Shaler student hikes 70-mile Laurel Highlands Trail
Two years ago, Shaler Area Elementary student Dalaney Vaughn decided that she wanted to hike the entire 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.
She discovered the trail's existence when viewing photos of her father, Chad, hiking as a Shaler Area High School student with her grandfather and paternal uncle.
“I just really wanted to do that, just like he did,” Dalaney, now 11, said.
The duo finished their final hike Oct. 1, after scheduling five hikes on various Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail segments over two years.
Initially, her father was reluctant to grant Dalaney permission to attempt the challenge, recalling the obstacles he faced hiking a portion of the trail.
“When I thought of all those things: the heat, the weight of the pack, how my body was broke down at the end, I thought, I can't do this to her,” Chad recalls.
After two weeks of experiencing Dalaney's persistence, he changed his mind.
They started their journey with an 11-mile, two-day hike departing from Ohiopyle State Park. He said he hoped that by taking her on “the most grueling part of the trail,” she would postpone the other hikes until she was older and stronger.
One of his concerns was that local sporting goods stores didn't carry backpacks small enough to snap around her chest, therefore she had to carry all of the pack's weight on her shoulders.
“I was really tired, but it was really cool because there was a whole bunch of animals,” Dalaney, who aspires to have an animal-related career, said. “There was, like, some mice. When we were camping the first night, a mouse chewed a hole to get to the nuts in my backpack. And we saw a bunch of salamanders and a whole bunch of caterpillars and butterflies and silkworms.”
Her motivation only increased after the initial hike. The duo was able to trim a day off their schedule for the second hike, finishing 20 miles of the highest elevation in two days.
Chad, now 43, pushed through an ankle injury during the third hike.
He said that, in general, she “switched roles” and worried about him a lot during the experience. For instance, she cautioned him about slippery rocks, muddy or steep hillsides, and burn risks from evening campfires.
He said that he had stopped worrying about whether Dalaney would finish the planned route by the fourth hike.
Dalaney said her mother, Dawn Vaughn, a Shaler Area Middle School physical education teacher, grew more relaxed about the trips over time.
“She was a little worried at first, but then the last two hikes she was OK with it since the first three hikes I was OK and I came home alive.”
During their early hikes, Chad taught Dalaney how to use a compass, navigate the trail, ration out food and water and watch for the body's medical warning signs — the same things his father had taught him when they explored the trail.
He said it was “really neat” to watch his daughter “grow” as he allowed her to plan their final hike.
“I didn't want to stop because I knew if I stopped it would, like, be there for the rest of my life, like I should have done that,” Dalaney said.
Even though it hasn't been long since she has achieved her goal, Dalaney already has plans to take her friends and sister Jocelynne on the trail following her sister's ninth birthday in March. When Dalaney's older, she hopes to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.
Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.