Helena Magazine

The trail will provide: Leslie Ingle finds meaning and healing in the footsteps of her son on the Appalachian Trail

Published 10:54 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2023

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Written by Donald Mottern

Photos by Jeremy Raines and Contributed

On March 14, 2014, Leslie Ingle and her family watched as her son, Bragan, set off on an adventure. At just 23 years old, he departed on his expedition to through-hike the Appalachian Trail, a quest that would take him from the trail’s southernmost beginnings in Georgia to its northern terminus in Maine. For Bragan, it was a trip that took just over six months to complete.

Seven years later, to the very day, Bragan Ingle passed away and set out on another journey. The date of Bragan’s passing and its coinciding to his setting out on the trail was initially missed by his family, Leslie included. According to Ingle, it was Bragan’s aunt that first made the connection.

“A few days after his death my sister called me and she said, ‘Do you realize this is the day he left for his worldly adventure, and it’s the same day he began his journey to heaven.’”

To Ingle, the coinciding of the two events and them sharing the same date was something more than a mere coincidence.

“She had journaled that day (back in 2014) about how we felt that morning when we saw him just walking off into the woods—that was a hard day for me,” Ingle said. “I didn’t know what would happen or if he would be safe, but he was never happier than how he felt on the trail. She read me her journal entry about how he was leaving to find peace and how peaceful he looked when he left and when she read it was so uncanny to me.”

Following his passing, Ingle, with the rest of her family, grieved as a family does after facing such a tragic loss. Ingle, who describes her son Bragan as having been, “the light of her life,” was adamant not to spend another anniversary of his passing sitting in an all too familiar grief.

“For the second anniversary, I thought that I am not going to just sit at home and grieve, I am going to do something he enjoyed and that he was passionate about,” Ingle said. “I decided that I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail starting on March 14. I told my family about six months before the date was coming, and I got a lot of laughs.”

The announcement came as a shock to many of her family members who had never known Ingle as one that would ever take on such a journey. Although she had day-hiked many times before and, like the rest of her family, shared a loved for the outdoors, she had never once stayed in the woods by herself. Nevertheless, as her decision turned from a declaration into an established determination, they all supported her in the endeavor.

“I started preparing, I’d lay in bed at night just thinking of what I needed to do to do this, but by-golly I was leaving on March 14 and I was going to start where he did, at Springer Mountain, Georgia,” Ingle said. “I started watching YouTube videos, following people who were out there and seeing what they were doing. I really started researching gear, I went to REI and frequenting Mountain High, I made friends at both places.”

As she prepared for the day, she learned about things she had not even considered. Everything from how to strap her backpack correctly and how to properly pack and distribute the weight of her equipment were welcome learning experiences.

Ingle purchased a sleeping bag and bought a tent. She even spent a night in her own backyard to prove to herself that she could do it.

“It was fun, and it became reality,” She said.

When the day, March 14, 2023 finally arrived, her sister graciously agreed to set out with her from Springer Mt., Georgia and accompanied her for the first week of the trek. The family rented a cabin there and wished her well as the two set forth.

“I did not know how long I would be out there,” Ingle said. “I just said that I am going to go on March 14 and if I stay a day, two days, or if I stayed a month, I knew there were places that I wanted to see. I thought that if I could just make it the 50 miles to the Georgia-North Carolina border I would be happy.”

The first night of her journey was a trying one, with the temperature falling down to 19 degrees Fahrenheit and wind gusts passing over 40 miles-per-hour. Despite those conditions, neither Ingle or her sister were deterred and their equipment managed to keep them safe from the elements better than either of them had expected.

“The first night was scary for me, it was something that I wasn’t used to,” she said. “But, we got up that morning, packed up and off we went.”

On the third night, after having stayed in a hostel for the second due to the harsh conditions, they were left with nowhere to stay. Having only booked their beds for the one night, they were left with no other option but to contact another hostel further up the road, only to find that they too were booked full. However, from there they were put into contact with a shuttle driver that could take them to Dahlonega, Georgia, where they could find a place to stay.

In another aligning of the past, that driver, who went by his trail-name, Zig-Zag, had known Bragan well. He had hiked with him and knew Ingle from both his interaction with Bragan and seeing her posts on Facebook about setting out on the hike.

While taking Ingle and her sister into Dahlonega, he told her that her son had been only one of the three people that he considered to have made a significant impact on his life. To heighten the connection, he also informed her, while they sat down for dinner in the town, that their meeting had occurred on the anniversary of the first time he had met Bragan. It had been St. Patrick’s Day weekend while he and Bragan hiked the trail in 2014.

For Ingle, this too was not a coincidence, but a sign that she was on the right path.

In little time, the first week had passed and Ingle’s sister returned home, but as they parted ways that first time, Ingle was compelled to continue on. She had caught the same calling and love for the trail that had enraptured Bragan years before.

“Then I just decided, ‘I can do this, I can stay,’” Ingle said. “I met a few other hikers that we were kind of following along at the same pace and I met a really nice hiker girl, a nurse from Canada, and she and I started sticking together and we ended up making it to the 50-mile Georgia-North Carolina border together.”

As she crossed into North Carolina, and surpassed her original goal, she took her picture next to the iconic oak tree at Bly Gap. With each milestone, Ingle was reminded of the photographs and phone calls that had come from Bragan in 2014.

In her own excitement, she remembered her son’s descriptions of the places she now saw herself and felt the same sense of happiness in reaching them that she knew her son had felt. Adding to this, she had also decided to use her son’s trekking poles, the same ones that had made the trip once before, which only added to the sense of the connection that drove her forward.

“I actually would get up a mountain and take the many breaks and turn—looking down—and rest my chin on (the trekking poles) to take deep breaths and talk to (Bragan),” she said.

There is a long-held tradition in the world of long-distance hiking, especially prevalent along the Appalachian Trail, where a hiker might be bestowed a trail name.

“One day I hiked, and I sat down by a creek by myself,” Ingle said. “There I met some really nice ladies that came up from Florida and were hiking together. They asked me what brought me out to the trail and something led me to tell them—I was having a hard day.”

With tears in her eyes, she told these women about the loss of her son and about how she had set forth on her current journey, and explained how it had been a hard but incredibly rewarding experience. After resting, Ingle then hiked together with these women until reaching the next shelter together. The next morning, as everyone readied for another day on the trail, one of the women bestowed Leslie with a trail name. That name, Tribute, is one she has gladly used ever since.

Those women, the nurse from Canada, and so many others were just a few of the faces that Ingle met along the way. She openly describes how she never once felt threatened by anyone while out on the trail and how she only encountered what she describes as the nicest people you can meet.

One night, while Ingle slept in a tent near a shelter, she heard the unmistakable sounds of a bear ripping through the provisions and bags that belonged to her and five other hikers. In the morning, her and the other hikers were left with nothing in the terms of food. With days left between her and the next destination of Franklin, North Carolina, she was left in a rather dire position, if not for the kindness of others.

“There is this saying on the trail, among hikers, that the trail will provide and that couldn’t be truer,” she said.

Other hikers helped to provide them with food for that morning and they were able to locate a road where they could be picked up and taken into Franklin. There they stayed, resupplied, and set out again the next morning.

“There is just something that draws you back,” Ingle said. “There is something about the peace out there that it gives you and the feeling of accomplishment that makes you want to keep going. I did have days where it was really tough and challenging—it’s the most challenging thing for sure that I’ve ever done—but yet, I will definitely say that it is the most rewarding.”

For Ingle, the entire trip was a vast painting of emotion and healing where she felt connected to her son in a way she had not felt since his passing.

“I felt connected to him the entire time that I was out there,” she said. “I really feel like he was with me all of the way. I could just feel it. I felt that he was probably laughing at me at times, sometimes like he was pushing me and telling me I could do it. There were times that I would get discouraged, but the most emotional moment I had was when I got to the Nantahala Outdoor Center.”

Coming at the end of a three-day session in harsh conditions and hot weather, this final approach was no more than .8 miles away. Tired, and filthy from the elements, she started the final approach toward the outdoor center. It was a place that Bragan had fallen in love with and at one point he’d even expressed a desire to return and work there.

“I already started hearing the water flowing—and it was loud—and I could hear people,” Ingle said. “I thought it was beautiful, I just saw all of this beautiful greenery—the hints of spring. Everything was coming into bloom and it was just the most beautiful short .8 miles I went. I cried the entire time.”

All in all, after not knowing if she would make it through the first night on her journey, Ingle has currently completed 230 miles of the Appalachian Trail. She has had company in her sister, her brother-in-law, her husband and a few friends along many of those miles as well, all of which have been immensely supportive of her traveling of the trail.

She has returned home several times during the process, such as for Easter Sunday and the birth of her grandson. Currently, she has been back home since accomplishing another milestone over the July fourth weekend when she returned to the trail with a friend. That last outing, which she realizes will be the last for a while, was one she greatly cherished.

“We went and did the triple crown in Virginia,” Ingle said. “It’s a 30-plus mile trek and you hike to three places that have really high elevation. One is called McAfee Knob, it’s the most photographed spot on the trail and I really wanted to get there, because I have a picture of Bragan sitting there.”

Carefully inching close to the edge of the cliffside, she was able take a picture at McAfee Knob in the same position that Bragan had his own picture taken years prior.

Over the weekend, Ingle and her friend were able to complete the triple crown, which starts with the Dragon’s Tooth, carries on to McAfee Knob and concludes with the climb of Tinker Cliffs. It was challenging, at times treacherous, but Ingle was set on completing it. It was simply another stage of the trail that calls to her each and every time she leaves it.

“The trail definitely helped me,” Ingle said. “I just feel like life is a journey. What I gained out there—the strength that it gave me to move forward and having that accomplishment—and feeling so connected to him has changed me. I could have, and I would have, sat home and cried on March 14, but every March 14 is now going to be something I am going to do to pay tribute and honor his life. Because that is what he would want me to do. I am going to do that and it probably will be somewhere on the trail again March 14 of next year. There’s so much—so many miles—still left to cover.”

While she does not know when she might be able to depart again on the trail, she knows that there will be more trips and more sections of the trail that she will get to see just as Bragan did.

“I’m not the same person that walked into those woods that first day,” she said. “I am different now, I’m stronger physically, mentally and spiritually. It changed me and I am not the same person since last coming out July fourth weekend. It keeps drawing me back because I am already thinking about the next destination. I do, one day, want to summit at Mt. Katahdin—that is a big goal. I’m so grateful that he got to experience that because that was the happiest time of his life. He was healthy out there, he made good friends.”

As the saying goes, the trail provides. For Leslie Ingle, it will continue to do so. It provides connection, meaning, an opportunity for growth and a vestige of continued experiences that she can share with her son.