Hitting Her Stride in her 60s
Elaine Osmun walks through life, seizing each day
On a chilly morning on Feb. 25, 2018, Red Lodge resident Elaine Osmun, strapped on her 22-pound pack and took the first step of a dream that had been incubating inside her for 44 years. At the age of 61, she was stepping onto the Appalachian Trail in Springer Mountain, Georgia.
The dream was born while learning to backpack in 1974 at an Outward Bound course.
“I loved it,” Elaine says, and she realized, “I’ve just got to hike.” That’s when the long-distance hiking bug bit her, and the germ of the idea of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail was planted. In 1991, she and her husband, Martin McCollough, hiked 51 miles of the trail together and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Seven years later, after Martin died suddenly at 52 , Elaine’s big dream simmered on the back burner. But turning 60, she says, kind of put her into a panic.
“It was my midlife crisis,” she says. “I realized I had to do this while I still can,” and she started planning seriously. “If there’s something you want to do, do it. Don’t hesitate. Seize the day.”
Elaine seized those days and rose to daily challenges on the trail for 880 miles. Starting so early in February, she encountered extremely cold, wet weather, icy trails, slippery and unstable rocks and, several times, the specter of hypothermia. Many nights — after crawling into her tent around 8 p.m., or “hiker midnight” — she slept with her water bottle to keep it from freezing, but would wake to find her shoes frozen stiff. While Elaine wasn’t ready to quit, she realized why – as a ranger had told her in the Smoky Mountains – the majority of people pack it in after their first 50 miles.
Braving thunderstorms, snow storms, freezing fog and below-zero wind chill values, Elaine learned the value of perseverance and the importance of “being in the moment.” “You have to think about every place you put your foot,” she says. Even so, she fell dozens of times.
By mid-June, Elaine — whose trail name was EWOKS (Elaine walks) — realized she wouldn’t be able to finish that season. To do so required completing 20 to 25 miles every single day. She also recognized that safely walking that pace meant there would be no time to stop and smell the wild roses, or to admire the rhododendron and carpets of trillium, or just take a day to relax.
“All you’re looking at all day is the ground,” she says. So, with the help of her back-up crew and friend Elaine Spittler, who drove the RV (dubbed the Millennium Falcon) to re-supply Elaine, the decision was made to “leap frog” the trail. Also part of the back-up crew were dogs Deena, Kate, Tyger and Ziba, and July the Cat.
Leap-frogging the Appalachian Trail allowed Elaine to experience the flavor of the whole trail, and the uniqueness of the states along the route.
“I like seeing new things,” she says. She remembers thinking, “This is my country,” and she enjoyed the distinct personality of each of the 14 states she visited. She also enjoyed standing amid the rich history of the East Coast – especially Harpers Ferry – which she’d only read about in books.
It was an amazing journey for Elaine, who had grown up in Houston and over the years earned several degrees, including a B.S. in kinesiology, an M.S. in education and an M.A. in English. “I’m basically a teacher,” she says, and she has taught everything from swimming to science to dogs. Yes – dogs – Elaine’s second passion, along with hiking. She was introduced to dog training through her husband, who trained retrievers for hunting, agility, obedience and herding. After attending summer dog camps in Idaho – and after Martin’s death – Elaine moved to Montana, trained dogs from her home, and then built and opened Yellowstone Dog Sports in Roberts.
Yellowstone Dog Sports is the only canine event center of its kind in the country, and with its 19 motel-like rooms, RV hook-ups, massive indoor event center and training seminars, it has hosted humans and their best friends since 2011. Participants come from all over the country and Canada. But, with COVID-19, seminars have been scaled back, and social distancing has been implemented.
"It’s not just the competition,” says Elaine, “it’s the camaraderie” that builds up from people and their dogs working together over 10 days or more. She misses that.
Still, fewer events at Yellowstone Dog Sports mean that Elaine has more time for hiking in her favorite part of the country – right here. While hiking the Appalachian Trail was a fulfilled dream, she missed the visual rewards from hiking in this area.
“It was just a long green tunnel,” she says of the Appalachian Trail, with lots of PUDs (Pointless Ups and Downs). This summer, she backpacked with a group of friends to the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness. Her favorite backpacking trip is from Cooke City to East Rosebud. The visual rewards on this hike were constant – sapphire blue lakes, resplendent waterfalls and incredible views. Due to COVID, Elaine recently canceled a hiking trip through parts of Ireland, Wales and England this summer, but she hopes it can be rescheduled.
Elaine’s advice to older women (well, anyone, really) is to keep moving and walking. She says that her aunt, who died at age 99, walked every day.
“She had the right idea,” says Elaine, who also recommends strength training. “A lot of older women overlook strength,” she says, recommending weights and Stairmaster-type equipment, especially if you’ve got a big bodacious dream like the Appalachian Trail.
Whether it’s teaching square dancing with dogs or discovering trail magic on really long hikes, Elaine Osmun, is indeed, hitting her stride, and inspiring so many of us to take a step in the right direction too.
TO TAKE A LOOK AT SOME OF ELAINE’S ADVENTURES, go to her Facebook page, EWOKS Hiking Adventures, or follow her video log at EWOKS Appalachian Trail Vlogs.