Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity. –John Muir
About a month ago; an e-mail popped up in my inbox, Olivia stated:
Thanks again so much for answering these questions! If you could have your answers back to me by May 7th at the latest, that would be fantastic, as the story is due shortly after that.”
So what were the interview questions and answers, you may ask!?
How old were you when you hiked the AT?
What town were you living in at the time? where do you live now?
1. I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2014; starting just a few days after my 25th birthday (March 31st is my birthday and I started the trail April 7th.) At the time; I was living back at home, in South Windsor, Connecticut after my lease expired in my previous apartment in Hamden, Connecticut. Today; I am still living in South Windsor, as I will be traveling to Asia for the second time in two years.
How did you decide to hike the AT: Did you have a previous background in hiking/was it always a goal of yours, or was it something you stumbled upon accidentally?
2. This was the first thing in my life I felt like I had to do. Prior to this; I had accomplished “everything you are supposed to do” as a young adult. I graduated high school in 2007, received my Bachelor’s Degree in 2011, and my Master’s Degree in 2013; starting my career in Graphic Design upon graduation. I worked as a Graphic Designer for just shy of a year when I got the notion that I needed to hike the Appalachian Trail. I had never backpacked before; never-mind long distance, I had car-camped, as well as day-hiked. I wouldn’t say it was always a goal of mine, no; but, once I got the idea of doing it there was no turning back. I watched many documentaries on Netflix; and one was Mile… Mile & a Half this was the night I remember vividly, after watching this documentary about the JMT (John Muir Trail) that I decided to hike The Appalachian Trail.
My boyfriend of (7 years) at the time; decided that he was going to come and hike it with me “I’ll bring a box from work and we will just put it in the corner and fill it with cash to save up.” he said to me. I knew I needed a plan B just incase; and well, my gut instincts are always right. As he was not by my side when it came down to it.
What was the preparation like for your thru-hike: To a non-hiker it seems like a very daunting task, is that how it felt for you?
3. From the pivotal decision point; I read every article, memoir, gear review, and blog I could get my hands on during my lunch-break at work, after work, and every minute in-between. I started purchasing gear slowly, and even breaking in my boots at work. I didn’t do any overnight “trials” though; for sure it is a very daunting task, but the type of personality and dedication I have is: all or nothing. From the moment of deciding; there was no going back.
Where did you start your hike, how many miles did you hike in total and where did you end your hike? How many states did you hike through? How long did you hike take you to complete?
4. I started my hike at the official Southern Terminus Springer Mountain in Georgia (I did not start at the approach trail at Amicalola Falls, which consists of 604 metal steps right off the bat, and then another 8 miles before reaching Springer Mountain!) However, I did go to Amicalola Falls, and have a photo taken in front of the famous archway (you can read about this early adventure getting to the trail in my book that will be coming out!) From year to year the overall mileage changes due to trail maintenance and re-routing. In 2014 the official length was 2,185.3 miles from Georgia to Maine. However; as my book title is “My Way Thru” I did not walk every .1 of 2,185.3 miles. I am recognized as a “2,000 miler” however, which is good enough for me after spending 180 days (6 months) in the woods! I hiked through all 14 states from Georgia to Maine (GA, NC, TN, VA, WV, MD, PA, NJ, NY, CT, MA, VT, NH, ME)
Did you hike the trail alone or with a group? Also, did you meet any other thru-hikers along the way? Talk to me about the friendships and bonds that develop while you’re hiking the AT, if you hiked with others. If you hiked alone, talk to me about that experience and why you chose to go solo
5. I traveled down to Georgia with a high school friend of mine that took off a week of work to settle me in; we met up with an acquaintance that I had met on the “class of 2014” AT Facebook page who happened to be hiking the same time as I decided to start, so we decided to start together. The three of us started as one, and on the second night we met three others that became our “group.” A woman in her late forties (whom I became closest to, and still keep contact via phone calls about once a month.) A man in his early twenties, and a man in his thirties. To say I met many thru-hikers along the way would be an understatement; especially in the early miles (as you can assume after a few hundred miles, many people drop out.) One of the most magical, and special things about thru-hiking is the camaraderie. We all have the common goal of making it to the end; we share the hardships, the feelings, the joy-us memories, and the hiker smell that ties anyone from every walk of life together. I trusted, and became close friends with people in sometimes only a few days; that some may take lifetimes to build. As much to say; that when I took a road-trip out West, I stayed with two “hiker friends” I had met briefly while on the trail, and even did another road trip with someone I had met in the Smoky Mountains (both were a year later in 2015.)
I was considered a solo hiker; even though I spent a lot of my time with the woman in her late forties, and some time with the male in his young twenties. There were times when I was completely alone, a month that I “slack packed” (Leaving most of your pack to another person. You are then able to hike without the burden of your full weight, meaning that you have the potential to hike more miles at a faster rate.) While my grandparents followed me in their RV and I slept and ate with them and had a day pack with me easily completing 20 miles before 3pm. It was really tough when they left me; and I had to go back to the realities of a thru-hiker, and the full weight of my pack which at some times was 45 pounds (I am 5’2″ and I weighed 110 pounds at the time for perspective.) I ended my journey solo as well during the 100 Mile Wilderness; which I wouldn’t have had any other way, I won’t give away the surprise ending though– that you will have to wait until my book is published!
Talk to me about your ‘trail nickname’ if you had one: how does that name come about? Was it given to you?
6. I started the trail nameless; in hopes to receive my trail name as opposed to create one myself. Inevitably it became a blend of the two options. Growing up; my Mom always called me “Chi” pronounced “Chee” as a tribute to her, and all of her love and support I identified with that while shortly after the woman I hiked most of the trail with anointed me “Cheeky” hence my final official trail name of Cheeky Chi.
What was your favorite part of your hike: Did you have a favorite state to hike through or favorite story from the trail?
7. I think my favorite part of the hike would be the 100 Mile Wilderness; for many reasons that you may not expect. Sure it is remote and absolutely gorgeous up there so theres that, plus it was October so the Fall leaves were beautiful and vibrant. But, being alone; during this time of reflection, after every day looking for the end was irreplaceable. I was not the same girl I was back at Springer Mountain; I knew a little bit more about myself, I had more confidence, and I was comfortable with being alone. I would say my favorite state was Tennessee; it was gorgeous, the trail towns were fun, and the Southern people very hospitable! I think one of my favorite stories would be:
“I reach the road crossing at Dick’s Creek Gap. The rain is now steady, and there are three hikers waiting on the other side of the road; wishful thinking I was hoping they too were headed to the hostel, but instead they were trying to go 12 miles into town.
The other downside of this rainy situation, as if there needs to be one; there is no cell service on the road either meaning I couldn’t contact the Blueberry Patch hostel where I was intended to be. Quickly looking left and right; left I went, down the road, towards the hostel in my crocs, alone, in the rain. Soon after, I hear a car coming up behind me, I throw out my thumb, I’ve never hitchhiked in my life; but anything seems better than walking in the rain (or so I thought.)
To my surprise; it sped passed me, on I walked. My socks started to soak through and my toes got itchy, my spirits drained, and now the count was at 38 cars passing my thumb. But then, I see a a silver pickup truck pass, slam on his brakes, throw it in reverse, and hit the guard rail. Let me repeat, he slammed his truck in reverse into the guard rail.
So, I walked over and asked if he knew how to get to Blueberry Patch Hostel; but he didn’t. So, I chose the logical thing to do after watching a pick up truck hit a guard rail; I said, “you mind trying to find it with me?” Just as I was about to hop in the passenger door and close off my fate to God knows what, a Jeep pulled in and parked ahead of the Jeep blocking us in.
The driver asked if “I was the girl he was supposed to pickup?” The hell if I know? I answered or better yet, asked in confusion, “for Blueberry?” He responded, “Lynn sent me.” Right then, and there; I knew someone was watching over me. I thanked the man in the pick up truck, and hopped in with Gary the Blueberry Patch hostel owner.”
(An excerpt from the draft of my book)
What was your least favorite part of the hike or the hardest thing you had to overcome while hiking the trail?
8. The first day/night was the most horrible day; but, the great thing about horrible starts is you can only get better from there. The second day was a million times better. The hardest part for me was injuries; my boots wore sores on my ankles, blisters, two knee braces, taped ankles, shin splints, and some kind of GI irritation in the White Mountains. There were many hardships for something I chose to do daily; and cried at least once the majority of the days.
Do you have any advice for people who may be thinking about taking up hiking or possibly even hiking the AT? What do you wish someone had told you before you set out on the trail yourself?
9. Do it. Especially after my last statement in the previous question. I state thru-hiking as the hardest, most rewarding thing I have ever done. I hated most days, but in the end; there is nothing like it. Physically, mentally, and spiritually. You can read as much as you can read, and hike as many miles in a day on a weekend; but until you actually get out in the woods, for 4-6 months straight and hike the hike–there’s nothing that compares to the act of doing.
That Ziplock brand freezer quart bags fit perfectly into a JetBoil stove which means you never have to clean your pot…please note: DO NOT BOIL with Ziplock inside. I guess this is me telling you not to make the same mistake I did; melting plastic to the bottom of your pot, ruining your dinner, and having to clean the pot regardless. Boil the water in the JetBoil and pour into the Ziplock of (pasta, rice, Mountain House meals, etc.) and then put the bag back into the pot folding over the edges and enjoy! Also, it’s not as peaceful and joyous as some of the blogs and video logs on YouTube make it out to be; embrace the suck, because it will suck. But the feeling you have when the Katahdin sign is in sight is like no other feeling.
Talk to me about your transition back into the ‘real world’ after being on the trail: what did you miss about home, what do you miss about the AT now that you have officially completed your thru-hike?
11. I would say that society and civilization changes us; out in the woods– I wasn’t reserved, I was raw, and real, myself, and happy even on the bad days. I had no need to filter, or feel judged while hiking that the modern world puts limitations and expectations on us. The two things I was most grateful for when returning would be running water (not having to filter to drink, clean, and the ability to shower daily) as well as fresh fruit and vegetables (after eating processed and packaged food for the majority of my days.) One of the hardest things would actually be having to find a bathroom! When you are in the woods, the moment you think “I have to pee” you move to the side of the trail, behind a tree, squat down, and carry on. Bladder control was very difficult having to re-wire my body that just because my mind thought “I need to go now” doesn’t mean I can!
I missed mostly my family, and my bed; I left when my little sister was 6 months old, and didn’t physically see her again until Pennsylvania– when my Mom drove down for the weekend. From PA on, I would see them every weekend (my Mom or grandfather) would drive an hour or two to pick me up; bring me home for the weekend, and then drop me back at the trailhead Monday morning. This went on until Vermont, and then I didn’t see them until my final day at Katahdin. I miss the simplicity; I had one job, wake up and walk. I didn’t have to think about what to wear, putting on makeup, fixing my hair, social media, dreading work Monday morning; I just had to make it to the next campsite, over, and over, again.
Any future plans to hike the AT again?
12. No, well; assuming you mean thru-hike it. Day hikes, section hikes; yes. I would love to go back to the Shenandoah Valley and spend the day with the wild ponies, as well as other spots along the trail that I took for granted and rushed through, during the time. It’s funny the things you take for granted and wish are over; until they are and in the end you then start thinking of the beginning.
What is your favorite local hiking spot in CT?
13. I don’t particularly care for the section of AT in CT; not to mention it is just as far as sections in MA from where I live. I think my favorite local hiking spot would be the trails in Granby/East Granby (Metacomet Trail runs through a lot of CT) Penwood, Wentworth Falls, Valley Falls, the list goes on and on!
What is your favorite local hiking spot in CT?
I’d like to close saying the thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was a pivotal moment in my life where I started living the life I wanted to live and becoming the person I was meant to be. Nature calms me; when I find my head foggy, and the World closing in on me, I go for a walk…minimum of 4 hours, it is my reset button, my “breath of fresh air” no pun intended. At any moment we can change who we were, and be anyone that we want to be.
“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”
PS. Don’t forget to look for my book in the future for the full story! It is still in the drafting stages; but I am hoping to have my first draft by Fall! Which then means on to editors, publishers, and marketing publicity!
My Way Thru
Chasing Dreams & Facing Fears From Hiking Boots to High Heels
Written by: Ashlee Elia “Cheeky Chi”