Cris Howard recently completed the 2,190-mile grueling hike a few weeks ago. The unexpected lessons learned along the way are priceless, she said.
Cris Howard wanted everything the Appalachian Trail had to offer. The long trek, the unforgiving terrain and the adventure.
The Reston, Virginia, resident recently completed the 2,190-mile grueling hike a few weeks ago. The unexpected lessons learned along the way are priceless, she said.
“I didn’t think I could do it and I did,” Howard said. “The big lesson that anybody can take away from this is that you can do anything you set your mind to. You just have to keep going.”
“I was caught up in the vortex of life,” she told WTOP. “I was at a crossroads in my career. I knew I needed a change, but I didn’t know what.”
The former Iron Man athlete was also battling a back injury and a melanoma diagnosis. She needed something to lift her spirits. That’s when she spotted a map of the Appalachian Trail at a friend’s house.
She was instantly interested.
“It was like a bolt of lightning that hit me,” she said. “I was like, ‘that’s it. That’s the solution. Let’s do it.’”
A few weeks later, she took a midnight train to Springer Mountain, Georgia, the start of the Appalachian Trail, and was on her way.
Beginning the long journey
She had no experience braving the elements in this way. Howard didn’t know how to pitch her tent, cook outdoors or battle the weather. Thankfully, she said, some friendly fellow hikers showed her the ropes.
“I’m a self-described princess,” she said. “I learned on the job, if you will. While I was hiking by myself, I was never alone.”
Howard said she always felt safe on the trail, even when she had a “close encounter” with an adolescent bear.
“He just wasn’t afraid of anything,” she said. “We yelled at him and as soon as we stopped, he’d turn around and come right back to us. But the whole time, I was never afraid. I knew that he wasn’t a threat to me. He was just hungry.”
She saw about 20 bears on the trail. And many strangers.
Howard said traveling with others is the culture of the trail and people tend to help as a way to “pay it forward.”
By the time she reached the middle-leg of her trek, around Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, the hike became harder.
“The romance of the trail started to wear off,” Howard said. “It got really grueling, and it was just a daily chore.”
Smoke from Canadian wildfires billowed in the air, exacerbating the sweltering summer heat. Mosquitos, bees and other stinging insects were relentless.
Howard searched for motivation every day to help her stay on the trail.
“What I learned was, I just needed to dig deep inside,” she said. “I had to find the joy in the process. The small little victories.”
Many start, fewer finish
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a member of the trail’s cooperative-management system, more than 3,000 people attempt to hike through the entire trail every year.
Last year, a little more than 1,400 people achieved the goal. Successful trail hikers, like Howard, are recognized as 2,000-milers. Her application for the prestigious certification has been approved.
“During the summer, at least 61% of the days were rain,” she said. “There was the mud and the discomfort, and everything is wet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the success rate this year is much less.”
The Appalachian Trail ends at Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine. Howard said by the last leg of her hike, reaching it was her main goal.
But the trail offered no mercy.
“The terrain was constantly muddy. We had several river crossings that were waist deep,” she said. “There were a lot of rocks that required technical climbing. And you’re just depleted.”
Howard kept going until Mount Katahdin came into view. She scaled the 5,200-feet climb to summit Baxter’s Peak, reaching a famous sign that marks the trail’s end.
And she asked a fellow hiker to take a photo. In it, her body is battered but her smile is brilliant.
“Just seeing the sign made you realize that ‘Wow, I actually did it,” she said.
Howard said she doesn’t know what big adventures are next. She kept a blog on the trail to keep track of the lessons learned and to inspire others who want to accomplish big goals.
She plans to go back to work in pharmaceutical development after taking a few weeks to recuperate from the hike. Her time on the Appalachian Trail continues to yield guidance, she said.
“It stripped me of all the crutches I had used to make myself feel important in this world,” said Howard. “No make-up, no fashionable clothing, none of the luxuries of life. I was raw and vulnerable. The trail forced me to face myself; and, through it all, I found the strength I had inside me all along.”