Grisamore: The long road back to Damascus

April 24, 2014 

Before she set out to hike the Appalachian Trail last spring, Cater Davis did her homework.

She studied trail maps and researched the longest marked footpath (2,180 miles) in the world. She had lunch with Macon’s Gene Espy, who in 1951 became only the second “through” hiker in history to complete the trail. (Espy will be 87 next week.)

Cater, a 2004 graduate of Mary Persons High School in Forsyth, saved her money. She worked at Ingleside Village Pizza. She did house cleaning and baby-sitting. Although her hiking experience was limited, she didn’t train much.

“I knew I could get in shape while I was walking it,” she said. “I could build up as I went along.”

For Cater, the trail required more of a mental and emotional toughness than posing any great physical challenge. She prepared for almost everything -- blisters, blustery winds, snakes and poison ivy.

She wasn’t prepared to be hit by a car.

A bit of a free spirit and adventurer, Cater began her solo journey March 20, 2013, the first day of spring.

“It’s a popular day to begin,” she said. “I knew there would be a lot of people on the trail. Since I was by myself, I was more comfortable with that. It also gave me a cushion to get to Maine before they closed the trail for winter.”

The weather was cold and windy in the beginning. The winter of 2013 did not want to yield the floor to springtime. It snowed when she reached Hiawassee in the north Georgia mountains.

Cater made friends along the way. Her colorful clothing earned her the trail name Rainbow Bright. She would call her mother, Carolyn Bittick, and father, Mark Davis, along the way to let them know where she was and that she was doing OK.

Hikers often live in their own world, insulated from outside news events. Cater had stopped for supplies in a trail town along the way when she heard about the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon one year ago this week.

Little did she realize a different kind of terror awaited her on the trail ahead.

She and several of her hiking buddies stopped in Damascus, Va., for the annual Trail Days Festival. Four scenic trails converge in the small community along the Tennessee border. The festival draws about 20,000 people each year, and one of the most popular events is the Hikers Parade.

It was May 18. Cater was enjoying the Saturday afternoon. Hikers and spectators were laughing and shooting each other with water guns along the parade route.

She was walking across a bridge when she heard the screams behind her. She thought somebody must be joking around.

She turned just in time to see the car.

Mark Davis, a jail maintenance supervisor with law enforcement in Bibb County, got a phone call.

“Someone told me my daughter made the national news,” Davis said. “She was run over by a car in a parade. And I said: ‘Do what?’ ”

Authorities said an elderly man was driving a 1997 Cadillac near the rear of the parade when he had an unspecified medical problem. He lost control and plowed into dozens of hikers in front of him. About 60 people were injured and taken by ambulance and helicopters to area hospitals. There were no fatalities.

Cater had little or no time to react.

“We were bottlenecked on the bridge,” she said. “I don’t remember being hit or falling, but I reached up and held onto the bumper so I wouldn’t be pulled underneath. I was wondering if I was going to die. My leg was throbbing.”

She was one of the last hikers struck by the moving vehicle. She was beneath the charcoal-gray car when it stopped. A wire service photograph of Cater being treated for her injuries just a few feet from the car appeared in newspapers and on TV news shows.

When Cater called her mom from the hospital. Carolyn had not heard about the episode in Damascus.

“She said she was at the hospital and needed my Social Security number,” Carolyn said. “She didn’t tell me she had been hit by a car. I didn’t know any of the details until we drove to Asheville the next day to pick her up.”

Cater sustained abrasions on her legs -- she called it “road rash” -- and broke the baby toe on her right foot. She knew she would have to recover from her foot injury before she could resume her hike. She went home for six weeks.

“She kept telling me she was lucky she wasn’t seriously hurt, and I said: ‘Cater, it’s more profound than that.’ It was a miracle.”

Cater returned to the trail in early June, but she did not pick up where she left off near Damascus. She met up with some hiking friends about 400 miles to the north, in Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., to resume her journey.

“A lot of people on the trail knew who I was when I went back,” she said. “They said, ‘Oh, you’re Rainbow Bright!’ I became a ‘trailebrity’ (trail celebrity).”

Once she reached the trail’s end in Maine, she caught a bus and train to Harper’s Ferry, where she doubled back (known as a “flip flopper”) to complete the final leg of her trip.

She was determined to take care of her unfinished business. Counting all the detours, it had taken her nine months and nine days.

Cater is now a guide for Second Nature Wilderness Therapy, a camping and hiking program based in Clayton that works with adolescents with behavioral, emotional and substance abuse issues.

As she reflects on her hiking memories of a year ago, she understands it could have been tragic.

Although the road back to Damascus did not follow a straight path, she is grateful for happy trails.

Reach Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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