Mel Ames trains all fall and winter for the Trailblazer challenge, held in the spring. She hikes local trails, at Crowders Mountain and Kings Mountain parks and also hikes whenever she travels.
The Trailblazer Challenge is a 28.3 mile hike on the Foothills Trail, beginning at the Upper Whitehalls Falls and ending in Oconee, South Carolina. Seventy hikers embark on this journey, which begins with training months ahead of time, and raising pledges of support along the way. Maddie had heard about the event at work, and suggested that her family participate in the upcoming spring hike.
“Twenty-eight miles?” responded Mel. “No way! Next subject.”
That was almost the end of that. But then she reconsidered.
“Christmas was over, and I was feeling kind of sluggish in January.
Ruby, one of Mel’s two Corgies, often join her on hikes. Above Ruby sports the blue bandana
worn by hikers on the Trailblazer Challenge.
I needed something to give me a jump start, and decided to do the Trailblazer Challenge.”
Mel’s husband Todd was easy to convince to join the effort. Both Mel and Todd enjoy hiking, and were excited about helping the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They also enlisted the participation of fellow Lake Wylie residents, Rose and Bill Cummings.
“We decided to participate as a team,” said Mel. “That way, we could encourage each other through the training process, go on hikes together and help each other with fundraising.”
The Trailblazer Challenge is limited to 70 hikers each year, and participants must raise a certain amount of funds to participate. “If one team member is a super fundraiser, then their total can work to meet the minimum amount for a team,” Mel said.
As a former president of the Clover Choraliers Booster Board, Mel is no stranger to fundraising. Using social media, Mel let her large list of contacts know about her mission. She invited friends to join her at fundraising events such as a “Wine and Paint” party, a huge “Cosmic Make-a-Wish” community yard sale and a birthday party where donations were received in lieu of gifts.
The most successful fundraiser that Mel designed, however, involved the four-legged members of the Ames family, a pair of Corgies. Mel dressed her dogs, Ruby and Lewie, and posted pictures of the pups donned in Valentine’s Day attire, Mardi Gras garb, and even formal gowns for Oscar night whenever she received new donations. This kept her effort top-of-mind on social media.
While fundraising, Mel and her team kept busy training for their big hike. “We named their team “The Blue Blazes.” Mel started out with small hikes, and worked explained, “Blazes are the trail markers — our way up to 16 and 20-mile hikes. We’d ribbons or painted symbols — that identify a hike trails that were close by like Crowder’s trail. We chose blue, the color of the Make-Mountain and Kings Mountain.” The group a-Wish logo.”
“Plus, it described our thoughts as in, “What in the Blue Blazes were we thinking?” She laughed.
The Make-a-Wish Foundation does its part in preparing hikers for the challenge by organizing bi-weekly hikes, plus tips on endurance.
“Feet, knees, and hydration — those are the biggies,” said Mel. Tips from other hikers, plus internet research helped Mel prepare her feet, with a recipe of lambswool socks, sock liners, and proper fitting hiking shoes. A CamelBak hydration pack, worn as a backpack, holds a supply of water for the hike.
In May 2015, team Blue Blazes took to the trail — a 12-hour trek.
“The whole group of hikers stayed together in a hotel the night before the hike. We had a dinner the night before, met other hikers, and shared stories about what motivated us to do the challenge,” she said.
Hikers were motivated by stories from families of “wish kids,” members of the Foundation and fellow hikers. Plenty of pasta was served to help participants “carb up” before the next day.
The day of the hike, wake up call was at 3a.m. and hikers were in position at the trail-head well before dawn. Mel and her team finished in about twelve hours. “It isn’t a race, it’s a journey,” said Mel, repeating the mantra of the foundation.
“There were aid stations along the way as well, where we’d stop for a quick rest, some snacks, Band-Aids for blisters, and re-supply our water. The folks at the aid stations would make sure everyone was ‘hale and hearty’ and able to continue on,” she said.
Some hikers set off alone, but the Blue Blazes hiked as a team. “We decided to stick together unless one member couldn’t go on and had to drop out at one of the check-in stations. During the last couple of miles, one of our team members was really dragging, and we pepped her up so we could all finish together,” Mel said.
The event itself was unforgettable for Mel and her team. All hikers wore bandanas to identify them as part of the challenge. “People wrote on their bandanas and decorated them in different ways. I wrote the names of everyone who had donated, so I could carry them along with me on the trail, metaphorically,” said Mel.
The morning after the hike, all participants gathered for a celebration breakfast. People shared stories about adventures on the trail, self-discovery and what motivated them to participate and finish the Challenge.
“It was really emotional,” said Mel. “I also got to see first-hand how Make-a-Wish makes a huge difference in the lives of children and their families, after meeting some of the volunteers and participants who had personal experiences and stories to share.”
Last year, Mel’s daughter Maddie joined the team. It turned out to be a special moth.er-daughter experience, training, fundraising, and hiking together. Since their first hike, Mel and her team have raised over $15,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The family will again be participating in the Spring Trailblazer Challenge, which takes place in May.
“It’s a huge time commitment, and a lot of work getting ready,” said Mel. “But the rewards are so much greater than the effort.”
For more information about the Trailblazer Challenge, and how you can participate or support, visit trailblazechallenge. kintera.org.