Cancer survivor, retired attorney finds life lessons on hiking trails


After Charli Fulton, 72, was diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer in January 2021, she had six months of grueling chemotherapy and a complex Whipple procedure surgery at UW Health that rearranged her digestive system.

This summer, she hiked more than 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago, in northern Spain.

It was the most recent of several long-distance hikes for Fulton, who in 2019 moved to Madison from West Virginia to be closer to her sister, Diane Fulton, of Middleton. Charli Fulton, who spent her high school years in Brookfield, worked for 32 years as an attorney in West Virginia, retiring in 2012 as senior assistant attorney general for the state.

In 2017, two years after her husband died from kidney cancer, Fulton hiked all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail. In 2019, at age 69, she hiked the 1,142 miles of the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin; she remains the trail’s oldest female thru-hiker, according to Ice Age Trail Alliance records. She also hiked nearly 300 miles of the Allegheny Trail, in 2018.

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Fulton also likes quilting, for which she uses Japanese shibori techniques.

What draws you to long-distance hiking?

I really have no idea, but I know what made me want to hike the Appalachian Trail. It’s such an amazing, grand idea, to have a trail that goes from Georgia all the way to Maine. I met two people who had done it. I started reading people’s journals and got more drawn to it. I always liked to walk. My husband had been a hiker, but his knees were really bad. When he died, I thought, this is my chance. It changed my entire life, to hike that trail.

Charli with Camino map

The Camino de Santiago includes a network of hiking routes, or pilgrimages, leading to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Charli Fulton hiked the Camino del Norte, near the Atlantic Ocean. On her map, the route is shown in blue. 

What did you get out of hiking the Appalachian Trail?

I learned that I am a really courageous person. I can do things that terrify me. I knew I was morally courageous; I’ve taken stands on issues that were unpopular. But I’d never gone out in places where I was physically terrified and gone ahead and done it anyway.

One day, we were fording a river. It had been raining for 48 hours, so the river was way higher than normal. I fell in and got swept down the river. I aimed myself toward a rock. I grabbed hold of the rock and pulled myself out.

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Then there were days we were on top of the White Mountains (in New Hampshire). It was really windy, like 50 miles per hour. You’re on this narrow path. It’s so foggy, you can hardly see. And there were really steep rock places you’d have to crawl down. Once you know you can do things that terrify you, fear is way less important. It’s just something you notice.

What was the most memorable part of hiking the Ice Age Trail?

I saw more wildlife on that trail. I got to see a bear up close, clawing on a tree, trying to get food. One night, we were camping near a trailhead parking lot. In the morning, we saw two dead coyotes right in the parking lot. We just didn’t notice them before. We crossed a lot of beaver dams, but I didn’t see any beavers.

Appalachian Trail memorabilia

Charli Fulton’s first long-distance hike was the Appalachian Trail in 2017.

Probably the most memorable part was getting taken home and put up for two days by people who didn’t even know us. We were in a little town with an ice cream parlor (the Main Scoop, in Cornell), talking to the owners, a husband and wife. They put us up, fed us and entertained us.

Why did you do the Camino de Santiago, not long after being treated for pancreatic cancer?

It was sort of a test of my new digestive system, to see if it would work well enough for me to continue to do long-distance hiking. I didn’t think I could consume enough calories to keep my body going. But my digestive system passed the test with flying colors. Other than the day I ate a tomato, which I knew I shouldn’t eat, everything was good. That was the only emergency bathroom day.

I mostly ate Spanish omelets and ham-and-cheese sandwiches. I only lost five pounds, and I’ve managed to gain three of them back.

The Camino is a religious pilgrimage. I’m not religious, but I’m really thankful that I survived. I figured it would be good thing to do a trail like that, to be thankful that you’re alive.

Charli with quilt

A cancer survivor, retired lawyer and avid hiker, Charli Fulton also likes to quilt, using Japanese shibori techniques. A few of her quilts hang in her house on Madison’s West Side.

Why is your hiking name “Sturdy Peasant?”

My mother grew up in Newfoundland before it was part of Canada. When I was kid and complained that something was too hard, she always said I could do it because I came from sturdy peasant stock. It was an aspirational name when I took it. I feel like I’ve earned it, and now it’s a total part of my identity. It helped get me through the cancer, the chemo.

I’m thinking about the East Coast Trail, which is in the eastern part of Newfoundland. I’m also thinking of the Sheltowee Trace Trail in Kentucky and the Centennial Trail in South Dakota. I’m going to Florida in January, and I think I’m going to hike part of the Florida Trail. I’m hoping I don’t get obsessed and spend the whole month hiking. I’m scared of alligators, and they do have a lot of snakes.

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What life lessons have you learned from these long hikes?

People are so kind. It’s reaffirming of your faith in people, especially when the politics of the day are so nasty and so hateful. When you meet people one on one, they’re so good to each other. When you meet people on trails, they open up and tell you about their whole life. Everybody has a life story, and they’re all interesting. In normal life, you don’t have the opportunity to listen.

“I learned that I am a really courageous person. I can do things that terrify me.”


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