Woman walks 444 miles to Natchez

Published 12:01 am Saturday, August 13, 2011

ERIC SHELTON/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Jackie Kelley finished her 440-mile trek on the Natchez Trace Parkway Wednesday afternoon, which was also her 72nd birthday.

NATCHEZ — In addition to celebrating her 72nd birthday, Jackie Kelley spent Wednesday wrapped in humidity and heat to check-off the last seven miles of her 444-mile walking trek from Nashville to Natchez.

Kelley, a Hampshire, Tenn., resident, was inspired to walk the Natchez Trace after reading “Becoming Odessa” by Jennifer Pharr Davis, about a young woman’s challenge to hike the Appalachian Trail.

“It inspired me to set my own challenge,” Kelley said.

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Kelley said she had run a couple of marathons in her younger days, but she never really thought of herself as an athlete.

Her older age also inspired her to make the trek, she said, which she started in February and has completed in several rounds by walking an average of 10 miles a day.

Jackie Kelley nears Natchez.

“I wanted to be healthy and live for a long time,” Kelley said. “My granddaughters are only 10, and I want to see them grow up.”

Other than recent walks, the trip has been nice, she said. The recent all-consuming Mississippi summer heat has been tough, her blisters are brutal and recent walks have been in the dark to escape the heat.

“It felt good finishing even though last 97 miles were hardest part,” Kelley said.

Kelley said she has learned about Native American culture and history and uses for the Trace by stopping by exhibits along the way.

Kelley and her husband, Tom Windsperger, stayed in a cabin at the Natchez State Park for three nights while she worked to reach the “Terminus” at mile zero each morning, she said.

Windsperger has been her No. 1 supporter, Kelley said. He would drop her off as early as 4:30 a.m. at her starting point every day and occasionally pass her throughout the morning with a drink of water, she said.

“He’s the only crew I have,” Kelley said. “He’s my driver, my Gatorade man and my foot massager.”

Kelley said it felt great to reach her goal even if she didn’t end up losing a pound.

During her trip in some places, like in Port Gibson, Kelley said she would pass the same people on the Trace driving to work a few days in a row.

If she ever follows Davis’ lead and writes her own book about her journey, Kelley said it might be called, “If I ever waved to you.”

“I try to wave at everybody,” Kelley said.

In addition to following her own dream, Kelley said she hoped her example would encourage other older women to exercise and live a healthy life.