Ashli, The Appalachian Trail
“I feel the constant need to get big things done and see amazing things and be accomplished. Because we only get one life, as far as I know. And there is so much to do, and wasting that opportunity terrifies me. I was like, ‘I gotta do something’, and I think it just kind of happened that it was the AT.”
Some may consider it a blessing; others may consider it a curse, but Ashli has always been driven by a strong wanderlust deep within her. It’s brought her to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail despite being away from her husband, Andrew, and it later brought them to hit the road full-time out of their travel trailer. Five years ago, she and I met in Georgia over lunch at a picnic table with our respective hiking partners, Kyle and Aelin. Six months later, over a full-value adventure filled with fun, suffering, and persistence, we reached the northern terminus in Maine.
We summited Mt Katahdin as a group of hardened hikers who felt akin to family, after having supported each other at our lowest moments. I’ll always feel indebted to Ashli and Kyle after they refused to hike on without me when I was sick in the woods, 10 miles from the nearest road crossing. They grabbed my gear when I wasn’t looking to lessen my pack load, and hiked with us to town where the four of us got stuck in a motel room for seven days. The virus slowly worked its way through all of us, and we got closer than we probably wanted to.
I’ve crossed paths with Ashli and Andrew a few times since then, although the encounters were always too brief. Out of the blue Ashli texted me when they was visiting Smith Rock in Oregon, and I happened to be there too, hiking in their direction. After grabbing a beer at the nearby gear shop, the three of us sat on the patio and I asked Ashli about her highs and lows on the AT, how her thru-hike changed her as a person, and what she loves about the outdoors. A week later, they set off east back towards the AT—this time, Ashli will support Andrew as he sets off on his southbound journey.
When would you say you first had a connection to the outdoors?
I really started to get into the outdoors when I was in college. I worked at the rock climbing gym there, and the supervisor was a big outdoor guy. He got me into outdoor climbing and then he was like ‘Do you want to go backpacking?’ He had the sweetest gear closet. He took me and Andrew to it where he had backpacks and sleeping bags and stuff, and he was like ‘Take what you need, we’re going to go backpacking’.
He took us backpacking in northeastern PA and it was the most pain I’ve ever been. We went like nine miles, my pack weighed like 40 pounds, and I was not in shape at all. My thighs were done for months, but we were hooked. Shortly after that we went on our own backpacking trip to Caledonia State Park, and then we flew to California and backpacked from Tuolumne Meadows to the valley in Yosemite.
What made you decide to hike the AT?
I was terrified of not living my life. I feel the constant need to get big things done and see amazing things and be accomplished. Because we only get one life, as far as I know. And there is so much to do, and wasting that opportunity terrifies me. I was like ’I gotta do something’, and I think it just kind of happened that it was the AT.
So you and Kyle were working at REI then, how did the idea come up?
I kept gunning for this promotion at REI and kept getting beat out by someone else. I felt like I was a really hard worker and I was like, ‘Okay, if I don’t get the promotion next time, I’m going to quit and get a different job. But before I get a different job, I should go do something amazing’.
I remember going to Kyle and being like, ‘If I don’t get this I want to hike the AT, do you want to go too?’ And he’s like, ‘Yes’. And so the day I got turned down for the job, me and him went out and I was like, ‘I don’t know, are we really going to do this?’ And he looked me in the eye and was like ’We’re going’. [Laughs]
I think I might have been too scared, I would have backed out it wasn’t for him. He really gave me the courage to go.
Yeah, he’s a terrific hiking partner and friend. Do you feel that thru-hiking the AT changed you as a person?
The biggest impact on me was that I have a self confidence that I didn’t have before. I remember days where Kyle would be like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna hike 18 miles today’. And we’d get in an argument about it; I’d be like ‘I can’t do that. I’ve never done that before’. And then I would do it and I would be fine. And after several times of this happening I was like, ‘Oh, I can just do anything. And if I can’t do it, I have the resources to figure it out’. It definitely changed who I was when I came back.
Do you have a favorite moment on the AT?
My favorite moment was when we summited Katahdin. I had this bottle of champagne in my backpack—you’re not supposed to have liquor up there and there’s a park ranger standing right there. But I shook it up anyway and popped the top off, and there’s this circle around me of everybody that I’ve been hiking with for like six months. They’re just cheering and clapping and I’m like ‘Wooo!’, there’s champagne everywhere.
Every time I watch the video of it I get choked up because I remember how happy I was. But not just because I was happy, but everyone else around me was happy, and we got there together. We were all there on that day because of everybody else. Yeah that’s hands down not only my favorite moment on the AT, maybe my favorite moment of my whole life.
That was a beautiful moment; there were a lot of intense feelings going through all of us. What was the hardest moment for you on the trail?
Mt Kinsman. I was coming down Mt Kinsman—it was really slabby and wet, and I kept falling. I’ve been falling for days before that and I had scrapes everywhere. Finally I fell and I ripped a hole in my shorts, and I just started crying. I was by myself, Kyle was way ahead of me and I walked past these day hikers and one of them was like, ‘Are you okay?’ If I opened my mouth to say, ‘Yes, thank you’ I would have started crying, so I just ignored him, I still feel so bad [laughs]. I kept walking and then just started bawling. We were in New Hampshire, almost done [with the thru-hike], and I got into town and called Andrew. I was like ‘I quit, I’m done, fuck this’, and he was like, ‘Go have some dinner and call me in the morning’.
So we took a zero [mile day] the next day, ate a bunch of yummy food, and I was fine and we went on. But Mt Kinsman kicked my ass.
Can you remember a time where you were the most scared or in danger on the AT?
We were in a shelter in Pennsylvania and we wanted to hike another eight miles. I finished eating dinner and Kyle was still eating and I was like ‘I’m gonna get a head start because you’re faster than me’. I start hiking, it’s uphill. We know it’s going to rain but we’re like ‘Whatever we’ll get wet; it’s the middle of summer, I don’t care’. After probably a half mile, three quarters of a mile, all of a sudden the wind picks up and I look to my left and through the trees, I see a wall coming towards me. It was rain, and it was coming at me so fast and so hard that I literally hugged a tree. As I was hugging the tree, this rain-wall slash wind-storm hit me and branches started falling off trees around me. I was freaking out, and after like 30 seconds of pure terror, I was like, ‘I gotta get safe’. So I ran the three quarters of a mile back downhill to the shelter.
I had trekking poles, so I was vaulting downhill. Literally I would place them as far out in front of me as they would go, and then I would jump and shove myself forward. I was flying down this hill. The three quarters of a mile must have taken me like a couple minutes, it went by really fast. I got back to the shelter and threw myself inside. Kyle was in there hugging his knees, and was like ‘Hey… I was hoping you would come back.’
All the places around us lost power. The next day we had to dive over trees; they were so big we couldn’t just step over them. That was a bad storm. I thought I was gonna get crushed by a tree.
Where did the idea of living on the road come from?
Andrew started getting upset with his job in Wisconsin, and I had this awesome remote job that I can work from anywhere. I was like ‘This is the time. If we sell this house and you quit your job, I think I can afford to pay off the trailer and pay for whatever we need.’ I wasn’t going to force this—I really wanted him to want to do it too. Finally, one day he was like, ‘I want to do it’, and I was like, ‘Hot dog!’ From there, everything happened really fast.
How do you feel about Andrew getting started on his AT journey?
I’m 100% down. He was super supportive of me when I did it, and he definitely deserves the time off; I’ve known him for 10 years and he’s been just grinding with school or work the whole time. And on top of that, it’s gonna bring him new perspective on life—it made me a better person, so it stands to reason that it’ll make him a better person too. I’m scared to be on my own with the dogs for several months, but I know I can make it work.
Last question: what do you love about the outdoors?
It’s not asking anything from you, it’s not telling you what to do; it’s just there. When I’m out in the middle of nowhere and there’s no one around me, especially on a nice day and the sun’s setting and it’s silent except for the wind, I’m just speechless. It gives you this perspective of how all the bullshit that you have to deal with in your life that you’re worrying about is meaningless—absolutely meaningless. It like resets my brain; it’s a literal breath of fresh air.
Two of the above photos were taken by Kyle and the summit photos were taken by Andrew.
This interview has been trimmed and edited to fit this format. If you would like to access the unedited interview audio and unposted photography, see my Patreon page.