Nomadic by nature

Local woman enjoys simplicity of life on the trail
Amy Hepner, a 2000 graduate of Central High School, completed a six-month hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in October.  Photo courtesy of Amy Hepner

Amy Hepner, a 2000 graduate of Central High School, completed a six-month hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in October. Photo courtesy of Amy Hepner

Rarely does Amy Hepner stay in one place for very long.

Hepner, a 2000 graduate of Central High School, settled briefly for a time in West Virginia, when she attended Shepherd University and later taught in Berkeley Springs, but has since traveled to various parts of the country over the last decade while making and selling pottery.

“This is kind of how I am,” Hepner said of her nomadic nature in a recent phone interview.

Several years ago, Hepner decided she would turn that lifestyle into a hobby and started planning a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT). She began running long distances and performing core exercises to prepare her body for the 2,190-mile trek, and completed daylong and overnight hikes in New England and a 200-mile hike along Skyline Drive to see if it was something she would really enjoy.

In 2013, Hepner completed the nearly six-month long hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Afterward, Hepner moved to Montana, purchased a van with the intent of traveling in it and soon became frustrated because the vehicle “wasn’t running right.” It was then that Hepner decided, practically on a whim, that she would hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which makes up one-third of the Triple Crown of Hiking along with the Appalachian and Continental Divide trails.

On April 22, Hepner began the 2,650-mile hike at its starting point in Campo, California, on the U.S. border with Mexico.

“The first 500 miles can sometimes be super rough because it’s in the Mojave Desert and just acclimating really to the dry out there is kind of different because Virginia is like a rainforest, pretty much,” Hepner said.

Around the 600-mile mark, Hepner said, the trail ascends into the Sierra Nevada mountain range, eventually hitting the Pacific Crest Trail’s highest point at Forrester Pass (13,153 feet). From there it’s on to the Cascades in northern California, Oregon and Washington state, where the trail ends at its northern terminus on the edge of Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada, on America’s northern border.

Hepner completed the trek on Oct. 3, finishing the Pacific Crest Trail in less time than the Appalachian Trail despite the PCT being nearly 500 miles longer.

“The reason is it’s graded for horses and mules, whereas the AT can be brutally steep,” Hepner said.

And the difference between the two trails doesn’t end there.

Hepner called the Appalachian Trail a “long, big hug” with an older culture and southern hospitality unmatched by the PCT community, where you run into people less often.

But Hepner said the PCT is more “eye opening” than the AT because it’s more secluded (she said sometimes traffic from Interstate 81 can be heard from the Appalachian Trail) and she added that the Pacific Crest Trail is more scenic.

“Every picture you take is beautiful,” Hepner said of the PCT. “You don’t even have to be a photographer, it’s just like, ‘Wow.’ And you almost get worn out taking pictures because you just want to enjoy it.”

Though Hepner completed the PCT in less time, it did present some challenges that she didn’t have to face hiking along the East Coast, mainly in regard to replenishing food and water.

While fresh water is available every 3 or 4 miles on the AT, Hepner said, hikers often had to travel much longer distances on the PCT before getting a refill. Hepner estimated she carried around 13 pounds of water at a time through the desert portions of the trail.

“On the PCT there was 20- to 40-mile stretches where you have to carry water, and in the desert that’s pretty crazy,” she said.

“And the first part of the PCT … there were big groups camping at night because of the scarcity of water,” Hepner added.

Hikers often have to trek five times that distance to replenish their food supply on the PCT, Hepner said, as it’s the norm to hike 100 miles before hitting the next town to stock up. In the Sierra Nevada, Hepner added, sometimes hikers would need to devote a half-day simply to walking a side trail to a point where they could hitch a ride into the nearest town, where hikers would also do laundry and sometimes share hotel rooms in order to shower.

While Hepner said she’d sometimes consume healthy food like almonds, cashews and dried fruit while on the trail, her “staple” foods included candy bars, ramen, turkey and various other junk foods.

“Some people stuck with healthy stuff but I felt like doing the miles I just needed the sugar and junk,” she said.

Sometimes Hepner’s uncle would send her deer jerky, while her grandmother would ship applesauce cake all the way from Virginia.

“That stuff was really good for trading, especially the jerky. I could get a couple Snickers bars for a piece of deer jerky,” Hepner said with a laugh.

Hepner began both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails by herself, but she said you get to know fellow hikers “right off the bat,” and four days spent together on the trail can turn into a lifetime friendship.

“I feel like I have a huge network of friends all over the United States and the world because of these hikes,” said Hepner, who was given the trail name “Honey Badger” by her fellow hikers during her trek on the AT.

Hepner said it’s the simplicity of life on the trail that has drawn her into the lifestyle.

“I think life is really, really busy and we’re distracted by so many things every day that it’s nice to just have a central focus,” she said. “Like I’m just walking, but this is my job today, to walk. And it kind of is hard to get back into life after it. I would say there are negative parts because a lot of people get depressed when they’re done and it’s hard to acclimate.

“I think the simplicity of it and the repetition … and adrenaline from getting that much exercise every day, how can you not be happy getting that much exercise every day?”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com

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