was not the only obstacle.

“Some of the older men (along the trail) in the beginning would tell me that I had all the wrong gear, that I was going too fast or that my mileage was too high,” Mumma said. “Some of the things that were said to me were really condescending. They would never speak to a guy my age like that.”

Others she met in nearby towns told her they would never let their daughters hike alone in the wilderness.

Fewer than one in four hikers on the trail are female, Mumma says.

But it’s not all bad, she said.

Mumma hiked part of the trail with two guys she met along the way. They ended their hikes after one scratched his cornea on a low-hanging branch and the other guy’s feet became too blistered to continue, but Mumma later ran into another young woman at the 500 mile-mark with whom she ended up finishing the journey.

“When we found out she had begun hiking with a friend we felt much better,” said Christine Mumma, who followed her daughter every step of the way with a GPS device but could only talk with her on the phone when she reached small towns.

Maddy Mumma says the trek restored some of her faith in humanity.

“One woman picked us up from the trail and brought us to a diner we wanted to go to for breakfast, even though we could have easily walked,” she said, “and when we got there she gave us each $20 for breakfast. There were lots of small acts of kindness.”

Mumma finished the trail, going from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, in 105 days.

“I never had a single day where I wanted to quit or go home,” she said, “I certainly had some difficult days, just like you do in normal life, but you take it in stretches, day by day and town by town.”

After a year of travel, taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and hiking the Appalachian trail, Mumma says she feels prepared for law school and the next step in her personal journey.

“I definitely need to rest up physically, but ... I’m ready to have my butt kicked,” she said. “It’s like the [Appalachian Trail], you can’t prepare until you’re actually there.”

Sean Jones: 703-955-6959