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The Long and Winding Road
New Albany couple completes 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail hike

TUPELO • When Wayne and Margaret VanLandingham retired, they set their sights on hiking all 2,193 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

The New Albany couple achieved that goal in March 2022 after hiking through 14 states in four seasons across all 12 months of the year.

Having each read several books about hiking the trail, Margaret, 59, and Wayne, 64, made their own plans to take on the trail in 2018, the year Wayne VanLandingham retired. The couple researched and purchased their gear in 2019, the year Margaret VanLandingham retired.

The VanLandinghams started their long hike on March 15, 2020, following a family vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. But just four days into their hike, the journey was cut short when the spread of COVID-19 across the country forced trails to close.

Their dream was put on hold for more than a year.

The VanLandinghams restarted their trek on April 17, 2021, and finished March 4, 2022. They did six-and-a-half months of active walking during that time.

They resumed their trek at Neels Gap in Georgia, the place they'd stopped when the pandemic began. Heading north, they hiked to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and got off the trail.

To avoid weather-related closures towards the end of their journey, they traveled from Harpers Ferry up to Maine, crested the summit of Mount Katahdin and worked their way south until they got back to their stopping point in West Virginia.

After that, they only had a small section of the hike to complete — the portion they'd completed before having to stop for the pandemic.

For the second time, the VanLandinghams hiked the first 40 miles of the trail and descended the 604 steps at Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, Georgia, to complete their journey.

"We weren't experienced hikers," Wayne VanLandingham said. "We weren't experienced campers. There wasn't anything extraordinary about us, but we did it."

Prepping for the trek

When the VanLandinghams began their hike, it was a first for the couple. Although they'd biked the Tanglefoot Trail, they’d never hiked it. And aside from the occasional 1-mile trail on trips to Gatlinburg, the VanLandinghams had no hiking experience.

"We were not hikers or campers or backpackers," Wayne VanLandingham said.

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, more than 3,000 people attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail each year, with only about a quarter finishing it.

In the beginning, it seemed they might be among those that wouldn’t finish the feat.

"That first 8 miles from Amicalola Falls to Spring Mountain, that's called the approach trail," Wayne said. "It's not even included in the AT. I told Margaret, 'If it's all like this, we'll never make it.'"

But following guidance they'd given their children years earlier, the VanLandinghams were determined to finish what they'd started. After all, they'd spent months and months preparing for this.

They each carried a backpack filled with hundreds of dollars of gear. They stopped for food, supplies and overnight stays in hostels throughout the journey.

The couple encountered most everything they'd been warned about in the books before setting out: Heat, sweat, cold, wet, mud, bugs, snakes and bears.

But there are some things no hiker can prepare for.

The long and winding road

The VanLandinghams decided during their preparation for the hike that they would only get off the trail because of injury, illness or a family emergency.

By the end of their thru-hike, they came off the trail a total of four times for various reasons: doctor’s appointments and rehab; the birth of a grandson and the death of a nephew; the admittance of a Wayne VanLandingham’s sister into hospice care; and two cataract surgeries for Margaret VanLandingham.

The couple had their share of milestones during the hike as well. Each celebrated a birthday on the trail; the couple celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary; and they spent Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day hiking.

"It made you realize, 'I did that. I climbed that mountain. I came off that mountain, and we made it," Margaret VanLandingham said.

They made memories hiking in the snow, waking up inside a frost-covered tent and spending an entire day sheltered in the tent during a round of thunderstorms.

Along the way, the VanLandinghams ran into many friendly hikers — from meeting a fellow hiker from Massachusetts who later picked them up and took them to his house for showers and a meal to people making "trail magic," which is setting up to provide snacks, meals and drinks for thru-hikers.

The VanLandinghams found everyone they met along the trail more than willing to help their fellow hikers. Wayne VanLandingham joked that stopping to talk with strangers along the way added a month-and-a-half to their journey.

When the VanLandinghams reached the end of the trail at Amicalola Falls in March 2022, all of the aches and weariness faded away, replaced by excitement by the accomplishment.

"Somebody asked us, 'How are you going to celebrate when you get to the end? Are you going to have champagne on ice?'" Wayne VanLandingham said.

He paused, then added with a laugh, "I said, 'Well, I was thinking more about knees on ice.'"

Finishing the trail was a bittersweet moment, Margaret VanLandingham said.

"You're happy to be through because you can come home," she said. "But you're going to miss it. Because it was good exercise. You felt good."

Sharing the experience together

Despite all of the breathtaking scenery and friends they made along the way, the couple's favorite part of hiking the Appalachian Trail was sharing the experience together.

"It was a partnership," Margaret VanLandingham said.

Some couples split up on the trail, with the husband or wife walking ahead at their own pace. But not the VanLandinghams. They spent nearly all of their time on the trail hiking at least within sight of each other.

"We've always done things together," Wayne VanLandingham said. "From going to college football games when the kids were growing up to white water rafting, snow skiing, skydiving."

The couple's next adventures include kayaking the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and hiking the Natchez Trace.

Whether people decide to hike from Georgia to Maine or vice versa, Wayne VanLandingham encourages others to find their own Appalachian Trail.

"That might be taking care of a sick loved one. It's the same thing," he said. "It's something hard, you stick with it, you get it done. If that's hiking, being a caregiver or walking around your block — don't focus on what you can't do. Focus on what you can do."

Gov. Tate Reeves signs Mississippi's largest tax cut into law

JACKSON • Gov. Tate Reeves has signed the largest tax cut in Mississippi's history into law, significantly reducing the revenue of a state with abject poverty, vast health disparities, underfunded public schools, crumbling infrastructure and embattled state agencies.

The cut, signed by the governor on Tuesday, is expected to slash state revenue collections by around $525 million over a four-year period.

“Literally every Mississippian who pays income taxes in our state will have the opportunity to send less of their money to the government and the ability to keep more of their money,” Reeves said.

The bill would do away with the state's 4% income tax bracket within the first year of the plan’s implementation, which would cost the state around $185 million.

During the second year, the 5% tax rate would be reduced to 4.7%. In the third year, it would drop to 4.4%, and after the fourth year, it would go to 4%.

Mississippi currently has a gradual income tax system. Now that the tax cut is law, it would eventually leave a flat 4% rate for all earned income over $10,000.

Supporters of the new law believe the historic tax cut could create untold economic growth and prevent young Mississippians from leaving the state.

Critics of the plan say it’s laughable for state leaders to think that low taxes will retain population and spur economic growth, given the litany of problems that state has yet to resolve.

Mississippi has a long list of well-documented issues, including two lengthy lawsuits against state agencies and crumbling infrastructure. State government has also rarely funded public schools to the level required by a statutory funding formula.

The state income tax accounts for around one-third of state revenue.

Even though the tax cut plan does away with the bottom tax brackets, the state’s wealthiest citizens would benefit the most from reducing the income tax because they pay the most now.

Republican House leaders and Gov. Tate Reeves strongly advocated for legislation to eliminate the income tax, but the Senate pushed back on that notion, believing the state could not afford to completely abolish the tax.

But the bill does contain a clause that makes it clear the intent of the Legislature to revisit the issue in 2026 and completely abolish the income tax.

"Just Try One Bite," a children's book by Adam Mansbach and Camila Alves McConaughey and illustrated by Mike Boldt, pokes fun at parents who are junk-food lovers.

Tupelo Council sets rules for growing, selling medical marijuana

TUPELO • The Tupelo City Council has set the rules for growing and selling medical marijuana within the city.

Following a final, silent public hearing set to discuss the city’s plans for governing the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana throughout Tupelo, city officials voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve an ordinance that took weeks to shape.

A crowd of roughly two dozen people attended the public hearing, which preceded the council’s vote, although no one spoke either for or against the city’s proposed ordinance.

Drafted using existing laws governing liquor sales and pharmacies as a base, the ordinance prohibits cannabis facilities from locating within 1,000 feet of churches, schools and childcare centers.

The guidelines passed by the council include some tweaks from the version approved by the Tupelo Planning Committee on March 21: According to board attorney Ben Logan, officials removed their previously added restriction prohibiting marijuana growers and sellers from locating within 1,000 feet of correctional facilities and funeral homes.

“They weren’t churches per se, and there are only five or six (funeral homes) in Tupelo,” Logan told the Daily Journal Tuesday morning. “There was no definition of church in the legislature. We didn’t want to have that subject to challenge.”

The buffer can be reduced to 500 feet with a waiver from the protected place.

Dispensaries are also prohibited from locating within 1,500 feet of other dispensaries and are disallowed from establishing within the Fairgrounds subdistrict. City Planner Jenny Savely previously said this was because the administration is focusing on the residential growth of the area, and it is one of the few neighborhoods in a mixed-use zone.

City officials also added a permit and “nominal administrative fee” for those opening a medical cannabis facility. Logan said the exact fee would be established at a later date, and that money would go to pay the costs of reviewing and processing permits.

He noted those interested in establishing a medical cannabis facility would need to obtain a privilege license and building permit as well.

The city also added extra concessions to cultivation and processing facilities. Any facility with a growing space over 15,000 square feet will need planning committee approval.

Logan said those interested in opening a medical cannabis facility should contact the city planner with a letter of intent to kick off the process, advising that potential growers or sellers communicate with the city before starting the process of obtaining their licenses from the state.

“Get your place in the queue before you go off to Jackson and figure out you can’t have (a facility),” Logan said.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Janet Gaston asked Logan when the earliest dispensaries would reasonably have medical cannabis to distribute. Because any medical marijuana sold within Mississippi must also be sourced within the state, the earliest the city could expect business to start up would be December or January.