MECHANICSVILLE, Md. – When Ashton Frech was five years old, she went on a hike in Shenandoah with her family. During her time there, she would occasionally see through-hikers as they made their way through the trail. Her young curiosity was officially piqued in those pivotal moments of that trip and she would later even go on to learn that one of her relatives hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 1996.
Frech grew up in St. Mary’s County and has lived in Southern Maryland ever since then. Boasting both a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and Marketing and a Master of Science in Marketing Analytics, she had spent the entirety of her life in some form of school. When she completed her education, she decided that it was finally time to explore other parts of herself.
While in college, Frech spent her free time being part of a collegiate hip-hop dance group and hiking smaller trails with her friends on weekends. The latter activity afforded her a sense of freedom unlike anything else she had ever experienced up until that point. Frech shares, “During college I felt a lot of pressure about what to do with my life and the Appalachian Trail felt like the freedom and autonomy that I needed.”
At the beginning of her hike, she clocked 8 to 10 miles each day. Once she had built up the muscle and stamina, her days gradually transitioned to 15 to 17 mile days. To date, her longest hike in a single day was 21 miles.
In an effort to properly fuel her body during the intensive trek, Frech shares that her relationship with food choices was flipped on its head. She suddenly found herself purposely selecting foods with as many calories in them as possible, in order to achieve her goal of consuming 3500 to 4000 calories each day so that her body could survive during the arduous hike. Her diet was typically made up of shelf-stable items that she would purchase every four days when she would stop at a convenience store in a nearby town. Meal choices primarily consisted of pop-tarts, oatmeal, peanut butter on a tortilla, pasta, rice, ramen, protein bars, and candy. She shares, “I needed high fat for long-term energy, high protein for building muscle, and high carb for short-term energy.”
Bathroom usage and hygiene were two additional adjustments that she had to acclimate to. On the trail, there was only a privy once every 10 miles. Sometimes it would have walls, but other times it consisted of a lone toilet by itself in the middle of nowhere. The only other alternative was digging a hole in the ground whenever she needed to use the bathroom.
Traditional personal hygiene became a luxury that she was only afforded when she visited a town along the trail every few days where she got to take a shower. Frech’s longest stretch without a shower lasted 14 days when she was in the process of hiking through four states. However, she shared that all of the through-hikers share the same habits and don’t even wear deodorant because its usage becomes futile at a certain point. Within the microcosm of the Trail’s culture, she fit right in.
In terms of staying safe while on the Trail, Frech employed a few different strategies. She carried pepper spray and a swiss army knife with her at all times just in case she were to encounter anyone suspicious while hiking. Thankfully, their use was never warranted. Pitching her tent away from main roads and never revealing to anyone where she was planning to sleep each evening were non-negotiable. In order to keep safe around the local wildlife, she studied beforehand how to respond to each animal that she might encounter while on the trail and did not incur any injuries from that. She also sent her location each night to her parents via a Garmin inReach that was equipped with emergency satellite location capabilities.
One of the cultural customs of the Trail is the use of trail names, since everyone chooses to go by a nickname instead of their legal name. Frech’s trail name was Braveheart. She rightfully earned the name after a particularly close encounter with a bear one night early on in her journey. Contrary to most bears she encountered on the trail, this bear was accustomed to humans because someone had previously fed it. She shares, “The bear got so close to my tent that I could have booped it on the snout if there hadn’t been the tent surrounding me. I could hear the bear breathing and eating. I ended up clapping at the bear and then it finally got annoyed with me and left.”
Two of the other cultural norms on the Trail are the sense of a tight-knit community amongst all of the through-hikers, and something called trail angels. The beauty of the community of the Trail lies in its diversity. People from all over, different ages, and backgrounds are all able to find a common bond with each other through their collectively shared experiences in nature. One of Frech’s dearest friends on the Trail was a 69-year-old man, even though she herself is in her 20s. She often hiked for days at a time with fellow adventurers and would then meet back up with them later on the trail. Some of her trail friends included Maisy, Nat Geo, Sunset, and Summer School.
Trail angels are non-hikers who live along the trail’s path and choose to help through-hikers in a myriad of ways. Hikers would affectionately refer to their acts of goodwill as trail magic. Typically they would randomly provide entire meals for the adventurers along the way or even provide them with a ride somewhere free of charge. Frech recalls one angel helping her for three days in a row when she was near New Jersey. He brought her a meal, drove her to a hiker friendly drive-in movie theater, and then drove her back to the trail. She shares, “To me, it felt like these people should be strangers, but not to me because they are supportive of all of the hikers. It makes you want to give back. I will definitely return the favor next year if I’m still on the east coast.”
Along with all of the positives of the experience, Frech also encountered her fair share of adversity as well. The most challenging part of her hike occurred when she arrived in Vermont, New Hampshire, and southern Maine. The combination of the mountains being extremely steep and rugged mixed with being completely alone for a substantial amount of time began to wear on her in every possible way. However, she shares, “There’s a saying on the trail – “never stop on a bad day.” I remembered that and stopped in a town to regroup and have a good meal. While there, I found out that two of my trail friends were in the next town. That was the morale boost I needed.”
After completing the almost 2,200 mile trail, Frech has decided to pursue her career for the foreseeable future. However, she hopes to someday hike the 1,900-mile Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand or even possibly go for the Triple Crown (a completion of all three American trails) at some point.
Frech finishes with this remark about the Trail, “I think anyone who has ever even given it a thought should go out and do it. It takes a big sacrifice (six months), but it is so worth it. You become so present in the present moment and it is really a life-changing experience. We don’t know when the end comes for us, so take advantage of the time that you have and go do it. There are alternative ways of pursuing the Trail. You can do sections of the trail or do it out of order. The trail is what you make it.”
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