Outdoors: Ruthie’s Radiant Roamers

Women are no strangers to adventure: Consider the memoirs of Beryl Markham (West With the Night, 1942) and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (North to the Orient, 1935). These pioneering explorers inspired the next generation of women—including a group of Asheville moms who kept their feet on firm ground to hike the wilds of Western North Carolina.

Radiant, rambling women: Pictured in this 1980s photo, Ruthie Gibson (front right), Mimi Aldridge (rear right) and Mariella DuMont (second from left) on their weekly hike, joined by a few friends. Photo courtesy Mariella DuMont

Taking their first hike together in 1972, Ruthie Gibson, Mariella DuMont, Margie Abell and Mimi Aldridge dubbed themselves “Ruthie’s Radiant Roamers.” Adventures, they would tell you, don’t just happen: You create them. And, more importantly, you don’t need planes to become an explorer. You need only a map, a sense of humor, a penchant for fun, tea and cookies waiting in the car—and, most importantly, good friends.

The foursome set the bar high, aiming to hike every Tuesday without fail. That kind of time commitment might not work in today’s hectic world, but in a poem about their adventures, Mimi said the week between successive “walking, rambling and hiking” adventures seemed like an eternity. No one would have dreamed of missing a hike, and they kept up the routine for nearly 30 years.

That’s an impressive feat, considering that together, these women had 12 children and four husbands when they began their hiking ritual. Their inspiration came from overhearing a visitor to the area say that if she lived in Asheville, she would go hiking once a week. “Why not?” they thought to themselves. And so, says Mimi, “The start of the fun was planned by four very mature ladies who loved to explore.”

There were guidelines and plans to make, but fun was their goal. They kept the rules simple. On Mondays, Ruthie and Mariella planned the hike, reviewing maps and choosing routes. They based their picks on what wildflowers were blooming or leaves changing, spectacular views and ridgelines. Or, if you were the birthday girl, you decided the group’s course for the day. Tuesday morning, Ruthie’s phone would start ringing, as her Radiant Roamers asked where they were headed that day. By 8:30 a.m., they were on the road—sunshine, rain or snow.

In a concession to the children and husbands, they allowed themselves no more than two hours’ travel time from Asheville. The hikes varied in length from eight to 10 miles and sometimes required a shuttle (in those cases, cooperative husbands were recruited for chauffeur duty). They’d all be home by dinnertime (5:30 to 6 p.m.). Or, they would laughingly tell you, they tried to be home by dinnertime. When it comes to adventuring, you have to allow for the unplanned.

Naturally, there were rattlesnakes and bees. But DuMont also recalls working their way through thickets of what they termed “the rhododoldrums,” stopping for lengthy discussions of “Do we descend or do we climb?” and fearing they would “walk straight off the map.” The women tell of mishaps, wrong turns, bushwhacking their way along a creek bank to find the nearest road, wondering in which direction the car might lie, and wading through rushing waters when bridges they were counting on had been washed out (holding trousers and shoes high over their heads as they crossed).

Then there was the time a bear tore into Ruthie’s jeep, eating everything he found but—fortunately—missing the carrot cake with caramel icing.

Such misadventures spurred a new rule: On hike day, make no evening plans. The Tuesday hikes also spurred traditions. In the summer, they had iced tea with mint and lemonade; in winter, it was Russian tea (both were Aldridge’s specialties). Poems were written and shared for the birthday girl. Lunch was at noon, no matter what, and DuMont served Fig Newtons for a treat. Ruthie kept morale up by coaxing newcomers and flatlanders along with hard candy and tales of victory. Once a year, they took a weeklong camping trip that enabled them to range farther from town than their usual hiking ventures. Their families also gathered for many a shared party, picnic or holiday celebration.

The women kept records, too. At first, it was just a calendar inscribed with such simple notes as, “Hiked today … rain.” Later reports grew more detailed—and then there was the monster poem by Aldridge describing every year of their hikes. They also kept scrapbooks, boxes of photographs, journals and even newspaper articles (Ruthie’s Radiant Ramblers were the berry-picking ladies in the Sept. 4, 1977, Asheville Citizen-Times). There was also Ruthie’s self-published book, Out Under the Sky, which provided directions and descriptions of some of their favorite hikes.

But don’t call them a club; they were never, ever one of those. The photos and journals recording their hikes represent more a road map of their friendship than a route from one ridge to another. These weekly hikes were fun—pure, laughing-your-head-off fun with friends, one day out of each week. Ruthie’s Radiant Roamers created something special, something we long for even more than adventure—a place where we’re accepted, where we belong.

Nowadays, the women are separated by age and time. Ruthie died in 2006. Their Tuesday hikes live on with family and friends who tagged along in later years. I doubt that any of the foursome imagined their first hike would turn into 30 years of adventures, but things sometimes take on a life of their own. As Mimi aptly sums it up:

“So, thirty years it sounds like a lot
Maybe we should quit? Ha! Never!
We know this to be eternal truth
The time between hikes seems like forever!”

[Cinthia Milner lives in Leicester.]

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