Naturalist John Muir said that in every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.
Those words — “walk with” — imply a symbiotic relationship between nature and its guest.
On March 23, 2019, 20-year-old Homer High graduate Kristen Rahner began her 2,200-mile walk with nature when she set out on her solo hike of the Appalachian Trail.
The trail covers 14 states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. About 6,000 people attempt the Appalachian Trail, but only about 1,000 succeed.
After a tearful goodbye with her mom at a Georgia hotel, Kristen’s best friend, Zoe, drove Kristen to the start of the Approach trail at Amicalola Falls.
Donned with her 50-pound backpack and a GPS tracker, Kristen hiked the 8.8 miles to Springer Mountain, where the Appalachian Trail officially begins. She hiked an additional four miles before staying at a three-sided shelter with several other hikers.
That first night, Kristen used a pump filter to purify the water she gathered from a stream. She cooked her supper over the campfire while she and the other hikers got to know each other.
“We kind of settled each other’s nerves,” Kristen said.
She learned to set up her hammock on the third night and recalls being nervous about any bump in the night.
“Once you start picking up longer days, longer miles, you conk right out from exhaustion,” she said. Kristen kept the rain cover off because she likes to see the stars scattered across the night sky and likes the sun to wake her in the morning.
Trouble on the trail
While hiking the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina, Kristen’s water filter broke, and she had to rely on iodine tablets. She later replaced her water filter with a squeeze filter — The Katadyn Be Free — which removes germs and bacteria.
Unfortunately, Kristen contracted norovirus and was sick for several days. She said this virus transmits among hikers easily because they share shelters and outhouses.
Kristen saw a lot of bears and heard them circling the campsite but never encountered any difficulties. In Pennsylvania, she saw bears and rattlesnakes. She also saw a 4-foot-long black king snake, but said, “Fortunately, they do not bother humans; they eat other snakes.”
“Virginia and Pennsylvania are the two states where most through hikers will quit,” Kristen said.
Pennsylvania a challenge
Hiking through Virginia is difficult because you cover 500 miles, and hiking Pennsylvania is difficult because of the rocks.
“Every kind of rock exists in Pennsylvania,” she says. “You have massive boulders that you have to climb over with your pack on, and there are really jagged, slanted ones where you’re worried you’re going to fall, and have them impale you. There are tiny ones that make you trip all over the place, and there are weird angled ones that you can’t really step on, but you can’t step between, so you constantly have to look at your feet and nothing else around you.”
Pennsylvania was also difficult for Kristen because she was leaving behind trail friends she had met in West Virginia and whom she considered to be her trail family. West Virginia, incidentally, is the official half-way point on the trail.
Most people who hike the trail are given nicknames. “Neo was an ex-circus performer and taught some of the family how to blow fire.”
She met people from all over the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Europe and China.
Once Kristen made it through Pennsylvania, she found a beautiful overlook in New Jersey and hung her hammock between two oak trees.
“The grassy hillside was covered with rain and the sun was getting ready to set. The mist was rising up and filling the valley with clouds. The sun was shining through making everything sparkle. It was just beautiful, and I had it all to myself.” She always made sure to have a clear view of an overlook wherever she positioned her hammock.
Need for people
Kristen originally wanted the solitude of the woods so she could think through her thoughts, but when she began increasing her daily miles from 25 to nothing less than 30, she realized she missed her newfound friends.
She began seeing fewer people she knew and began missing the socialization.
“I really needed someone to talk to,” she said.
Kristen’s trekking poles had broken, her cell phone had broken so she couldn’t talk with anyone from back home, she wasn’t drinking enough water, and she was pushing herself to hike 30 to 40 miles a day. She felt broken.
She no longer had a healthy amount of body fat. Her pack rubbed against her hips, making them raw. She was so thin she couldn’t tighten her pack enough. She continued this way until she reached Connecticut.
Boost from family
Her dad, Dr. Doug Rahner, met her in Connecticut and brought her a new phone. He also offered to slackpack with her to allow her a much-needed break.
Slackpacking is allowing someone else to take your backpack for you while you carry just your water bottle, a snack, your phone, and a guide book. Her dad slack packed her into Massachusetts.
Kristen said some hikers, called “purists” believe slackpacking is wrong.
Kristen believed she was physically capable of carrying the weight but not mentally. She broke down, telling her dad she wanted to go home.
Her parents, mom, Ellen and Doug, were reluctant to let her go home because they were worried she wouldn’t get back on the trail.
But Kristen said she “needed to remove herself.” They tried a two-day rest, but Kristen still insisted on going home.
Dad said, “As parents, you want to support her, and we wracked our brains trying to figure out how to make this better for her. So we thought we needed to take her off the trail for a week and give her a break. It was clear she couldn’t go on. She needed a re-set.”
Kristen thought it was a “blemish” but also knew it was necessary. Taking the time off “took away all of these weird expectations I had set for myself regarding finishing in a certain amount of time. I realized this is MY hike, and it’s meant to evolve not by anyone else’s expectations other than my own.”
The rules of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy state that as long as you finish the hike within a calendar year, it is still considered a through hike.
Kristen took a week off and spent time at home with family and friends. Her best friend, Zoe, returned with Kristen and they hiked together for three days. Back on the trail, she met up with some of her trail friends and hiked with them.
She eventually pushed ahead again, “but it was OK this time because I was taking care of myself better.”
Angels along the way
Kristen made it to Vermont with two of her trail friends and stayed in a hostel above a restaurant called The Yellow Deli. Lodgings and breakfast were free. The owners obtain much of their food from their organic farm.
Members of the community along the Appalachian Trail known as Trail Angels occasionally provided hot food, a ride to town if you needed supplies, and even a place to stay. Much of the time, the hikers would hitchhike into town to get supplies.
Kristen met a man from California “who hitchhiked all the time throughout the country while barefoot. He was super cool and knew about plants.”
The Long Trail in the Green Mountains of Vermont stretches the length of the state — 273 miles. “Once you get into Vermont, that’s the first time you’re above 4,000 feet since Virginia,” she said.
The White Mountains in New Hampshire “are straight up like you’re rock climbing.”
There are huts along side of the trail, sometimes near a water source where you can buy food and even stay if you have enough money.
The White Mountains
The Presidential Range in New Hampshire’s White Mountains consists of 13 high peaks ranging from 3,829 to 6,288 feet. The highest peak is Mount Washington followed by Mount Adams. Kristen said white blazes are used to know you’re going in the right direction. She hiked it in one day. “You’re above treeline and there’s just bare rock for 12 miles. The view is surreal.”
Kristen had to wait in line behind hundreds of people to reach the signpost that said Mount Washington. She was disappointed to see a fast-food restaurant and a cell tower at the summit.
While descending Mount Adams she enjoyed a “beautiful sunset but really sketchy rocks.”
Kristen was on her phone with her mom when she lost cell service, (despite the tower) and tripped on one of those ‘sketchy rocks,’ landing on her face.
She was later known by the hikers she passed as that girl who had the blood running down her face.
She hiked 28 miles that day, 12 of them above tree line. She remembers being barely able to stand when she was done because she had gained 5,000 feet in elevation. She wished she could have camped on top of Mount Adams, but she needed to get to the next hostel by the following night.
There were a few stealth sites along the side, but Kristen explained that stealth sites are non-established campsites and are supposed to be 150 yards away from the trail and any water source.
From there, she hiked to Maine and stayed at a hostel. She traversed over Mount Bigelow and through the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, where there are no roads except for private ones, “so it’s essential you bring enough food.”
Elsewhere in the HundredMile Wilderness, Kristen set up her hammock between “two towering red pines” on a peninsula overlooking a lake. She had a perfect view of the sunrise and of the sunset.
At this point, Kristen was only three days away from finishing the trail, and she became sick. She was supposed to meet her Dad and sister, Emma, at the Baxter State Park campground, so she soldiered on. She obtained her permit to hike in the park as a through hiker and curled up into a ball on a bench and waited for her Dad and Emma.
She overheard some parents working on coloring books about the trees of Maine with their four daughters. Kristen said, “I couldn’t help overhearing; I know a lot about trees. Do you mind if I help them learn?”
The girls were all under the age of 10 and had completed the trail with their parents. One of the girls was only 6, and is the youngest girl ever to have hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Almost near the end
After her dad and sister arrived, they went to a hostel for the night. They planned to finish the hike the next day, but thunderstorms were in the forecast. “You do not want to be above the trees in a thunderstorm on top of a mountain,” Kristen said. She had been caught in two thunderstorms; they were the scariest experiences she had ever encountered.
“It was more terrifying than any bear,” she said. “I called my mom and my boyfriend those nights to explain the danger I was in and to tell them I loved them.”
On the morning of Aug. 9, 2019, the three set out for Mount Katahdin — the end of the Appalachian Trail. Mount Katahdin is the highest mountain in Maine at 5,269 feet. Having her dad with her was extra special for Kristen because just four months earlier, he’d had half of his left lung removed due to cancer.
It took them 12 hours to summit the mountain, but they did it together. “I know they would have done it much quicker had I not been there,” the elder Rahner said.
Most people take five to seven months to hike the Appalachian Trail, but Kristen completed it in 4 1/2. She cried when they reached the top.
“I was crying because it was over, but also a lot of it was this thing I’ve been doing for 4 1/2 months is now done. This was my life, and now it’s not. It’s sort of an emptiness.”
Home at Lime Hollow
Kristen had two weeks off between completing the trail and returning to college. She promised Peter Harrity, associate director at Lime Hollow Nature Center, that she would be back, so she spent those two weeks working at the center.
“I love Lime Hollow,” she said. “I loved being back there. It was a good transition from spending 4 1/2 months in the woods isolated.”
Harrity said of Kristen:
“She always maintains her super kindness and we love her here; we just can’t say enough about her. She started as a camper, then became a volunteer counselor-in-training, and is now a staff member. She’s super with kids and is a nice blend: artistic, scientific, kind, responsible and really competitive. She’s risen to every challenge we could throw at her and excelled at everything.”
Kristen enrolled in the New Visions Environmental Science Program with Onondaga Cortland Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services at Lime Hollow Nature Center when she was a senior. She learned about forestry, wildlife, environmental and recreation and can’t emphasize its importance enough.
“This program has changed not only my perspective of my life, but the world around me, and where I want to be in the future,” she said.
Kristen credits her teacher Chad DeVoe, for showing students an unconventional way of learning.
They learned how to age a deer jawbone, how to identify trees and how to identify animal species by their tracks.
“We tapped maple trees and made syrup, we learned how to use a chainsaw, we learned woodworking skills and we carved spoons.”
“Kristen is that perfect combination: visionary, hard-working, intellectual and modest,” Devoe said.
“She immediately expressed interest when I showed the class a slideshow of my 2009 through hike on the Appalachian Trail.”
He knew she’d hike the trail someday.
Ray Kneer vibes
Kristen met long-time volunteer chaperone, Ray Kneer, in the New Visions program. The Cincinnatus man accompanied the students on a trek of the Adirondacks. Ray was alongside Kristen when she summated Wright Peak (4,587 feet) and Algonquin Peak (5,114 feet). This was Kristen’s first backpacking trip.
“Thanks to Ray, I felt this incredible mountain fever,” she said. “That hike probably set me forth on a journey to backpack the Appalachian Trail.”
Before completing her final semester at SUNY ESF, Kristen will summit the Santanoni Peak in the Adirondacks. She hopes someday to walk The Finger Lakes Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Kneer says, “I feel certain that Kristen will pursue and achieve noteworthy objectives in the future.”
After 2,200 miles and 4 1/2 months on trail, Kristen has one bit of advice:
“Don’t wait for the perfect time to do what you want; there is never going to be a perfect time. Live the way you want to live now.”
Lori Eaton lives in the wilds of Willet, in its last dwelling in Cortland County. She is a freelance writer.