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‘A life-changing adventure’: Area native Kristen Dippold discusses trials and triumphs of hiking the Appalachian Trail
Kristen Dippold of Thebes, Illinois, first met a through-hiker while on a trail near her college in Georgia. He was a stranger, obviously, but there was something else about him she didn't recognize.
"How full of life he was," she recalled. "How full of energy."
When he mentioned the Appalachian Trail it rang a bell, she says, but she didn't know much more about it.
"I started researching it around 2013," she says. "That spring semester within a few months I had decided to do it."
She graduated in 2015 — having studied outdoor leadership — and hit the trail with her friend Diane Duffard.
"In the beginning, I thought I knew what I was doing," Dippold says. "I had done some backpacking trips before, but you still have a lot to learn ... it's six months of backpacking."
She quickly discovered in herself and her companions what she had seen in that first hiker she met. The sense of excitement and energy.
"There's so much energy in the beginning," she says. "You're camping with 100 people around. But as you keep going, you start to get into the swing of things ... And somewhere in Virginia, the novelty of hiking wears off."
She says through-hikers call it the "Virginia Blues," and she had them, too. The hiking is physically easier, she says, but it marks the first real psychological hurdle.
"You've gone four, five, six hundred miles and you start thinking, 'I still have 1,500 to go,'" she says. "It comes down to mental toughness. It starts to get old."
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, is the halfway point.
"Well, the psychological halfway point at least," she says. "That's when the enormity of the trail hit me."
Only one in four hikers finish the full Appalachian Trail, but Dippold says whoever's left by Harpers Ferry is most likely going to finish -- if they don't get injured.
It's only a few miles to cross the portion of the trail through West Virginia, and only a few days to get through the Maryland leg. But Pennsylvania, Dippold says, is rough. It's rocky and rainy and hilly.
"A lot of people hate it," she says. "A lot of people get hurt. Rocks, blisters, twisted ankles. The rain makes the rock slippery."
But by the time she hit Vermont, she says, she'd found a "trail family"; the free-associative bands of hikers who start sticking together, sharing costs and so on. It began to sink in that the trail was nearing its end.
"Maine -- everybody's excited to be there," she says.
Some don't want it to end. Others want to speed up and hit their goal.
"The last 100 miles, its like everyone's holding their breath," she says. "There's a tension in the air."
The self-reflection Dippold had been doing the whole time on and off took a different tone, she says.
"You learn about yourself more," she says. "Trail life is so simple. Real life is not ... the night before you summit, there's a sigh of relief. That sense of community returns."
She says one of her favorite parts of the trip was watching her companions approach the summit marker. Some cry. Some laugh. Some scream, kiss, anything.
"It's just a life-changing adventure," she says. "People can't understand what you've been through."
For anyone who's ever considered such an undertaking, Dippold says to go for it.
"It will change your life in the best way possible. It will also ruin your life in the best way possible," she says. "If that makes any sense."
You'll return clearer, stronger and weirded out by supermarkets and running water. And if you can't bring yourself to hike, volunteer, she says. Serve others. Slow down and actually talk to whomever you're talking to.
"Look at things with gratitude," she says. "That'll help."