Zeke Barbour doesn't shy from a stiff challenge. So when the Forest Hill resident learned of a group trek on a rugged, rock-strewn 8 1/2-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, he signed on. Barbour has hiked pieces of the 2,160-mile trail before, and Saturday, at age 73, he'll do it again. Why?
"It clears the cobwebs from your brain, lifts your spirits and makes your troubles fade away," he said. "I get a real rush when I'm done."
Saturday's hike, from Pen Mar in Washington County to Route 77 in Frederick County, is the first of five planned monthly jaunts that will cover all 41 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. Led by Richard Hillman, former mayor of Annapolis and a longtime member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, the hilly wilderness treks have proved a healthy if challenging tonic, say those who've done them.
"I had back surgery six years ago, began hiking and have never felt better," said Barbour, a retired health-care administrator. He took part in the most recent of Hillman's five-part hikes in 2010. "It's a good way for mature people to get exercise that doesn't include running or cycling."
Five years ago, most of the 30 or so participants ranged in age from 40 to 70 years old. Hiking might be too primitive for the younger set, Barbour said: "There's nothing electronic out there."
For Bill Hamilton of Hampstead, huffing up the hills and scrambling over rocky terrain beats any exercise he might do indoors.
"I belong to a fitness center but I haven't been there for awhile," said Hamilton, 63, a mechanical designer. "I'd rather be outside. The scenery doesn't change on a treadmill."
He'll be there Saturday morning with a backpack filled with provisions: dried fruit, tuna pouches, dark chocolate and Gatorade.
"The Appalachian Trail is on my bucket list," Hamilton said. "I don't think I'll ever do it [all at one time] as a thru-hiker, but I've hiked pieces of it here and there. Maybe one day, it'll be a complete line."
Hillman, 72, discourages first-time hikers from taking part.
"Many [novices] just can't do it," he said. "Some people think the A.T. is nicely manicured, a kind of Yellow Brick Road. They don't think it through. There are side trails where we've had to walk people out.
"What you need isn't so much stamina as it is the ability to withstand discomfort for several hours at a time. For instance, women who've experienced long labors [in childbirth] would find this kind of hiking very easy. But if you have to go out and buy your first pair of hiking boots, a bandanna and mosquito spray, don't come."
Mary Plumer of Pasadena recalled hiking the first leg of the trek in 2010. The route to Oz, it was not.
"I'd always been intrigued by doing the A.T., but I wasn't ready for climbing over boulders, roots and fallen trees," Plumer, 70, said. "We must have climbed a thousand feet and gone back down again. Sometimes you're afraid to stand upright because you're at such an angle."
She's waffling about doing it again.
"The scenery is breathtaking, and there's something meditative about being out in nature and hearing the birds," she said. "But I've had one knee replaced, and the other one is talking to me."
Anne Bruder's goal is to take part in the group hike as well as bits of the Appalachian Trail in all 14 states it crosses. Though a fitness buff, she was stunned by the rigors of Hillman's initial trek five years back.
"I expected something a little more … tame," said Bruder, 63, an architectural historian from Baltimore. "I was literally the last one off the trail on that first leg. But by summer's end, I'd learned to make the boulders my friends and not worry about what they tried to do to my ankles.
"I'd gotten a good tip on buying boots from my brother, a Marine for 30 years: Pull the laces tight enough that your foot doesn't slide around. That helped."
So does camaraderie, say those who are reluctant to go it alone.
"With shared exertion comes bonding," said Jay Merwin, 60, a Towson lawyer and veteran of Hillman's earlier hikes. "You huff and puff and chat. You fall into step with different people and talk about jobs and families. The woods are no place for violent political arguments."
The first stretch of the trail in Maryland begins 300 yards from the Mason-Dixon Line, and Merwin recalled several hikers determined to tromp back to touch the historic marker before the group set off.
After several miles, he said, "we came to a lovely overlook" — High Rock, on South Mountain — "only to find that a motorcycle gang was also there enjoying it. They'd ridden up on a nearby access road, but they seemed peaceable enough."
Friendships can be forged on the trail. Having finished all five hikes in 2010, Howard Aylesworth, a retired economist from Baltimore, reached out to others he'd met and organized their own hikes around town.
"At our age, you know you're getting old, and if you want to keep your body together, hiking is a wonderful way to do it," Aylesworth, 70, said.
An ankle injury will sideline him Saturday, but John Parkerson plans to trek the second leg of the trail in July. A onetime Boy Scout, Parkerson camped with his troop in the same woods more than 40 years ago.
"It's neat to see the places I knew as a kid," said Parkerson, 57, an occupational physician from Catonsville. "I feel like a scout again, and it's rejuvenating to know things haven't changed."
That the woods are steeped in history adds allure.
"There are Civil War monuments to both North and South along the way," Parkerson said. "You can almost see the soldiers hiding behind the trees and feel the troops walking beside you. You pass not far from Camp David. And when you finish [the fifth leg] of the journey, you stand near where Thomas Jefferson did, surveying the Potomac and Harpers Ferry. How thrilling is that?"