The Goats of San Marino

The Goats of San Marino

Seven “real housewives” find strength, sisterhood and adventure by scaling the heights as a herd.

By Bettijane Levine 01/03/2014

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All I know about goats I learned from Heidi, the fictional child who lived high in the Swiss Alps. The goats were lovable characters, tough but gentle. They bolted up the steep, craggy mountainside every day until they reached a plateau, where they frolicked amid wildflowers and ate sweet grasses until night fell and their herder called.

Fast forward to San Marino, 2014, more than a century after Heidi was published. Here, a group of seven women have formed what they laughingly refer to as a “herd,” informally naming themselves “the Goats.” Their tale is sometimes hilarious, always inspirational, reminiscent in some ways of the children’s book written so long ago. In the book, Heidi found health, joy, freedom and friendship in her Alpine escapades. The Goats of San Marino say they’ve found similar bliss through extraordinary physical adventures that have made them stronger and healthier, and have bound them together as lifelong friends — adventures that none of them, as individuals, would have even dreamed of before they met.

It was sheer serendipity that they came together at all, says Goat Kelly Wilkniss, a practicing attorney until 2004 when she retired and moved to San Marino to take care of her family and do volunteer work. She’d been exercising regularly at the South Pasadena YMCA five years ago when she happened upon two women — also Y regulars — chatting in the foyer. “I didn’t really know them, but we’d seen each other around,” Wilkniss recalls. “One woman called out, ‘We’re going to climb Mt. Whitney. Do you want to come?’”

“It was so casual,” she continues, “sort of like ‘let’s have lunch.’ I said yes. I was flattered that they’d asked me. Then I went home and Googled Mt. Whitney and I was terrified. I saw this gigantic snow-covered mountain: the highest peak in the continental U.S., an elevation of 14,500 feet.”

Wilkniss is one of seven San Marino women — all wives and mothers (with a total of 21 children between them) between 40 and 50, and retired from various professions — who coalesced into the Mt. Whitney climbing group: Lynn Allen, Mary Blodgett, Connie Harding, Patti Koch, Val McAndrews, Louise Wardlaw and Wilkniss. Most hadn’t known each other before. Only one, retired attorney Blodgett, had experience mountain climbing. One had a fear of heights. Most had never slept in a tent, nor had they attempted such a monumental physical task.

McAndrews remembers that she, too, joined the climbing club with no particular expectations. “We all, coincidentally, exercised at our local YMCA. We started training in the hills here in Pasadena. We hiked behind the Santa Anita Mall. We hiked Mt. Lowe. We went to Palm Springs and hiked Mt. San Jacinto. We were almost all brand new to this; we were all busy with our families and volunteer work, but we managed to train once a week. We researched the Internet on what we needed for the climb, talked to experienced climbers to find out what we were getting ourselves into. We went to REI [sporting goods store], bought hiking boots, backpacks and other gear. We trained for about five months on a weekly basis.”

On Sept. 17, 2009, the group drove to Mt. Whitney, set up tents at an elevation of 8,000 feet and stayed the night to get acclimated to the altitude. They awoke at 3:30 the next morning and hit the trail by 4, wearing little lamps on their heads because it was still dark. They reached the summit in eight hours, signed their names in the register at the stone hut there maintained by the Smithsonian Institution. “We were thrilled,” McAndrews says. “Only a few who attempt this climb actually do reach the top, and most don’t do it in one day, as we did. We rested, enjoyed the vista for about half an hour, then did the hard descent down. We tore down the tents, drove into Lone Pine and went out to celebrate with a dinner of steak, potatoes and wine.”

In the five years since, the band of seven sisters has climbed the Half Dome in Yosemite (elevation 5,000 feet) and hiked from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to its North Rim in one day. They’ve hiked the canyons around Laguna Beach and Emerald Bay and competed in a local triathlon. “That was hilarious,” recalls Wilkniss, “because most of us are not great swimmers. I thought I was going to drown in the Rose Bowl pool.”

Wilkniss says the athletic accomplishments are important to them, but something even better has grown out of their exploits. “Rarely do you find a group of that many women who just gel the way we did,” she says. “Everybody brings something different to the table. Everybody is appreciated for just who they are.” Says McAndrews of their joint adventures: “We share everything on these hikes. We talk, we vent, we celebrate, we support and help each other. 

There’s no doubt we are going to [accomplish our goal], even if it means we have to carry each other. We are all different and have very different family lifestyles, but what we have in common is that we are all mothers, wives, college grads, voracious volunteers in our community. And we’re all healthy, although some more than others. That’s what’s really nice about this [group]. We have one woman who’s afraid of heights. We are sensitive to this — we help with the hurdles that each of us may have. I would never have had the courage, the perseverance to do any of this on my own. But we are seven women strong, and we assist each other.”

Wilkniss agrees that relationships are the most rewarding part of being a Goat: “The best thing about this has been the friendship and personal growth that comes from what we try to do. It’s really cool for my daughters to see this, to know that we plan and then we achieve. They get a sense of how special and important female friendship is, and how when you set your mind on something you can do it.”

Adds McAndrews, “I know I couldn’t have done any of [these challenges] without my group of supportive women. I tell people if you have something on your bucket list, grab a good friend and go do it together.”

Wilkness, in her blog at mysoulfulhome.com, summed it up this way: “At a stage when life becomes predictable, friendships take a back seat and laughing so hard it hurts doesn’t happen all that often, I have found adventure, acceptance and side-splitting silliness. The Goats have enhanced my life in so many ways. I know they each have my back on the trail and off, and I have theirs.”

Many women have asked if they can join the Goats. They can’t. It’s not that they’re excluding anyone. It’s simply that they’ve become a kind of close-knit family, and no one wants to tamper with their unique dynamic. But if there are any TV honchos out there looking to make an inspirational movie, or a real Real Housewives series, they ought to look in on the Goats of San Marino — a loving group of daring women who are much more than the sum of their parts. 

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