Known as one of the most difficult yet beautiful trails in the United States, the Appalachian Trail is not for the faint of heart. Only about 3,000 people complete the 2,193.1-mile trail each year, and in 2021, Maria Pickerill was one of the few to accomplish the trek.
Now working as a public information officer for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Pickerill has often sought ways to combine her love of nature with her education. Her main responsibilities include Project Learning Tree, an environmental education initiative for children and educators to connect with nature.
“I would say around the start of COVID, I got pretty interested in doing a thru-hike. I was originally more interested in the Pacific Crest Trail. But when researching, I found a program at Emory & Henry College where you can complete a thru-hike and receive college credit,” said Pickerill.
“It’s called a Semester-A-Trail. A thru-hike can take anywhere from four to seven months, depending on how fast you are. I started the last day of February and finished in early August, so I was able to come back for the fall semester at Capital.”
In May 2022, Pickerill graduated from Capital with a degree in communications. She used her skills during her hike to write for the Semester-A-Trail blog about the breathtaking views and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
“The Grayson Highlands are stunning and have beautiful wild ponies,” said Pickerill. “Then there’s something called the Virginia Triple Crown, which includes Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs.”
Throughout Pickerill’s thru-hike, she moved south to north. Her preparation included trail-specific courses from Emory & Henry and practice hikes to ensure that she was familiar with her equipment and had the skills necessary to succeed.
A thru-hike is defined as a hike of the entire Appalachian Trail in 12 months or less. The average thru-hike takes approximately six months.
“I went into the trail expecting to feel uncomfortable and push myself through that feeling,” said Pickerill. “The trail was exactly what I was looking for. Every day you wake up and have to walk, no matter if you’re in the mood to walk or not. You have to get up and have to walk north, because the ultimate goal is to finish. If you’re not walking, you’re not progressing towards that goal, whether it’s raining, snowing, hailing, or beautiful.”
At one point, Pickerill got off trail for health reasons but decided to continue after challenging herself to recognize at least one positive thing every day. Often, the positive thing that Pickerill embraced was her trail family.
“The trail is incredibly social. The Appalachian Trail is the most famous trails in the U.S. I would get to camp every night and there would be five to 20 people already there. People from all different walks of life, all hiking for different reasons. It was really lovely to meet so many different people with so many different perspectives, all attempting to do something similar,” said Pickerill.
“It was really interesting because I got to meet people who I wouldn’t have normally had the opportunity to interact with. You all have a shared purpose and a strong sense of community.”
Pickerill hopes to hike more trails soon, including the Pacific Crest Trail.