by Andrew Coghill
At 68 years old Elizabeth Tuttle began the first hike of her life. She stepped off a parking lot behind the Mammoth Hotel and started climbing a sage covered hill leading to the Beaver Ponds trailhead. Halfway up, she had to stop and gasp for breath.
Her father, a tenant farmer in North Carolina, often said of her, if you want Elizabeth to do something, just tell her she can’t do it. It was a comment Elizabeth never forgot. After raising a family, she enrolled in college at age 43, later earning a PhD and an assistant professorship at the University of Virginia. Five years after recovering from a broken hip she accepted a job in Xanterra’s reservations department and drove across the country to spend a summer in Yellowstone.
Elizabeth regained her breath and together with friends finished the 5.1 mile Beaver Ponds loop, stopping often to rest, enjoy her friends’ company and the beauty of Yellowstone. In May, with one hike under her belt, she decided to join the employee recreation program’s 100 Mile Hiking Club, receiving a hike log sheet, t-shirt, and a challenge to hike 100 miles in a single season. Soon the painter who had stuffed over twenty canvases into her VW convertible bug before leaving Virginia had no desire or time to paint. She hiked with anyone who wanted to hike, making friends as she went. She read hiking books during work breaks, noting heavily travelled trails for days when she couldn’t find a hiking partner.
By June thoughts flickered in her mind of chasing the Hiking Club’s 500 Mile Milestone. She asked herself what it would take to complete an additional 400 miles before autumn. She accounted for possible cold and wet weather in September and came to a conclusion. She would need to hike five miles on working days, ten on days that she had off work.
The 15,000 photographs she’s taken can’t capture all that she’s seen. She stood atop Bunsen Peak under a full moon. She met eyes with a wolf near Heart Lake. From Garnet Hill she watched a silvertip grizzly amble along the banks of the Yellowstone River. She climbed Avalanche Peak and ate lunch from the base of the Canyon at Sevenmile Hole. “Yellowstone belongs to everybody,” she says, “but I belong to it.”
Sometimes she hiked three trails a day. There were times she wanted to quit, to turn around and hike back to the trailhead. She never did. People noticed. Friends and co-workers asked for mileage updates. 175. 290. 362. People near her hiked more often, rethinking their own goals and their ideas of the possible.
Five hundred and twenty miles and counting.
Raising her family aside, she says this is the best thing she’s ever done for herself. “I’ve learned a lot about me this summer,” she says. “You never stop becoming unless you want to.” She praises good boots, water, perseverance, and says she is really thankful for switchbacks. She’s both aware of her accomplishment and humble, reminding others, “it’s just walking.”
Besides her smaller shirt size she feels a change in herself. “I’m more who I was as a kid and teenager than I have been in years.” She smiles, “I got my spunk back.” The trail that first stole her breath she now climbs during work breaks. When she returns to Virginia she plans to discover the Shenandoah Valley’s trails with her daughter and two grandsons. Beyond that she’s not sure what her future holds. “I still want to know what’s next. I can’t wait to find out.”
To join the 100 Mile Hiking Club swing by a recreation office and register today!