On March 23rd, 2016 Jan Mickelson set out on to through hike the Appalachian Trail. Beginning at Springer Mountain in Georgia, she reached the peak of Katahdin exactly six months later on September 23, 2016. Her father, who inspired her to undertake the journey, was by her side.
Mickelson, 40, grew up in Windham and graduated from Windham Christian Academy in 1994. Hiking the Appalachian Trail was always in the back of her mind, thanks to her dad, who often talked of doing a through hike while she was growing up.
“That’s what originally put the thought in my mind,” she said. “Little by little it grew on me until it became something I really wanted to do.”
The trip took several months of preparation. There was gear to buy, and a schedule to plan, as well as practical issues like where to store her belongings and giving notice at her job in order to clear the six months for hiking. Mickelson bought a guide book and went through it cover to cover, planning out a schedule for the entire trip. This gave her an idea of where towns were located, and how long the trip would take, she said, though in the end she did not take her schedule with her on the trek.
Mickelson hiked solo for most of the trail, though family members joined her in a couple of sections. She did see other hikers daily along the trail, she said. A ranger told her that this year twice as many people started the trail than in 2015, with approximately 5,000 hikers beginning the journey, though far fewer complete the entire trail than begin it, she said.
The hardest part of the through hike, Mickelson said, was the emotional strength it took to get through anxiety or loneliness on the trail. “I knew it was going to be hard physically, and I knew that some mental toughness would be required, but I didn’t anticipate the emotional toughness required,” she said.
Even though she was hiking alone much of the time, the only time she was really scared, she said, was when she heard news of some very dangerous weather conditions on Mt. Lafayette in the White Mountains just a couple days before she would be heading over the same mountain. “I was hiking down a difficult mountain and I was praying I wouldn’t be by myself,” she said. Along the way, she met some other hikers who were going to spend the night at the same hostel she planned on staying at, and was able to hike the rest of the White Mountains with them. “They were the answer to my prayer,” she said.
Mickelson said the advice she’d give to anyone thinking of doing a through hike is to be prepared for the mental stamina the hike requires. She’d also tell them to take their time, and try not to feel pressured to get a particular mileage in every day. “Just experience as much along the way as you can,” she said.
Though she still hasn’t processed everything that she’ll take away from the journey, Mickelson said it changed her perspective in many ways. “I had lots of opportunities to meet and get to know people that in ordinary everyday life I wouldn’t have necessarily have connected with at all,” she said. The hike also deepened and strengthened Mickelson’s faith in God, she said. “There were so many occasions I knew he was protecting me, providing for me.”