It started innocently enough. My freshman year college roommate came home from dinner with her friend and announced to me, “I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail when I graduate.” Having never heard of this trail, and having dabbled in hiking while growing up and becoming more interested in overnight backpacking trips, I was intrigued. As we talked about the AT that night, I promptly decided that I would hike the trail with her when we both graduated.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
When I began my first—and even second—long-distance hike, it was never my intention to become a triple-crown hiker. My intention when I started the Appalachian Trail was to hike the entire 2,175-ish miles of it in one fell swoop, arriving victoriously at the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine, fit and ready for anything. I would go back to my hometown in Pennsylvania, find a legitimate job, and move on with my life. But as a wise man once sang, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
The Appalachian Trail
As I began my northbound hike of the Appalachian Trail in March 2008, I struggled with physical setbacks as well as mental ones. My backpack was heavy. My boots (yes, I wore full-on, over-the-ankle boots back then) would pinch a nerve in my ankle bone and cause a shooting pain. We would hike 10-12 miles a day, and I would be exhausted. And it was raining and barely above freezing many of the days.
Thankfully, I had a very patient hiking partner who talked and communicated with me far better than I did with her. As the weeks progressed, I became stronger. I dropped some weight and adjusted to daily life on the trail. My spirits lifted, and I began to see the trail more as it was, as opposed to what I wanted it to be. I can still remember going up my first steep, mile-long uphill without a break and thinking: “Maybe I can actually do this.”
The community I was surrounded by on the AT was also helpful and supportive, sharing with me the struggle and the exuberant joy that can be had along the way. As the miles rolled by, the wet spring changed to a dry summer, and the southern mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee became the cow fields and balds of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland, which then became the notorious and seemingly never-ending rocks of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. As we progressed into New England, the rain returned with late summer vigor, with big, clapping afternoon thunderstorms rushing us off of exposed mountain peaks in Vermont.
By then, though, my mentality had shifted in a way that is hard to explain, though it relates closely to what people call ‘living in the moment’ or ‘letting go of attachment.’ At that point, we were all hiking machines, our bodies adapted to walking for 10-12 hours each day and easily able to cover 20+ miles through the rocky terrain of the northern Appalachians, consuming any food item within arm's reach.
As the late summer rains ebbed, and the weather decided to stay warm and sunny, my hiker family and I were closing in on our goal: the lofty and terminal summit of Mt. Katahdin. We knew our time along the AT was coming to a close, and we slowed our pace accordingly, enjoying the last wisps of trail life as we meandered along, watching the leaves change for fall and talking about plans for the future as well as reminiscing on the past few months. Most of us had no idea what to expect when we went back to our homes in Ohio, New Hampshire, Washington, and all the other places we had convened from. As we scrambled up the side of our final mountain along the Appalachian Trail, the September sun smiled down upon us, not a cloud in the sky and a distant Cadillac Mountain hovering in a far-off haze. In a word, it was glorious.
But it was also surreal—to be finished all of a sudden after having walked nearly every single day for five and a half months. When I returned home, I tried to go back to ‘normal’ life, obtaining a couple of odd jobs and trying to save money while continuing to figure out what I wanted out of life.
The problem was, my eyes had been opened to wild and amazing alternatives, and it felt like something was missing. I couldn’t shut off the part of me that wanted more than ‘normal’ from life.
As fortune would have it, I had learned on the AT that there were other long-distance trails out there, one specifically that stretched from the US-Mexican border up the spine of California, Oregon, and Washington all the way to the US-Canadian border: The Pacific Crest Trail. My mind couldn't help but wander that way....
The Pacific Crest Trail
In late 2009, I moved to Colorado to live with my sister and brother-in-law to save money for a 2010 PCT thru-hike. I worked any job that I could get, even volunteering for an intensive sleep study at one point. Through the kindness of friends and family, I booked a flight to San Diego in mid-April 2010, ready to tackle another long-distance hike.
I had never been to California before stepping out of the airport in San Diego, but I was about to become quite familiar with it indeed over the next 1,300+ miles of trail. I had done my research, planned, and had some better gear than I did on the AT thru-hike—a different pack, lighter sleeping bag, down jacket, "less-stuff" in general. I was also more mentally prepared, open to whatever may happen along the 2,650-mile journey.
As I started out alone (even though at least 25 others started the PCT the same day), I wasn’t concerned—I knew I would fall into my own rhythm and find others to hike with who were going similar paces. What was slightly concerning, however, was that I was walking through the desert, and water was said to be dreadfully scarce. Luckily, 2010 happened to be an unusually wet year in California, with streams that hadn’t run in years gushing water.
I began my trek doing 20+ mile days from the start. My legs did not appreciate it. Muscle soreness and IT band issues became the norm for the first hundred miles or so, but it was nothing a bit of stretching and Ibuprofen couldn’t solve. Ultimately, I adjusted much quicker to life along the PCT. And the fact that the trail was graded for packstock certainly didn't hurt!
As I progressed northward, the desert converged with mountains, and my new hiking partners and I came upon our first of many snow- and ice-covered sections of trail. It was my first taste of a Western U.S. spring: dry and hot in the valleys, snow still melting in the mountains.
The trail continued to unravel with more surprises. Coming into Big Bear, CA, I got my first (and so far, only) truly concerning trail injury: a corneal ulcer caused by dirt somehow getting under my contact and irritating my eye. There were views so beautiful, I tripped over my own two feet. There were hot springs to soak in and rattlesnakes in the Mojave Desert and mountain lion prints along the LA aqueduct. I learned to glissade down snowbanks.
Eventually, the wet desert officially turned into the still-frozen Sierra Nevada Mountains about 700 miles north of the US-Mexico border, near a small haven called Kennedy Meadows. It was an area of trail rife with snowy passes and route finding. Trudging through the snow every day was long and arduous, though the beauty and serenity kept me wanting more.
I came off-trail at the end of June to go to Colorado for a family reunion, and I came back in early July to "The Melt." It was finally staying above freezing at night; the rivers were running high with barely-thawed water. I continued my northern journey, my feet wetter and my skin itchier (more water=more mosquitoes).
Northern California rolled past, with the towering volcanic peaks sprouting up—Lassen, Shasta, and others in the distance—and we finally made it to the California-Oregon border. The first state down and over halfway done!
Around this time, I made the decision to go back south from Ashland, OR to hike a section I had missed in California. In so doing, I said goodbye to the group of people I’d been hiking with throughout northern California. Goodbye to the Swiss woman. Goodbye to the retired parole officer from San Francisco. Goodbye to the Midwesterner and the couple from NYC.
I went south, completed my 100-mile section with another trail friend, and returned to Oregon a newly inspired woman determined to catch up to the friends that were now a week in front of me. My body had once again become a machine, capable of walking each day with no complaints, and Oregon is known on the trail for being the state you can cruise quickly through. I bagged my first-ever 40-mile day, and continued my quickened pace through the rest of Oregon, only slowing when I got sidetracked by another hiker or a necessary town trip.
In the end, I hiked from Ashland to the Columbia River Gorge in 14 days, 45 miles being my biggest mileage day (it’s still my personal record). I passed the eternally blue waters of Crater Lake, a handful of still-burning forest fires, miles of lava rock, Mt. Hood, and many other amazing features. I took a day off to recover, and was heading into Washington on September 1st.
That's when the rain started.
If you’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest in the fall, know this: it's wet. Forever wet. I eventually caught up to my friends about 150 rain-soaked miles into Washington, and we continued the rest of the way together. The rain continued to come down on us, only letting up once every few days for far too brief late afternoon periods.
As we neared Canada mile by mile, the towns became more sparse, and the last resupply town was a small resort along the shores of Lake Chelan not accessible by car. In the Glacier Peak Wilderness , we had a few days in a row of sun, and it was nothing short of amazing, with glaciated valleys and miles of wilderness sprawling out in every direction.
One of the most memorable days on the trail was my last full day along the PCT. It had rained hard the entire day, changing to sleet and then snow as we went up and over passes, then back to rain as we descended. I was wearing all of my layers, and wasn’t able to stop for more than a few minutes without beginning to shiver. I was trying to take my clothes off at the end of the day, and my hiking partner asked if I needed help because I was shaking so hard it took me about ten minutes to get my soaked shirt off. The next morning, pure and utter relief, as we reached the trail's terminus at the Canadian border and celebrated long and hard, the rain dissipating around us. (Full disclosure: Hiking seven miles to the road in Canada is more difficult when inebriated.)
After finishing the Pacific Crest Trail, I went back to Colorado, and continued my struggle with what to do with my life. I found a crappy part-time job and continued interviewing, finally deciding that I was not at a place in my life to have an indoor job.
I had a friend who was working for a wilderness therapy company in Southern Utah, so I applied. I moved there a few weeks later, looking forward to spending 8 days in the wilderness then having 6 days off for my own adventures. I met more like-minded people and pushed myself harder mentally than I ever had before.
After nearly a year of working, I was involved in a car wreck, which left my friend with a shattered and dislocated C7 vertebrae and me physically unscathed but contemplating my future and what I wanted out of it.
I decided to hike the 486-mile Colorado Trail with my boyfriend. After 21 days, I came off the CT with a refreshed interest in another long-distance hike. This time, it would be the Continental Divide Trail—a rugged, not-fully-developed trail that stretches 3,100-miles from Mexico to Canada along the craggy spine of the Rocky Mountains.
As fate would have it, around that time, three terrible things happened within three weeks, leaving my ego and heart devastated, but in the end determined: I was asked to move out of the house I was living in, I got very sick in the field, and I got laid off. The latter made my decision for me, so I started planning.
The Continental Divide Trail
In April 2013, I arrived at the Crazy Cook monument in Southern New Mexico—along with two brand-new trail friends—thanks to an old man and his Jeep.
Even with my outdoor knowledge and experience I wasn’t sure what to expect. The Continental Divide Trail is rumored among the thru-hiking community to be the toughest trail of the triple crown—it is remote, rugged, and has the unofficial motto “Embrace the Brutality.” I was prepared to an extent—I had gotten a GPS for this hike, and was much more comfortable hiking cross country using a map and compass thanks to my wilderness therapy work.
Within the first couple weeks of crossing the desert, however, I was sunburnt, wind-burnt, exhausted, dust-covered, and had used so many algae-covered and pooped-in cow troughs/ponds for water that I would actually get excited when the stagnant water only had dirt floating in it.
We saw few other people as we made our way north. Once I adapted to longer hiking days and changed my standards of what potable water looks like, New Mexico lived up to its state motto: “The Land of Enchantment.” Home to amazing rock formations, cliff dwellings, canyons, and staggering mountaintop views that seem to go on forever, as well as amazing stories from, and about, the people that call the state home, the place seriously was enchanting.
As I hiked north, continuing with my friends from the start, water continued to be an issue, but more in the "there's a ton of it and it's frozen and we have to walk through it" kind of way. That's right, as we moved higher in elevation and got into Colorado, the trail was covered in snow and ice thanks to some late April and early May snowstorms.
The San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado were breathtakingly beautiful. But, at over 10,000 feet high in many places, they were also literally breathtaking. Snow travel wears you out fast; we were pushing hard to cover 10-15 miles in a day after being used to going 25 easily. We would wake up early to be able to cross the snow while it was still frozen, and our bodies were pushed even more when the temperature warmed up and we would post-hole every other step. Terms like ‘snow hurdles’ and ‘snow swimming’ were used to define the different types of traveling we did through the snow.
At the end of each day, we would all sit around at camp looking at each other and sometimes laughing at the craziness of it all. It's times like those when the people around you have the ability to make or break your spirits, and I am forever thankful that my hiking companions and I were able to lift one another up. (Even if a friend of mine did at one point call the snow a “dirty slut” in a fit of ‘snow-swimming across a slope’ rage.)
As the snow melted more, and the days continued to get longer, the mosquitoes and wildflowers seemed to bloom concurrently. The flowers blanketed the snow-free meadows and I was prepared this time for the onslaught of bug bites. I was not prepared as much for the wear and tear of the elevation, and having asthma obviously didn't help. It was frustrating to feel so strong muscularly but weak in my lungs.
As the snow continued melting and the elevation dropped, into Wyoming we walked. We were again able to experience the arid shadelessness of the desert through the Great Divide Basin before heading up, up, and up into the Wind River mountain range. The Winds, as they're called, were the training ground for properly dealing with food in grizzly territory, which meant I no longer had a food pillow and that I had to get out of my sleeping bag before I could eat breakfast. It also meant high mountain passes, beauty around every turn, glaciers, the added excitement of bigger wildlife, fewer people, and the first feeling of truly being in a remote wilderness setting since southern Colorado. I loved the Winds; they still hold a dear place in my heart and I hope to go back soon.
As we continued north through Wyoming, we moved into national park territory, where it was required to camp at designated spots and hang food. There were fresh grizzly tracks on the trail daily, which never ceased to shock.
Yellowstone is an anomaly along the CDT, as it is dangerous to go off-trail in a lot of spots because of the amount of volcanic activity in the park, especially as you near Old Faithful Geyser. Then all of the sudden, you're in Idaho.
The section of trail along the Idaho-Montana border is mostly boring with a few good views and many nice and helpful people. That was also the time I began noticing more smoke in the air from wildfires burning west of us. The fire smoke burned my lungs at times, but made for some gorgeous sunsets. The nights were beginning to get colder and some of my gear was failing, always a signal to me that I'm nearing the end of the trail.
The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness was beautiful and gracefully melded into the Bob Marshall Wilderness north of it. The forest fires remained nearby, though we didn't have our first trail closure until ‘the Bob,’ where the reroute took us into a valley between two fires, both of which were smoldering at best. Wandering down the trail in that valley, there were a number of animal prints—grizzly bear, black bear, wolf, coyote, raccoon, deer, and elk prints, and I'm sure there were others.
Walking alone through the vastness of the wilderness, I felt my senses heighten, and I became even more aware of my surroundings. The only time I felt truly afraid was my last morning in ‘the Bob’ when I stumbled upon a grizzly cub. We noticed each other at the same time. I froze, and it ran into the woods along the trail. I heard huffing and backed up the trail, pulling my bear spray out, and noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. It was momma bear looking directly at me over the trees she was standing in. We locked eyes for what seemed like a minute, then she sank down into the trees again and I waited, finger on the trigger of my bear spray. Mother grizzly and baby grizzly walked across the trail into the trees and disappeared. I took a few minutes to recover my senses and was extra loud the rest of the day.
In East Glacier, I ran into the friends I had started the trail with. We continued on together. The weather had started spouting rain around that time, so we were soaked on and off as we made our way through the park. Two days before the Canadian border, we stopped at a trailside restaurant to dry out and fatten ourselves up against the chill of the rain.
We moved through Glacier like humans with a purpose, but we also took our time, stopping to appreciate the views at the passes as well as sharing with the people who joined us at our soggy campsites.
The rain abated on our last morning in the park and the sun warmed my skin as well as my spirit, as I knew that I was about to complete the last trail of the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking. Excitement was running high, and I could tell the guys wanted to finish together because they were hiking behind me, the slowest hiker, as we contoured around Waterton Lake.
There is a monolith in a clearing with a dock nearby to mark the Canadian border as well as the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail. As we walked up to the clearing, I startled a black bear, who lumbered lazily into the woods as we passed it, and a woman I had befriended earlier on trail was at the monument! We all hugged and congratulated, then took many photos, for I was not the only one celebrating the completion of their third long trail—there were 2 others as well.
I couldn’t have been in better company on such a lovely late-summer day. After proper celebrating, we wandered into Canada preoccupied with our thoughts, wondering “what's next?” and other questions that come up after 5 months of walking across the country. I was trying to stay in the moment, and relish it to the fullest, because I'd learned that life can come at you fast and you better enjoy the victories when you get the chance. I had just achieved a secret goal that I made for myself sometime along the PCT: I had triple-crowned before the age of 30.
After catching a ride with one friend’s parents back into Montana, I met up with my dad who flew out to share in the special occasion. He’s not much of a hiker, but I was able to show him around a part of the country where he'd never been before, enjoying Glacier NP before he dropped me off at a friend’s in Missoula to begin my trip back to Utah.
Upon arrival in Utah, I reconvened with many friends who were excited for me. If you've never reintegrated into society, it can be overwhelming, so I tried to go slow, starting with the essentials. Step 1: housing. Step 2: job and probably moving. Step 3: profit (maybe?). Thankfully, my network of friends (most of whom I met along one trail or another) and family helped me with each of those steps as I again assimilated.
And there you have it.
Over 5 years of my life boiled down to hiking and working, having fun and finding opportunities to learn and grow as a person along the way. Through the years and the miles, people have asked me many questions, and the ones I've noticed most relate to why I would ever devote so much time and effort, and also how did I get the money. My short answer is this: I'm fortunate enough to have discovered one of my passions and have the ability to follow it, so I make it a priority in my life. The long answer is more complicated, and when I have the time and people are interested, I'm always happy to share it.
Written by Lauren Reed for RootsRated.