The end wasn’t like we thought. A 40-mile section of road in northern California winding through towering pines in the foothills of the Trinity Alps. There was a cold forceful wind, dense fog, occasional sleet. When I first pictured what it would be like to finish a ~7,400-mile hiking expedition across America, I thought it would be on a mountain somewhere. Sunny at least. But that wasn’t the case – our finish was at a nondescript trailhead nestled in the hills west of Etna, California. In a way, it was fitting. After all, nothing this year went as expected.
On January 1st, 2021, Sammy Potter and I started our attempt of the Calendar Year triple Crown – a continuous thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail in under a calendar year. Pretty insane, right? We thought so too. But I guess that was part of why we did it. Sammy and I were fed up with online class and work. There’s a particular sense of purposelessness you get from watching the professor drop off the zoom call for the 6th time this week with connection issues. We felt trapped and frustrated. We didn’t know when we’d see our friends or family again. Or when life would return to normal, if ever.
We wanted to be in control of something, anything. So, we looked to the outdoors. The one place where exposure was limited, and nothing was shut down. Sammy read about the Calendar Year Triple Crown in a book by Jeff Garmire, one of the handful of folks that had ever completed it. Later, he’d ask me to go on a hike with him in the White Mountains and we chatted about the idea. It called to me in the same way that it called to him – a rediscovery of purpose in a time when purpose felt hard to come by. Better yet, if we completed it, we would be the youngest.
We decided to start on January 1st – we would ring in the New Year from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the southern terminus of the AT. In the month leading up to our start date, Sammy and I moved in together for some final training and prep work.
We had signed ourselves up for a Wilderness First Responder course in Vermont. To get there, we drove along manicured dirt roads, passing quant New England homes which bordered rolling hills of barren trees. There was a blizzard that night – our headlights caught thick flakes of snow in their glare and suspended them in front of our car.
I was lost in thought. Mesmerized by the situation in which we found ourselves. Sammy and I were about to embark on hiking feat that few had attempted and fewer had completed (less than a dozen). We were dropping everything, saying goodbye to our friends and family to pursue something that was no more than a pipe dream at that point.
Sammy was staring ahead at the snow and the headlights. “The life we’re living is so real,” he said, a little excitement creeping into his voice. “You feel that too?”
I felt it then. And I felt it for the 295 days that followed – when we began our journey at Springer Mountain in a cold, cutting mist that permeated all our layers; when we reached Clingman’s Dome in the Smokey Mountains and watched the sun set over dunes of clouds blanketing the skyline; when we found ourselves in the deserts of California and New Mexico staring out at the massive expanse of sandy nothingness, interrupted only by the occasional cactus and tumbleweed; and when we reached each high alpine pass in the Sierras, the Rockies, the Winds and the Cascades, where heaps of glacially sculpted rock jutted from the earth like scales. I felt how real our lives had become during the many hours I spent talking to other thru hikers and hearing their life stories, on the many rides we had taken to resupply in town in open bed trucks, and the many meals and evenings we shared with folks who had opened their doors to us, just a couple of hikers passing through their small rural towns.
I think what made our lives this year so real was how unexpected they were, how impossible it all seemed. As much as we had planned and prepared, envisioning every step of the process, there was never any telling what would greet us in the next section of trail or the next town we’d visit. It was surprising. And in a year that trapped us all in routine, those surprises made my life feel more real than ever.
So, yes, our finish at the Mt. Etna summit was nothing like we expected. But for us, this year, the 7000 miles that we’ve hiked, was anything but expected. And we wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
If you’d like to hear more about our trek, check out the podcast Impossible Odds by Backpacker Magazine, which will drop on November 3rd. You can get it wherever you find your podcasts.
Link to Protect Our Winters fundraiser:
Link to Instagram: @cytriplecrown