Kathy Elkind walked 1,400 miles through the ‘cathedral of the earth’

At 57, Kathy Elkind moved from Massachusetts to Vermont with her husband, Jim. But, before settling into their new community, the couple opted to take an adult gap year.

The experience was similar to what high school students do after graduation when taking time to contemplate what they want to do with their lives.

“We are both outdoor people and love to travel,” said Kathy. “I always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, but, at 57, I did not want to carry a heavy pack. Although my husband would have been okay with more rugged living, I also didn’t want to camp in a tent every night.”

The couple kept asking people for advice regarding what to do and where to go. One day, they encountered a man from France, who suggested they walk the Grande Randonnée, or Great Trek, which is commonly known as the GR5 trail.

National Geographic refers to the GR5 as Europe’s most beautiful hiking trail. Kathy refers to it as walking through the “cathedral of the earth.”

Starting in the southern Netherlands, the trail crosses Belgium, Luxembourg, eastern France and western Switzerland before ending near the southern shore of Nice, France. It took the couple three months to complete the 1,400-mile trip from the cold North Sea to the warm Mediterranean.

What made the adventure different from other hikes is that the couple stayed in hotels along the way, rather than in tiny tents. When hotels weren’t available, they stayed in huts; however, huts along the trail sometimes came with a three-course meal plus a glass of wine or beer.

“Almost every European village has a small hotel, and sometimes several of them,” said Kathy. “The other great thing about the GR5 is that it starts out flat before getting into the rolling hills of Belgium and, eventually, the French Alps. By the time you get to the Alps, you’re in good hiking shape.”

Europeans are well-known for taking extended walking trips. In Germany, for example, volksmarches are popular activities for families and singles of all ages.

Photo of Kathy Elkind

Kathy Elkind

Taking a gap year

Many Europeans take gap years at specific points in their lives, as do residents of New Zealand and Australia, Kathy explained.

“There are just some times in life when you need to take a break before getting sucked into the next season,” said Kathy. “We didn’t take a full year off. But, when you factor in the amount of research and planning it took to prepare for the trip, it was close to a year.”

Kathy strongly encourages other people over 50 to take an extended break, especially if they find themselves at a crossroads and need quiet time to sort out options.

“A gap year, gap month or whatever length of time you want to take, is an excellent way to brainstorm and follow your heart to do something you’ve always wanted to do,” she explained. “Jim and I knew we were still strong and had the energy to travel to hike those distances. So, we decided to do it now instead of waiting until our 70s and 80s.”

Jim was also in need of an extended break, Kathy explained. He traveled extensively for his job and often put in 60 hours a week until he retired. Hiking the GR5 was a wonderful way for him to decompress and for the couple to spend time together.

“I was a stay-at-home mom for 10 years, then I ran my own small business,” said Kathy. “But, I never worked full-time. Even after the kids were grown, I still worked part time. The trip was a great opportunity to meditate and just think.”

Hiking the GR5

Before getting started on the trail itself, Kathy and Jim spent time in southern Italy completing day walks for six weeks to get in shape and to see that part of Europe.

Most of the GR5 is not paved, but the network of hiking trails is well maintained, and well-traveled, she noted. The couple felt safe wherever they walked.

“You are basically walking from village to village. Once you come into a town, you are walking on sidewalks or the sides of paved roads,” said Kathy. “Many times we were hiking on dirt roads, forest roads or agricultural roads. We would walk through woods or wind our way through mountains. Every day was different.”

During the hike, Kathy discovered she was stronger than she thought she was.

“Just stopping for 10 or 20 minutes to rest or enjoy lunch for half an hour is completely refreshing,” she explained. “It was amazing how my body would pick up energy to keep going. Then, we would get a good night’s sleep and wake up completely refreshed for another day.”

By paying close attention to the condition of their feet, Kathy and Jim didn’t get too many blisters along the way. Still, the hiking did require some positive self-talk from time to time to keep themselves motivated to move.

“We enjoyed picnic lunches every day that consisted of bread and cheese. You have to eat what is available, but it was enough to fuel our bodies,” she explained. “We spent time every day trying to find grocery stores to buy carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and other fresh vegetables.”

Struggling with appearance

When Kathy was in business for herself, she worked as an eating psychology coach to help women who struggled with eating issues, whether it was overeating or what she called emotional eating. It was something Kathy had to contend with herself, especially as a teen with dyslexia.

“I didn’t learn to read until about the seventh grade,” she explained. “I remember feeling a lot of shame because girls often love to read, and it’s an important part of being in school all the way through high school.

“Instead of using drugs or alcohol, I used food to numb and soothe my emotions,” she added. “I made it through high school with extra tutoring, and my mother helped me a lot.”

Ironically, Kathy made it through college and even went to work teaching second grade to help other students struggling to read. After ending her stint as a teacher, she continued to serve as a reading tutor for another five years. The fact she suffered from an eating disorder for many years actually taught Kathy to walk a path of self-compassion in order to learn to love her body the way it is.

“I will never be a stick-thin person. But, it’s more about changing mindset than diet,” she explained. “We have been told by the media that thin and muscular is the way to be.

“But, I am proof that people, especially women, can walk across a continent, if they desire,” she added. “I could do it even as a rounder woman with more post-menopausal padding.

“I can walk all day long, but I can still get triggered into thinking I am somehow inadequate,” said Kathy. “But, I know I am strong and, most of the time, I am proud of myself and the way I look.”

Kathy noted it was a waste energy not to be happy and to dwell on her changing appearance.

“We all suffer with something, but in different ways,” she said. “You need to be compassionate with yourself and use a gentle, kind  voice when talking to yourself.”

Strengthening her marriage

Kathy and Jim spent months together walking the GR5, but it didn’t mean they spent every moment with each other.

“After the third day, we had already fallen into a rhythm of not walking right next to each other the whole time,” she explained. “We always walked within sight of each other, and would take turns being in the lead.

“That way the person in back could just zone out, meditate and think,” said Kathy. “We also didn’t really talk that much during the morning, except to make decisions.”

Both of them installed the Gaia GPS app on their phones so the couple knew where they were at all times. Kathy and Jim also followed various way markers along the route. Even then, the lead hiker was frequently checking to make sure the other person was okay, especially when making turns.

“Then, in the afternoon, we tended to walk and talk together,” said Kathy. “At night, European meals are often long, sometimes a two-hour dinner that didn’t start until 7 or 8 p.m.”

By that time, Kathy and Jim were often all talked out. Although it took a while to get used to just sitting without talking, they were appreciative of the compassionate silence.

“I remember seeing older couples sitting together in a restaurant without talking to each other and thinking, ‘Oh, I’m never going to do that,’“ said Kathy. “But, it was okay to just sit there and enjoy each other’s company.”

They were often very united during the trip and working together as a team to hike across the continent. Consequently, they didn’t have as many arguments as they normally did back home.

“There was a point where we took a two-and-a-half-day rest on Lake Geneva before starting up the Alps. Suddenly, we let down our guard and started nagging each other a bit,” Kathy admitted.

“In general, I was pleased with how well we got along during the trip,” she added. “We have been married long enough to learn how to bring up issues and work our way through them because we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Reliving history

One of Kathy’s favorite aspects of the hike was walking past a lot of historical sites. They would read through guidebooks the night before and decide where to take extra time to visit something interesting.

“We went by a lot of castles. Some of them we abandoned, but still very cool to visit,” she explained. “We toured some amazing cathedrals and historical churches all the way through France.

“The culture is very different. As we were walking down the eastern border of France, next to Germany, there were a lot of World War I and World War II sites,” she added. “The history was amazing.”

Writing a book

When Kathy returned to Vermont, she did not plan to write a book. Rather, she tried to relaunch her business as an eating coach. However, it wasn’t going as well as she hoped, and Kathy found she didn’t have the energy or passion for it that she once did.

“I would offer some classes that would only be half full. I knew starting a business in a new area would take some time to get started, but I just didn’t have the patience to make it grow,” she explained. “Besides, I kept thinking about the trip and missing the experiences we enjoyed.

“I had been in a writing group for a while and always thought about writing a book,” she added. “The more I thought about it, I developed a real passion to write about my experiences.”

Doing so, kept her mentally on the trail by reliving memories and reviewing journals both Kathy and Jim maintained. She recalled highlights of the trip as well as stories she learned along the way.

Kathy titled her finished memoir “To Walk It Is To See It: One Couple, 98 Days, 1400 Miles on Europe’s GR5.” The book is available on Amazon and in other bookstores.

“It’s not the kind of book where I describe what happened every day. It is about one or two interesting stories which occurred every week,” she explained.

The process of learning how to write a book and to understand the nuances of self-publishing took Kathy about three years to master.

“The first draft took about a year and a half,” she said. “Then it required a lot of editing and rewriting to get it into final form.”

Kathy ended up working with a hybrid publisher to design and print the book, which was released on Aug. 15. Then she went on a virtual tour to promote the book on various websites and podcasts, like Forward From 50.

Advice for older people

Kathy wishes she would have had a little more confidence as a younger women because she would have taken more risks and tried different things.

“I feel like I’m a late bloomer and that’s okay,” she said. “If we are lucky enough to live as long as we’re living, then this is a great time in life. You’re done raising kids and, hopefully, saved some money so now you can do some exploring.”

Kathy encourages people over 50 to ask themselves these questions and ponder the answers:

  • What sparks you?
  • What do you think about?
  • What do you dream about?

“I’m a big picture thinker. But, if you’re not, then try to open up your mind to think about what you could possibly do with your life,” said Kathy. “Try not to put limits on your thinking or your beliefs. Keep talking to other people, too. I’m a big believer in collaboration and chatting about what lights your fire. Sharing your dreams is very encouraging.”

As a big advocate of walking, Kathy urges people to get out and see the world one step at a time.

“You don’t have to go for three months. You can go for a week or two,” she explained. “If you can afford it, get yourself to Europe and walk across it. The public transportation is amazing.

“I like the idea of slow travel because it is a great way to really get to know a country,” she added. “Instead of trying to visit a different country every day, consider getting to know one place really well by staying in small hotels and meeting other people.”

Kathy admitted she didn’t speak French very well, but relied on Google Translate to communicate with others.

“If you are polite and not trying to be an obnoxious American, people are very friendly,” she said. “Be respectful and try to speak their language the best you can. But, if you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.

“Sometimes I would use Google Translate to just type out what I was trying to say and ask the other people to read it,” said Kathy. “Occasionally, they would smile and joke because Google Translate messes up. But, it helps to have a backpack on your back. That way people know you’re walking and that you’re in their country to learn.”

To connect with Kathy, visit www.kathyelkind.com.

If you order Kathy’s book from the link above, Forward From 50 may earn a small commission.