On my first backpacking trip, I was alone. I thought it fitting to see in my 35th year on a mountaintop, to watch the sun rise through a landscape of gray rocks and bare trees reaching for the sky. The man in my life had no interest in hiking, and my girlfriends thought I was crazy. My newly-bought gear was too heavy, my stove wouldn’t light, and a soft layer of snow fell all night as an icy wind blew it across me in the shelter. An emergency blanket kept me from getting soaked, but I didn’t sleep much. The next morning, with a foot of unexpected snow covering the trail, I postholed my way down a ski slope and found a warming hut. I didn’t have a cell phone. I survived.
What makes the outdoors a compelling place for you to be?
Nature has always been a part of my life. Before my family moved to Florida when I was a teen, I grew up in a small mountain town where the woods were my backyard. I’d climb trees, bound across boulders, and go to the pond at the end of the road to catch tadpoles. I kept daddy-longlegs in jars on my windowsill. I walked a trail through the woods to school for the first six years, and would always find side trails to follow to new adventures. I remember carrying a cup with me to break through the ice on the stream that the path crossed so I could drink from the icy waters. I’d hide behind rockpiles and watch deer, or look for snakes sunning. Although I didn’t get into backpacking until I was well into adulthood, I’ve been a hiker since I was old enough to toddle, thanks to my parents taking me on outdoor adventures and letting me just play outdoors.
A place or interaction on the trail that made a major impression on you
That first backpacking experience, recounted above. I was alone and I didn’t have a backup plan, or any way of being rescued. I had to think my way through an unexpected situation and not panic. It’s amazing that after that, I didn’t give up on backpacking! But two months later, I did my first long distance hike of 70 miles on the Laurel Highlands Trail with my mentor and friend, Gail “Gutsy” Johnson. It was then I realized backpacking was a lot more fun with a friend. I’ve preferred treks with a friend or a group ever since.
A memorable challenge you dealt with on a hike
When I thumbed through a copy of Wild at a friend’s home in 2012, I was a month into my own personal quest: I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I’d first planned this journey in the 1990s, and set it aside twice. The first time was to be there for my sister, whose life was cut short by an agressive cancer. The second time I was ready to head to the AT, I was offered a multi-book contract to write hiking guides. I chose the career over the hike. So instead of heading to the trail alone, as I’d planned, I was hiking with a partner, John. We’d met on a 109-mile walk around Lake Okeechobee, and the intimacy that comes with living in a small space cemented our growing relationship.
The challenge was to call it quits. We both had childhood dreams of thru-hiking the AT and it was much, much harder than either of us ever imagined, even being seasoned backpackers. The morning after I wrote in my journal “Today I began to hate hiking” was the day I knew it was over. We had other issues, too, with health problems among them. It hurt to let go of that dream. But I loved hiking enough not to let the difficult parts of a long distance hike beat my joy of it out of me. So we moved on to other pursuits, and never stopped hiking. After three months on the trail, it was the right decision.
How you’ve helped other women to get outdoors
Once I started backpacking, I started giving back by being a part of hiking clubs and online forums where I could share my knowledge. When I started writing about hiking, I did so from a passion for the outdoors, and I was fortunate to have that passion (and writing style) recognized by Karen Berger, who was an editor for Backpacker and Gorp.com at the time. She gave me that little lift I need to become one of a small handful of women nationwide who are known for writing about hiking. Starting this website eight years ago let me broaden the audience. It’s humbling and gratifying when women write to me and tell me I’ve been an inspiration to them.