It was day three on Mike McLaughlin’s hike on the Appalachian Trail, somewhere near Gooch Gap, Ga. He had made a rookie hiking mistake: He ran out of water. Then, stumbling on a rock, he sprained his ankle. He rolled in pain on the forest floor, his joint swelling and his throat parched. Things looked bleak.
McLaughlin hates hiking. But an intense determination to help kids in need inspired him to launch Hike4Kids, which aims to raise money for vulnerable children and inspire them to take on seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The challenge McLaughlin gave himself: conquer both the Appalachian and Ozark trails straight through, a feat never before accomplished.
Money raised by the effort would go to St. Louis Family Resource Center, which provides court-ordered interventions for dysfunctional families, and a school for neglected blind children in Cameroon. McLaughlin, Olin Class of ’14, was himself a victim of abuse and neglect as a child and felt profoundly that any attention he could get for the plight of children in similar circumstances was worth the grueling physical challenge. “I don’t care about hiking; I want to help kids,” McLaughlin says.
The March 2012 start to his journey began easily enough. On the first day, his wife, Brooke McLaughlin, accompanied him on the eight-mile trek to the first shelter. As they lay under the stars, he thought, “This is going to be a really cool adventure.”
On day two, the couple said goodbye, and McLaughlin struck out on his own. Then the climbs started. First up was the 4,472-foot Blood Mountain. “I would spend an hour climbing up only to climb right back down,” McLaughlin says. “When you’re not going up — and feeling as if you’re going to collapse — you’re going down, which wears on your knees.”
Day three was the sprained-ankle-and-no-water day. With thousands of miles of rugged terrain ahead of him — Clingmans Dome, Rocksylvania, the Hundred-Mile Wilderness — he cursed his injury. “If I had been doing it for fun,” he says, “I would have quit that day.”
But his mind wandered to the send-off his supporters had given him at Washington University. They had screened a video describing what McLaughlin and the Hike4Kids mission meant to them. “I think it’s very important that people take up the responsibility to change the world,” an Olin classmate said, “because the only way we can move forward is through compassion and mutual understanding.”
Eyes fixed on the wooded path ahead of him, McLaughlin says, “I thought, ‘This is working; this is inspiring people. I want them to see the happy ending.’”
And so he pressed on, traversing 14 states and 2,184 miles on the Appalachian Trail and 350 miles on Missouri’s Ozark Trail. (His wife joined him again later in the AT hike for almost 900 miles.) Though no official statistics are kept, as many as 85 percent of hikers quit the AT, and few even attempt the lonely OT. He completed the combined journey in September 2012.
McLaughlin came out of the experience with a journal rich in trail stories. There was the time he managed to crest the nearly vertical rock face in Lehigh Gap, Pa., despite the fact that the footholds were too small for his feet. In New Jersey, he saw a black bear. In Virginia, he worked his “trail magic” to snag an invite to a campground party featuring grilled shrimp and pulled-pork sandwiches. (A welcome change from his almost exclusive Cliff Bar diet.)
More important to McLaughlin, his fundraising challenge racked up more than $14,000 for the two charities. The Cameroonian school for the blind, founded by Brooke James, Olin Class of ’13, operates on a $5,000-per-year budget. The school put its windfall to use buying mattresses for its students (who previously slept on the floor) and opening up more spots for new students. St. Louis Family Resource Center will use the funds to support its counseling and family intervention services.
Encouraged by the response and the impact his walk in the woods had already made, McLaughlin resolved to do even more to help children. He says, “When I got home, people said, ‘You did it!’ But I said, ‘No, I’ve got more to do.’”
Since returning, McLaughlin founded Unite4Kids, which takes the spirit of Hike4Kids and expands it into several programs: Cre8tive Xpression, an art competition for at-risk children in the St. Louis area; KidsHike, through which at-risk youth build self-esteem while learning to pitch a tent, administer first aid and work as a team; and YouthConnection, which aims to find entry-level employment and mentors for at-risk youth who are homeless or aging out of the foster-care system. “My vision is that one day, no young person in the St. Louis area will be forced to go out into the world without at least one person being there to guide him,” he says.
The goals for Unite4Kids are to raise awareness of the plight of children who have been neglected, abused or otherwise mistreated; to raise funds for its partner charities that serve these children; and to recruit volunteers for its programs.
McLaughlin is also planning his next grueling adventure, the 4,000 Challenge, a 4,000-mile bike ride across the country, plus the challenge to summit all of New England’s 115 mountains that exceed 4,000 feet. If he makes it, McLaughlin figures he’ll be the first person to do so.
“For the right cause, I would do anything,” he says. Even tie on those dreaded hiking boots again.