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Outdoors Eye on the prize, smile on his face

Mike Caetano, 88, along with hiking buddy Karen Fischer, is on his way to becoming the oldest person to have ever completed the Appalachian Trail in one go. Photo by Vickie CarpenterPensacola man vies for oldest AT thru-hiker record

Mike Caetano admits he’s always been competitive. Growing up in Rhode Island, he competed in cross-country and was eventually part of a cross-country team at Rhode Island University which won the national championship.

Many years later, he has found himself feeling that old competitive urge once again, this time to become the oldest to have ever completely hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) from end-to-end in one season. In hiker parlance, such a feat is called a “thru-hike,” a worthy accomplishment even for a young person. Caetano is 88.

“I just want to do it,” said Caetano, who takes trail name, “Cimarron,” from the small town in New Mexico where the Philmont Boy Scout Reservation is located. (Caetano was a Scout leader for 37 years). The competitive fire was stoked in Caetano when, in 2004, he was finishing up a section hike of the AT in Maine. There, he met “Easy One” (Lee Barry of Shelby, N.C.), who at the age of 81, only a few months Caetano’s senior, had just set the record.

The AT stretches 2,181 miles, through 14 states, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Every year, more than a thousand hikers set out with the goal of completing it. A fraction of those actually make it.

Since that fateful day in Maine, Caetano has seen a few setbacks to his dream. First he had to beat prostate cancer. Then, in 2007, he had a hip replacement. In 2009, he made a thru-hike attempt, but was foiled in the Smokies by stress fractures in his legs. But Caetano has emerged from all of these setbacks more determined than ever.“I think this might be the year,” he said, noting that his birthday is in August, so he’ll be 89 by the time he finishes the trail sometime in October.

Starting out from Springer Mountain on Feb. 24 with his loyal hiking partner, “Catching Dreams” (Karen Fischer of Virginia Beach), Caetano has already hit a couple of rocky patches on his quest. First, there was the injury to his arm. That was followed by a spill that required staples in his forehead and some recoup time in Hiawasee. He stopped in Franklin to get his arm checked out and the staples removed.

But is he ready to turn back? Hello, no! Cimarron and Catching Dreams have only come 107 miles on their journey so far, but looking at the AT map on the wall of the Macon County News, they were already eyeing some of their favorite (as well as some of the more treacherous) stretches of the trail on up the road.

Caetano lives in Pensacola, Fla., with his wife. A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, he is a retired Navy aviator and flight school instructor. He is the father of eight children – four girls, followed by four boys – and at last count, some 17 grandchildren (one of which got married in March, causing him to take a two-week break from hiking).

“If you never try to do it, you will never know you could do it,” Caetano writes on his online journal. He says that getting away from television and world news is one of the unique joys of life on the trail, but he also keeps in close contact with his family, calling them from the peaks and balds along the way. When asked what he thinks about most on the trail, he says his wife. She is currently overcoming cancer in Pensacola, and he keeps in daily contact with her and his family there.

While there is no doubt, Caetano is serious about his record-setting quest, he is also quick to point out what he really loves about life on the trail. “It’s the people,” he says. “You meet real nice people.”

Record or no record, “It’s not the miles, but the smiles,” that keeps him going.

Keep up with the adventures of Cimarron and Catching Dreams through their online trail journals at http://www.trailjournals.com/. (Click on “Journals” and scroll to their names.)


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