For many people, long distance hiking is a life changing experience. I am one of those people. I finished my first thru-hike in 2003 at the Canadian border after completing the Pacific Crest Trail. At the time, I didn't know about post-trail depression, and it hit me hard. I missed my trail friends, and all I wanted to do was keep hiking–so, I did. I completed the Continental Divide Trail in 2004 and the Appalachian Trail in 2005. Not wanting to spend more money, but still wanting to hike, I spent the next summer as a volunteer ranger in the High Uintas Wilderness in Utah with free housing and a small stipend. However, when the ranger season ended, I was lost again.

My first marriage fell apart after the Pacific Crest Trail. Without a work permit, I was headed home to the Netherlands, a country without mountains. Luckily, however, I was able to stay with friends and save up some money working at a department store. I started planning for another hike, and felt the excitement this brought back into my life. I was able to get another travel visa, and had AT friends starting their PCT hike. I was looking forward to the next life changing experience. I was looking forward to joining them and then hopping on the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) once I hit Tuolumne Meadows. And, that's where I met Greenleaf.

gossamer gear tent on a life changing experience

After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1998, Greenleaf, like me, decided he wanted more flexibility in his life to go hiking. With a degree in plant science and lots of tree climbing experience, he started up his own business, Greenleaf's Tree Service and Garden Design. When he needed a break from the business, he decided to hike the PCT. And as luck would have it, he had gotten ahead of his hiking friends when he hiked into Tahoe and wanted to kill some time. He had rented a car, and I just happened to need a ride to Glacier National Park to start my PNT hike. Long story short, he gave me a ride, we stayed in touch, quit our hikes, and now we're happily married.

Long distance hiking brought our lives together, and helped me find my way out of feeling so lost. My husband inspired me to start my own business, as well–to honor my creative pursuits. I'm now the owner of Arlette Laan Fiber Creations and make and sell sock dolls (aka: hiking mascots!). Today, Greenleaf and I are lucky in that both our businesses are seasonal and we can take January and February off to hike and travel. Together, we've since hiked the Arizona Trail, the Grand Enchantment Trail, sections of the Pacific Crest trail, through Patagonia, the Florida Trail, around the south island of New Zealand, and 500 miles in New Mexico along the CDT.

One of Arlette's sock dolls in mariposa backpack partaking in the life changing experience

This winter, we combined the Benton MacKaye Trail with the AT for a 550-mile loop and then added the Pinhoti Trail for a total of close to 900 miles. Whereas most of our other hikes have been desert hikes or in opposite seasons, the Benton MacKaye and AT loop was definitely a winter hike. There may have been less snow in the south compared to our trusty White Mountains in New Hampshire, but we still had some brutally cold days. It was fun for us to backpack in such cold temperatures and test our skills and equipment. We only saw one other hiker on the BMT, and even on the AT we didn't see many. But, that wasn't the only advantage of being out there so early.

The trees were still bare, so we had views for days. On several occasions, rime ice would form on trees and grass and turn our surroundings into a magical fairy land. Fording creeks in the ice cold was less fun, but we hit those in warmer temperatures and just kept on walking to keep the blood flowing. On the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains, we encountered snow drifts and freezing temperatures, but the winter boots we had mailed ourselves ahead of time kept our feet warm and cozy. Thank goodness we carried our Hillsound trail crampons with us. On several occasions, the trail turned into a veritable skating rink. But, the views were amazing and the solitude with one another was wonderful.

winter views on a snowy life changing experience on the trail

Once we started on the Pinhoti trail, we used up all our good weather luck and it started pouring on us. We were in Georgia planning to hike south, but streams were flooding and the churning water could not be easily crossed. With more heavy rain in the forecast, we decided to flip south and hike back up northbound to where we got off. This worked out fine until we got hit by an unseasonable heat wave. The Pinhoti trail is a nice, woodsy walk with some fine ridgeviews, but after the heat wave, we got more rain, and that definitely put a damper on things. I would highly recommend this trail, but maybe pick some nice spring or fall days for your hiking.

All in all, our winter trip was another great one together. We now feel more confident in cold weather backpacking and discovered ever more beautiful countryside. Thru-hiking was a life changing experience. We wouldn't have it any other way. We live in a small apartment, budget our money wisely, and count ourselves very lucky–lucky to have found each other, and lucky to be able hike as much as we do.