It isn't the tallest mountain or the shortest. Little Crease Mountain has a more than1,000-foot incline with views of the Shenandoah Valley and the western and eastern Massanuteen ridges.
But for DonWitt Penn, it was more than that. It was the beginning of a new life.
In 2017, he stood with a group of hikers. Some experienced, some new. He strapped on a backpack with about 70 pounds of gear and headed up Little Crease Mountain not knowing what to expect. His only goal was to complete the trip.
“By the time the journey was complete and I realized what I had done, what I accomplished...it was like this overwhelming joy and I just wanted to do more it,” said Penn.
Between 2017 and 2018 he did about 50 hikes. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Penn took advantage of time off work and did more than 70 hikes that year alone.
“I got what they call a hiker’s itch and I just wanted to be outside hiking everywhere,” he said.
Penn’s love affair with hiking is a complicated one. For years he struggled with his weight and in 2016 he finally decided to move forward with gastric bypass surgery in hopes of helping with his weight loss journey. He weighed 500 pounds and has lost more than 200 pounds since his surgery.
“My surgeon said, ‘If you want to get the weight down, walk,’” said Penn. I wasn’t able to walk half a block without having pains and having to take about 1,500 to 1,600 milligrams of Motrin or something like that but I started walking.” Penn started walking in his Virginia neighborhood and eventually, the pain started to subside.
“I started finding other places I could go walking. I was excited. I went back to work and my supervisor was like have you tried walking in parks. It went from walking to hiking where I was climbing walls, jumping over rocks, and crossing streams."
By 2017, he was on Meetup looking for hiking groups and stumbled upon Goombay, an organization that conducts outdoor adventure programs and team sports for African-American adults and youth in the Washington, D.C. area.
“I saw the group on Meetup and was like, Black people do this? Okay, I think I can do it too. Here I am now, one of the administrators for Goombay,” said Penn who now leads backpacking and hiking trips.
In less than a year, hiking turned into backpacking where Penn found himself preparing for the Little Crease Mountain trip.
“I went on my first backpacking trip and I loved it. I packed everything. I was thinking I’m going into the woods overnight, I need everything. By the time I was halfway done. I was like I’m sending all of this stuff back to Amazon,” Penn joked.
Through Goombay, Penn who is affectionately known as Bear leads backpacking and hiking trips. Since 2017 he has backpacked and hiked parts of the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Zion National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and Red Rock Canyon.
Penn, 44, is about four years shy of retirement and says he is planning a six-month backpacking trip through the Appalachian Mountains which is about 2,193 miles from Georgia to Maine.
He has come a long way from his first backpacking trip of four miles and everything he is doing to preparing him for his plans to backpack the Appalachian Mountains. So far, he has tackled 50-mile trips and has another planned for 100 miles.
“When I started this, everybody was like are you afraid of what people can do to you out there?” Penn said. “I wasn’t scared of people at all. It was more about me and if I was cut out for this. On this journey, I have met so many people that have inspired me to do this.”
Support more stories like this one.
For $5 per month, you can support impactful and much-needed storytelling. As a premium subscriber, you also have the opportunity to engage with guests, suggest stories for our next journey, and gain subscriber-only access to behind-the-scenes footage and content as we document our journey.