As a child, Sammy Potter asked his mother for an unusual birthday present: to go on a hike.
Now, Potter is getting more than he imagined — an anticipated nine-month trek with his best friend along three of America’s most arduous trails: the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide.
Potter and Jackson Parell, both students at Stanford University, embarked on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia on New Year’s Day, taking the first steps on a nearly 7,940-mile journey to become the youngest known hikers to finish the ambitious trek dubbed the Calendar Year Triple Crown.
It’s “a massive, massive, massive thing to do. We’re going to hike three trails in one year. Just that sentence is insane,” said Potter, 21, who aims to complete the epic excursion before classes resume Sept. 20. “At this point, it’s about putting one foot in front of the other.”
The journey began Jan. 1 at Springer Mountain in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The trek will take the pair through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire before ending at Baxter State Park in Maine.
The hikers aim to walk about 10 hours each day, briskly covering 32 miles at a time on average, but Potter said it was unclear whether they would be able to finish the Appalachian Trail — the shortest of the big three, at nearly 2,200 miles — in one pass. If snow or bad weather forces them off the trail in the Northern states, the hiking partners plan to move to one of the other routes before returning to complete the Appalachian.
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“We’d rather have to do one, the other and the next,” Potter said of the three extensive hikes, “but sometimes the weather doesn’t allow it.”
The other two trails are even more challenging. The 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail reaches from Mexico to Canada, spanning New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. It traverses a variety of landscapes, from the dusty deserts of New Mexico to peaks of more than 13,000 feet in Colorado.
The Pacific Crest Trail winds along the West Coast — 2,650 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border in Rancho del Campo through the Angeles National Forest and Yosemite, up to the mountainous U.S.-Canada border.
Parell and Potter are no strangers to hiking. Since his childhood birthday wish, Potter has trekked several parts of the Appalachian Trail near his home in Yarmouth, Maine. Parell, who grew up in Hillsboro Beach, Fla., completed the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in Spain in 2019.
“For me, there’s really nothing more simple than getting on trail and walking every day,” said Parell, who will turn 21 during this year’s journey. “It’s kind of just a nice reminder of how simple life can be if you choose to make it.”
When the novel coronavirus erupted on campus in March, the Stanford schoolmates piled into a car and drove 18 hours straight to a friend’s house in Jackson, Wyo., the closest place where they could isolate. All of them became infected with the coronavirus, circumstances that were “definitely a bonding experience,” Parell said.
Riding out the pandemic amid restrictions that shut down California and moved all of Stanford’s classes online, Potter longed for the great outdoors.
“I felt like I was living so much of my life through the screen,” he said.
He picked up some nonfiction adventure books, which introduced him to the idea of the Calendar Year Triple Crown, and he was hooked.
“It kind of became this fantasy obsession of mine over the spring,” Potter said. “Eventually, I realized that if this is going to be something that I ever want to do, there is never going to be a better time to do it.”
While hiking with Parell on the difficult Presidential Traverse through New Hampshire’s White Mountains over the summer, Potter enlisted his friend to join him on the Triple Crown adventure.
Both families fully endorsed the young men’s plans. The Parells offered the ground floor of their cottage in New Hampshire as a situation room for planning the journey. The two friends traced their projected paths along the country’s most difficult hiking trails, taping paper maps to the walls.
At Stanford, the students bonded during their sophomore year over their shared love of the outdoors, partnering for 20-mile runs to train for marathons. Once they committed to the massive 2021 trek, they worked out twice a day, building up strength to endure the arduous trip.
“As a parent, you want nothing more for even your adult child to be just happy and content and able to take a breath,” said Nora Parell, Jackson’s mother. “Sometimes I think we’re going so quickly that we’re not doing that and taking care of that side of ourselves.”
Potter and Parell have planned each step of their journey down to their daily menu: pancakes or oatmeal for breakfast; mashed potatoes, quesadillas or rice and beans for dinner. They will need to consume about 5,000 calories each day of hiking to keep up their endurance. They have budgeted travel days between trails and for Parell’s brother’s wedding in July.
The two also have mapped out rest days about every two and a half weeks to give their feet a break, call their families and restock supplies, which they spent weeks during the fall and winter stockpiling. Each rest day is set to coincide with their arrival in a small town, just large enough for a post office, where their mothers will mail fresh supplies on a strict schedule their sons prepared.
“This is zero work for me,” said Dina Potter, laughing, “other than going to the post office.”
Parell joked the hiking partners have even calculated what to do if one of them is having a bad day: “If you ever do anything wrong on trail — something really bad — then you get assigned a ‘silent day.’ The other person can call a silent day on you whenever and wherever.”
The first person reported to complete the Calendar Year Triple Crown, Brian Robinson, finished in 10 months in 2001. Since his inaugural hike 20 years ago, fewer than a dozen people have followed in his footsteps.
Heather Anderson, known on the trails as “Anish,” became the first woman to complete the thru-hike two years ago. She had already hiked each of the three major routes twice and decided to challenge herself to complete them all in less than a year.
Whenever she encountered a mental obstacle during her trek, Anderson reminded herself that she hikes because she enjoys it — “even if it’s difficult at times.”
“The No. 1 thing I knew was that things on long hikes never go according to plan and that your ability to adapt is the determining factor in success as well as enjoyment for any long-distance hike … and life in general,” Anderson said.
Potter said a huge part of the trip is mental, including managing the 20-pound packs they will be carrying. Their sacks are packed with sleeping bags and pads, a tent, clothes, a first-aid kit, and food and cook gear.
To keep entertained along the way, Parell said he’ll listen to an hours-long music playlist his friends made. Potter plans to jam out to Kenny Chesney and Young Thug, and he wants to finish every episode of the podcast “This American Life.” In their free time, the two will be the subject of a podcast for Backpacker Magazine, where Potter has interned.
The trip “is going to require the same type of flexibility that we’ve had to show here during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Parell said. “In a way, I think the pandemic has kind of prepared us well.”
An adventure conceived in the worst pandemic in a century will probably end in a changed world. But Parell and Potter are eager to escape a world where “so many things were spinning out of control” and immerse themselves in the comfort of nature’s steady evolution.
“Nature isn’t different now than it was when COVID started. It’s probably the only thing that isn’t different,” Potter said. “I’m not saying that I want to forget that or anything, but it does feel like a crazy opportunity to just get in touch with something that has been the same for hundreds of years and is doing its own thing.”
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