GRETCHEN CARROLL, 28
Appalachian Trail through-hiker
As one can expect, hiking the Appalachian Trail – a distance of 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine (or vice versa) – is not an easy feat.
Gretchen Carroll, who spent 186 days completing the trek earlier this year, from March 15 to Sept. 16, can attest to that.
And though Carroll, 28, faced few challenges while on the trail, she said, it is important for anyone thinking about tackling the trail to be prepared – both physically and mentally.
Carroll grew up in Westbrook and went through the Westbrook school system. She graduated from the University of Hartford in Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in music in 2009, and following graduation, she worked as a music teacher for the Auburn School Department for three years. Though she loved teaching, she decided she wanted “to give back to the world a little bit more, and try to make a difference,” she said.
So she spent the following two years volunteering for the Peace Corps in Micronesia. There, she met people who, like her, were interested in hiking the Appalachian Trail. A few of those people ended up being her hiking buddies, she said.
Before hitting the trail, Carroll had completed some day hikes in the White Mountains – up to 10 miles at a time – but she had never been backpacking or spent the night in the woods. She even did a 10-mile hike in Snowdonia, Switzerland, in fall 2014, while touring with a Vermont-based singing group, Northern Harmony.
Since hiking the Appalachian Trail was a new experience for Carroll, she said, some research was required, such as the necessary gear to pack for the six-month trek and how to get in shape. It’s also essential to study the trail map and check the weather as much as possible.
But being physically ready to hike the trail isn’t as important as being prepared mentally, according to Carroll, since the hike requires spending months in a remote setting.
“The physical (aspect) is going to be hard no matter what,” said Carroll. “You have to be OK with isolation.”
And you have to have a plan for coping with boredom during downtime, said Carroll. To keep herself and her hiking partners entertained, Carroll brought along a ukulele (Carroll eventually earned the trail name “Ukalady.”) Other hikers listened to music or audio books.
“It can get really monotonous,” she said. “If you start to get in a funk, it’s your job to change it.”
She also suggests that hikers carry a pocketknife in case of emergencies, for self-defense, or to use as a basic tool. Hiking with a group, or at least one other person, to ease anxieties is also advised.
“On the Appalachian Trail itself, if you don’t have a hiking partner you can always find one,” she said.
Although, she added, “it’s more likely you would get attacked hiking walking through the city than through the woods.”
Carroll took a wilderness first-aid class the week prior to her trip, in case she or others got sick or injured.
Luckily, she didn’t get hurt, though she did become frustrated with her progress at times.
“It felt really slow, and it was a lot of work climbing – hoisting yourself up using your arms – so your whole body is sore at the end of the day,” she explained. “And then you have to get up and do it the next day.”
Last winter, in the last few months leading up to her physically demanding journey, Carroll aimed to get in shape by running. She completed a training program designed to run a 10K. And since she lives in Maine, she decided to snowshoe for exercise (and did it wearing a 20-plus-pound backpack three times a week). She also danced, both contra and salsa style, and did yoga to get fit. She also performed yoga on the trail.
“Getting your heart used to moving,” by doing any type of cardiovascular exercises, and stretching tendons are both vital to training for a lengthy hike, Carroll said.
While on the trail, though, it’s important to rest and “listen to your body” whenever possible.
“If something hurts and it’s not getting better, you should at least take a day off,” she said.
It’s also “really important” to develop nutritious eating habits before setting out on the Appalachian Trail, or any hike for that matter, said Carroll. Though she advocates eating healthy foods, including fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, what she actually ate on the trail was more “heavy in carbohydrates and protein,” which fueled her muscles, she said.
If Carroll didn’t eat well, or enough, she felt grumpy, which made her enjoy her hike a lot less, she added. Overall though, Carroll loved the experience, which she has spent time reflecting on since then.
“I find myself enjoying a small moment more thoroughly,” Carroll said. “I feel like I have a lot more patience. And I am more empathetic with people.”
And the spectacular views, especially from the top of each summit, said Carroll, made any difficulties the hikers faced “so worth it.”
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