Trailblazing Through LifeAug 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Phillip Hesser
Wanda Shirk’s hiking adventures began at age fifty, but her penchant for adding her personal stamp to things started long before that. As an English teacher at Northern Potter High School, she enlivened Fridays by devising POETS day—“Phooey On Everything, Tomorrow’s Saturday”—when students illustrated favorite poems. She sports a T-shirt reframing WOKE—it’s her acronym for “Working On Kindness and Empathy.” After twenty years of thru-hiking (completing the entire trail) Pennsylvania trails, the gnarliest in the Keystone State have left their mark on her, but she has shaped them to her purpose.
Wanda was ready for a new life at fifty. She would take time from home and the classroom. Her son had graduated from high school, her daughter from college, and her remaining foster son—one of over fifty she and her husband, Bill, brought into their family—was sixteen and enjoyed batching with Bill.
So she started hiking. Was it the attraction of Penn’s Woods surrounding her home in “God’s Country?” No. Actually, she wanted something “on the cheap.” No spending on fancy sports equipment.
She took her first hikes with hand-me-downs from the kids: sneakers, pack, and bedroll. The sneakers and pack fell apart. Schlepping a barrel-sized sleeping bag felt like hauling a trailer. Later the sole detached from one boot and—before being somewhat re-attached with cord—produced a hobbling “flabadap” (it’s a MAD magazine thing) every other step.
Sometimes repeating mantras (“Cross. Fork. Ice. Cream” on a hot day—incentive to finish and get to Kinney’s store in Cross Fork where she could get ice cream), she went the distance and covered the eighty-four-mile Susquehannock Trail System in her first year. She then gave back to STS, joining the Susquehannock Trail Club, and later becoming president. Lois Morey, STC’s corresponding secretary, writes this about Wanda: “When she is not preparing for the next monthly club meeting, you will find her out on the trail wielding a Pulaski [a multi-purpose hand tool] to clear the trail...She helps shuttle hikers...She answers endless questions regarding the trail and the club.”
Her exploration of new vistas was not limited to Pennsylvania. Six years into her outdoor life, she was a castaway on television’s Survivor: Palau, attracted to the adventure and the chance to meet new people on an island country in the South Pacific. Employing her talents for putting her own stamp on the standards—as a teacher she’d take to the school intercom to sing for the birthdays of students and faculty—she auditioned by putting her words to a familiar tune. Her version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” went like this: “Put me onto Survivor/Put me into the game/Make me eat bugs, give me hardships too/I’ll do whatever you want me to do...”
During her brief stay on Palau, her repurposing skills came in handy when she tore a scrap from her slip to bandage a gash on another castaway. Even when she was voted off to shouts of “We love you, Wanda,” she exited with another telling song, this one to the tune of “Maria”: “And suddenly the game will never be the same again...!” Her time in Guam, where ex-castaways awaited the completion of the show, also reflected a new purpose, when she bonded with another former castaway, hiking the trails and forming a friendship with a lawyer from Texas that would lead to long telephone conversations and visits back and forth. She took part in the Survivor: Palau ten-year reunion, and describes her fellow cast members as “interesting” and “good people.”
Ten years into her life as a hiker and a few years after her appearance on Survivor, Wanda began another life at sixty with her retirement from teaching. She celebrated by thru-hiking the unforgiving seventy-six-mile Quehanna Trail. She has since thru-hiked over twenty-five Pennsylvania trails and finished large sections of the fabled Appalachian Trail.
The past decade has only added to her love for Pennsylvania hikes. Her work with STC led to her involvement in the Keystone Trails Association, whose mission is “To provide, protect, preserve, and promote recreational hiking trails and hiking opportunities in Pennsylvania.” KTA Executive Director Brook Lenker calls her “a dynamo,” highlighting the fact that she is “passionate about trails.” That passion earned her KTA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 for “selfless devotion and dedication.”
There is another way that she has repurposed her hiking life. Wanda is a solitary hiker, who loves the “key exchange” hike, where she and another hiker park at different points on a trail, meet in between, and take the other’s car keys for the trip out. Yet she’ll join a crew to wield her Pulaski to widen hillside trails, or lead KTA slackpacks (hiking without a full backpack) that introduce large swaths of trail to hikers in daily stages. She’ll appraise trail sections, noting any areas where she could rally a team to clear a stand of nettles or to fundraise for a new bridge. She also reflects on her latest progress on the “5-Ls,” the dashboard of her social and solitary life. Those are: lover—putting family first; learner—seeking truth and living up to her “think for yourself ” motto; leader—giving back to the community of hikers and neighbors; liver—taking up challenges as an adventurer; and leaver (of legacies)—becoming the “best philanthropist you can be” and endowing funds for new programs and scholarships.
Considering her complex trailblazing life—solitary, engaging with others, and always reflecting on her values—Wanda, now in her mid-seventies, says the Survivor audience “saw only 10 percent of me.” She has followed Thoreau’s path of “several more lives to live,” and it’s the stamp Wanda leaves on the trail and her life—loving, singing, hiking, meditating, contributing, and lopping the undergrowth on whatever path life brings.