Sarah Heidenreich

Profile of a CDT Thru-Hiker

I grew up in Vermont, roaming the woods and the backroads. My family took weekend excursions to the White Mountains, most often Mount Moosilauke, just across the Connecticut River into New Hampshire. So you could say my love affair with the mountains began early on, running ahead with my sister through the pouring rain, (no doubt in cotton t-shirts and Velcro sneakers, inadvertently risking our lives) or huddling in the old foundation on the summit of Lafayette watching the clouds whip the ridge.

Since the age of sixteen I've spent my summers in the woods working. I spent three seasons with the Adirondack Mountain Club as a member of their professional trail crew and one season with the Appalachian Trail Conference leading volunteers on a trail building project in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Last summer I worked as a backcountry caretaker for the Appalachian Mountain Club. I've hiked the Appalachian Trail in three section hikes in 1997-98, spent time outdoors in the American southwest, and traveled in Central America. Still, with all this experience under my belt, I still have the itch for adventure.

My hiking partner, Adrianne, and I met last summer while working at the AMC; we had partially coinciding days off and on one afternoon romp in search of a swimming hole, we discovered that we both dreamed of hiking the CDT. At first it seemed too good to be true that two practical strangers should seem so well suited to hiking together, and to have heard of the Continental Divide Trail in the first place. We both fell silent, unable to muster the courage to ask the other the inevitable question. Later that summer, we attempted "the hut traverse", a 53-mile hike from hut to hut in the White Mountains. The traditional challenge of the hike is to complete it in 24 hours of continuous walking. The day we picked turned out to be beautiful. Perhaps we spent too much time soaking in the sun in the Presidentials or losing ourselves in the thousands of stars overhead atop Guyot, because we finished 1.7 miles short of our goal, exhausted and nearly delirious, but satisfied with what we had been able to complete and still keep body and soul together. At that point our relationship became a partnership and we began planning for the CDT.

Starting last fall, I began spending my free time dehydrating food, ordering maps, deliberating over decisions about gear, and trying to save money. By New Year's we were planning more intensely, spending 4-5 days doing nothing else but sitting in front of maps and discussing and marking the route. Then there was the scramble to finish up with all the little details we had no idea would take this long.

As the time to leave my snug home in Vermont for the western mountains of the Continental Divide grows shorter, my level of anticipation runs high. I spend each day going over and over plans, rethinking the details, forcing myself to face the realities of the experience to come as head on as possible—only to find that the idea is overwhelming. I am nervous, to say the least, but in the end the potential pitfalls fade and I imagine the walk.

I love the lifestyle of a long walk, the freedom and strength it gives you. The speed of walking is just right to really become familiar with the places you visit. Rather then seeing them through a car window you have the opportunity to watch them live, to smell their rich smells and hear their noises and silences.

But it's more than that: It is, quite simply, the lure of the mountains. It's hard to articulate what draws a person to the mountains: I want to experience the moods of the mountains, their calm days and their storms, and what's left of their wildness, that part that's still unscathed by humans. I want to experience the fear, awe, and reverence the wilderness inspires in me.

Ever since I learned of the CDT, I've dreamt of walking its length before the trail is officially completed. Though sometimes nerve-wracking, the challenge of route finding is exciting. Through it all I hope to gain an education—in what, I can't say exactly. I guess I'll just have to trust my teacher.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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