'Mr. D' is not about to slow down

Baltimore Sun

Lost Lake, Wyoming - July 30, 2009: "I see where other hikers have tried to cross the [mountain's] snow face with ice axes and I attempt to follow in their footprints. But I take about five steps and realize with only [hiking] poles it's too dangerous and I'm not willing to die this way. ... [I end up] going around snowfields up a canyon wall of loose stone, my feet sliding out from under me. ...

"Heading down the backside with its 40 percent descent is almost as suicidal as climbing up. … This mountain is begging me to make a mistake, but I live to see another day." - Mr. D.

That real-life account was taken from one of more than 135 online journal entries posted daily by Charles "Mr. D" Daniels as he hiked the 3,100-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail this year, traversing desert and mountains between New Mexico and the Canadian border in five months.

As if the rocky terrain and weather extremes weren't daunting enough, the Columbia resident encountered a grizzly bear, lost six toenails, slipped into a river's rushing waters and walked in a hailstorm.

When Daniels reached the trail's northern terminus in Glacier National Park, Mont., on Sept. 30, he earned bragging rights on two fronts. Not only had he finished a grueling and emotionally draining trip; he'd become one of only 106 people to be inducted into the " Triple Crown Club," an elite group of hikers who have also completed the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails.

That three-trail feat translates into more than 15 million steps across nearly 8,000 miles. Not bad for a guy who is 70.

Daniels, a retired computer programmer, seems to go at everything full-throttle. He is well known in his Beaverbrook neighborhood and for miles around for his 250,000-bulb holiday lights display, which costs him about $1,000 a month in electricity. He has also run 16 marathons, including the invitation-only Boston Marathon, in the past decade.

While he takes his accomplishments in stride, so to speak, he also says jokingly that his four grown children and six granddaughters "all think I'm crazy."

It was his competitive nature that sparked a desire to hike the famous trio of trails, he acknowledges - that and an urgent need for a plan when he retired in 1998.

"I asked myself what was I going to do - sleep in till noon?" he says with a laugh. Those who know him say there was no chance of that happening.

"He's one of the most amazing people I know," says Eric Katkow, who is Daniels' dentist and an ultra-marathoner who runs in races that are over 50 miles. "He's lean and in great shape, and a great example of aging well. He's even a little bit faster than I am."

Daniels says he couldn't run to the end of his driveway when he retired at age 59 because he'd kept busy traveling the globe, installing and testing wagering systems, and spent what little free time he had with his family.

About the time he retired and divorced, he met Andrea Almand, an English teacher at River Hill High School and a former triathlete. After they married, she inspired him to give running and hiking a try. And like most things Daniels attempts, the results were golden.

He walked the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail in 2000, but he chose to make it more challenging from the get-go by starting out in February, a full wintry month before most hikers begin.

"I wanted to get that wilderness experience and not encounter so many other hikers," Daniels says, explaining that each year about 3,000 people hike along the Georgia-to-Maine route established in 1937.

It's not that "Mr. D" isn't a sociable guy. While he has set off on each leg of his hiking odyssey alone, the main drawing card for these expeditions is the people - even more than the physical challenge, he says.

"These people make your day, they change your day," he says. "They are all so down-to-earth and interesting."

In the seven years that followed his first through-hike - a term that indicates a hiker is completing the entire length of the trail in one continuous attempt - Daniels took up marathon running. He has also run the JFK 50 Mile, an ultra-marathon that starts in Washington County in Western Maryland.

In 2007, he completed the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which winds its way from Mexico to Canada by way of California, Oregon and Washington. This year's adventure ran from April through September. All three times, Almand edited her husband's writing entries and posted them online.

"We got lots of feedback about the journal," Daniels says of his daily entries, complete with photographs. "People told me they religiously checked in to see what 'Mr. D' was doing."

Daniels completed each as a through-hike, as opposed to section hiking parts of the trails over a period of years. But "through-hike" is a somewhat misleading term, as hikers leave the trail about every five days to restock supplies, sometimes eating a restaurant meal, doing laundry and sleeping one night in a motel to renew flagging energy levels, he says.

The CD Trail - which is advertised as "spanning the backbone of America" - is the most physically challenging, he says. And as if the terrain weren't enough to test his resilience, he also suffered through a painful kidney infection, was besieged by mosquitoes and was forced to filter water from troughs used by free-range cattle.

Detailed trail maps drawn by a previous hiker and a global positioning device were all that kept him from becoming dangerously lost in the vast wilderness of the Continental Divide, he says.

Gaps account for more than a fourth of the length of the rugged trail, which remains a work in progress since it was established in 1978, says Josh Shusko, communications coordinator for the Continental Divide Trail Alliance.

"This trail is remote and challenging, and requires navigational and self-reliance skills," Shusko says. "It is a powerful, life-changing experience."

As many as a dozen times a day, Daniels says, he was forced to second-guess where he was heading and had to bushwhack back to the trail. He says he relied on ingenuity to offset the stress that accompanied each decision.

"These hikes are all about endurance, but they change you," Daniels says.

Names of Triple Crown hikers are recorded by the American Long Distance Hiking Association West, which also provides engraved plaques. As with all long-distance hikes, finishers operate on the honor system because there's no way to monitor their journeys, Shusko says.

Now that he's accomplished the nearly impossible - especially for someone his age - Daniels is retiring from long-distance hiking.

"I was always able to give the younger hikers a run for their money," he says, "but I no longer want to be away for several months at a time."

He and his wife, who plans to retire from teaching soon, intend to travel and continue dancing three times a week. Avid fans of "Dancing with the Stars," they study the moves of the professional dancers on the TV competition and then incorporate the best of them into their own routines, he says.

Daniels doesn't plan to put his running shoes in the closet alongside his hiking boots, though: He is now contemplating running a 100-mile race. Neighbors Is there a noteworthy person or event in your neighborhood? Contact Neighbors columnist Janene Holzberg at jholzberg76@msn.com or 410-461-4150.

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