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Hilda Cerday: A walking miracle

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Two years after I started RVing full time, when I was still nervous about my new life and had many fears and questions, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the most inspirational women in my life.  I was on my first trek across the southwest and was so happy to meet her and to be able to follow her out in the the deserts of Arizona and southern California — my first experience with boondocking!

In 2008,  Hilda Cerday had already been full timing by herself for two years.  And at 68 years of age, Hilda was in the process of section hiking the Appalachian trail in the summers.  In 2010, when she was still hiking the AT every summer, we went to Alaska together.

While I was sleeping peacefully in the early mornings, Hilda was out walking 10 miles and jumping rope to make sure she didn’t get the out of shape for her next trek along the AT.  She toured Alaska with me from May through July, then flew off to hike the AT. I called her Wonder Woman, because that is what she was!

And she still is.

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Coming off the Appalachian Trail at the end of a section hike.

Hilda Cerday was born in 1939, served in the Marine Corps for two years, was widowed twice and retired from the Veterans Administration in 2002.

One of her family’s favorite activities was camping and she became interested in RVing after her second husband’s death.  Hilda wanted to travel after she retired and it seemed that RVing was the most economical way to do it. She had started off with tents and then moved up to a pop-up trailer.

As she got closer to retirement and realized that she definitely wanted to travel full time, she knew that she couldn’t live full-time in a pop up.  So in the fall of 2000, she bought a fifth wheel, as she  already had a truck.  After towing the fifth wheel for a few years, she bought a Class C in 2004 — a 29-foot Dutchmen Express with no slides, which is still her traveling home.

Hilda had always enjoyed walking from the time she was very young.  In the Marine Corps she ran and hiked as well. Her absolute passion for hiking developed when she would go car camping along with a group of friends at Elk Lake in Independence, Kansas while she was still working.

There were 20 to 25 people who camped together and 5 wanted to hike with her.  They would regularly take off for 3 day weekends to hike.  Hilda painfully recalls the blisters on her feet after those early excursions, admitting that she didn’t know how to shop for boots in her early hiking days. She quickly learned her lesson about the importance of buying good equipment.

Hilda has hiked Alaska, New Zealand, the Appalachian Trail, some of the Pacific Coast Trail, Peru, Canada, Mexico — all in her 60s and 70s — and her RVing has taken her all over North America.  She is partial to the Southwest and has had a lot at the Original Escapee Ranch in Lakewood, New Mexico for years.\

Training in the New Mexico desert for the through-hike of the Appalachian Trail with her hiking buddies.
Training in the New Mexico desert for the through-hike of the Appalachian Trail with her hiking buddies.

Hilda and friends started section hiking the Appalachian trail in April 2002 in Springer Mountain, GA, at the very southern end of the Appalachian Trail.   She finished on May 1st 2013 and has the tattoo to prove it!  Her trail name was “The Red Tornado,” befitting her red hair and her fast pace of hiking.

With all of her hiking experience, it was a shock to her and all of her friends when she had a fall on February 11, 2014.

Over a curb. In Palomas, Mexico — and she hadn’t even had a Margarita!

Fortunately, there was no permanent damage but she did shatter her wrist.  After that scare, she was much more careful about watching where she stepped and wore wrist braces just in case she took another tumble.

Nothing could slow her down or keep her from her ultimate goal of completing a through-hike, hiking from one end of the Appalachian Trail to the other, non-stop.

She was still in great shape, having continued her daily walking even during her recovery from her fall.  But in 2015 she dedicated herself to training for the through-hike, from the first part of November 2015 through March  2016 and started hiking April 13,,2016

April 16, she hiked Blood Mountain, the highest peak in Georgia at 4500 feet elevation.  Hilda recalls crossing there on a nice day, not having had any rain.  When she crossed Blood Mountain, which is an extremely rocky, difficult area, she remembers that she could look down the trail.

She got off the mountain and was approaching the mountain crossing at Mills Gap.  The mountain crossing was going to be her first night to resupply, get a shower, do laundry, and prepare to hike on.

X-ray of her hardware, repairing the break of her neck and supporting her head.
X-ray of her hardware, repairing the break of her neck and supporting her head.

Hilda remembers looking up and seeing Mills Gap approximately 200 yards ahead. Then she realized that she was falling but she didn’t know why.  She thought possibly a rock or something had made her lose her footing and her 30 lb. pack knocked her off balance.  She tried to correct herself but the pack kept throwing her forward.  She fell and the left side of her face hit the dirt hard.

She began to feel tingling sensations, but she didn’t panic as she realized that she was close enough to the trail and to Mills Gap that someone would be along to help her. The roads were right there next to where she had fallen, with only a few trees separating the trail form the road.  She could hear the cars going up and down the road.

Hilda was laying in a position that prevented her from seeing anyone on the trail but she heard a male voice asking, “Are you okay?” She told him no, that she couldn’t move her hands or her feet. He immediately started yelling to others to call 911.

Luckily, no one tried to move her, take her pack off or turn her over .  She could hear the people asking when the medics or the ambulance were coming, wondering what was taking so long.  It didn’t seem that long to her though.  When the ambulance came they asked her if she was hiking with someone and she told them that they were behind her.  Someone went to find her hiking friends, to tell them she had fallen and that an ambulance was coming.

She still couldn’t see anyone because they were on the road and she was facing away.  They told her that they were going to have to put her on a board and having worked in a hospital, she knew what they were talking about. That was the first time that she had felt pain, when they moved her onto the board.  While she was on the road, she hadn’t been in any pain.

They would ask her questions and she could answer them, but she can’t remember their faces now. Someone said they weren’t going to be able to drive her to a hospital, and she heard the driver of the ambulance say something about airlifting her out.  They gave her some pain medication and told her that she was going to be airlifted to Chattanooga.

Hilda arrived at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga April 16. After X-rays, she was told that she had broken her neck at C1-C2 and she was taken into surgery to attempt to stabilize her neck April 17. They tried to go in though the front of her neck to do the repairs, but because she has osteoporosis, the bones were too soft for them to try to screw in the plates and do the fusions.

The second surgery April 18 went through the back of her neck and made the repairs.  She was in the trauma center for four days and then transferred her to Siskin for in-patient rehabilitation therapy on the 20th.  She started walking again soon after surgery after surgery.  She was discharged on May 4.

The doctors were amazed at her progress and credited it to her great physical condition.

Her son and daughter, Mark and Cindi, came from Wichita to Chattanooga and when she was released, she went home to recuperate with her family.

When Hilda went to her family doctor in Wichita for a checkup, the doctor walked in and declared her “a walking miracle.” The surgeon had reported that she was 1 millimeter away from being paralyzed. The transverse ligament was 1 millimeter — she was literally holding on by a thread.

On the Appalachian Trail, before the fall.
On the Appalachian Trail, before the fall.

Hilda is very grateful to the doctors, nurses and surgeons who took such wonderful care of her and kept her family up-to-date on what was going on.  She feels that the one main thing that was in her favor was that she was able to get medical care immediately.

Hilda continued with therapy and July 6 she was able to remove the neck brace.  She plans to return to her RV, which is parked in Lakewood, N.M., in September and continue her RVing life.  But her days of hiking are over.  With her neck injury and osteoporosis, it is simply too high of a risk to hike the difficult trails she’s enjoyed. But she won’t stop walking!

With her typical great attitude, Hilda reports that the biggest problem, of course, is her neck.  She knows that with all the hardware in her head and neck, she’s lucky to be able to be up walking and enjoying life again.  There’s still some spot numbness and the fused neck makes it difficult to find a comfortable way to position her head to sleep.  She has learned to turn her shoulders and body to help her see to the side as she cannot turn her head very far.

Hilda is well aware of how blessed she is to even be alive, so she continues on with her indomitable spirit, planning for the future and looking forward to other adventures.

She attributes her good health to staying active and walking regularly.  When asked about her positive outlook on life, she says it is due to being active.

Her message to other senior women and men:

“Stay Active!  Do something you enjoy and keep your body moving.  The key to not getting bored, and therefore becoming depressed as you age, is to always have a plan.  Even if it is just once a month, take a little trip somewhere to break the monotony and to refresh your perspective on life.  Plan your life so you’ve got something to look forward to.”

hilda-tatooHilda wants everyone to know that contrary to popular opinion, RV’ing doesn’t have to be overly expensive.  She says that your biggest expense is your gas, so if you’re not constantly driving, if you get somewhere and stay for a month or so, your expenses are minimal. Boondocking — camping without being plugged in at an RV park — is also a great way to save money and travel inexpensively.

When she first started off in her Class C, the first thing she did was have one solar panel –‑125 watts — all the basic wiring and 2 batteries installed.  That way she says she knew that she’d always have lights.  Hilda says that a generator isn’t a necessity but it’s a wonderful thing to have especially if you are going to go boondocking.

She kept a diary as to how much money she saved by boondocking rather than staying in RV parks and it paid for the solar panel plus installation.

Hilda’s bottom line:  Everything happens for a reason.  You can “if” yourself to death thinking and trying to figure out why something bad happened.  Better to expend your energy being grateful and working to make life as good as possible.

Just after the completion of this article, as Hilda was packing to return to the Escapee Ranch in Lakewood, N.M., she suffered a stroke that has affected her eyesight.  She is selling her lot and casita at the Original Escapees RV Ranch in Lakewood and selling her RV.  She is still optimistic that she may one day be able to travel again in her car.  For now, she feels that it’s better to be near her family until this current medical issue is resolved.

Having lived in Wichita until she started RVing in 2002, Hilda has a lot of close friends and family there that she has visited regularly throughout the years, so she has a large, strong support system.  She is already enjoying local excursions with her friends and family. And she’s looking forward to when she can drive again and hit the road for more adventures on her own!

About Beth Lanier

Beth Lanier has been a nomad -- a committed full-time RVer -- for the past 10 years. Traveling inspired her to spin romantic tales of strong women who travel and her first novel, One Good Man, is now on Kindle. A series of novellas based on single women who RV, Road to Romance, will launch in September. In her spare time, Beth rescues and re-homes dogs, is an avid photographer, singer, kayaker and artist. Always eager to learn something new, her latest project is learning the slide guitar. Beth is a member of RomVets, Romance Writers of America and Escapees. To contact her, visit www.bethlanier.com.

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