In 2008, Alan Carpenter decided to try his first long distance hike. He picked the manageable John Muir trail, a 218-mile walk through the Sierra Nevada mountains, as he says.
“I’d never hiked that far before and I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, but I went on that hike and had a terrific time — it was a life event for me, partly because it was something I didn’t know I could do, but I ended up successfully accomplishing it,” says Carpenter, a 24-year Boulder resident. “I got bitten by the bug so I decided I wanted to do more long distance hiking.”
The next year he hiked the Colorado Trail, a 486-mile path from Denver to Durango. Then, having acquired a light-weight pack and cut his “pack weight,” the weight of his pack, gear and clothes, in half from about 30 pounds to 15 pounds, he went back to do the John Muir Trail again.
“It was interesting to do the same trail again with lightweight gear. It was a much more enjoyable experience,” he says.
Then, last year, he repeated the Colorado Trail. The Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,600-mile hike from the Mexican to Canadian borders of the United States, is high on his list, but he’s still recovering from a tendon he tore on the Colorado Trail.
Eight months ago, still 105 miles from Denver, he woke up with a sore, swollen ankle.
“I thought, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can hike anymore. Could I make it four miles back to the highway, much less 105 miles to Denver?’” he recounts.
On the advice of another hiker, he hobbled his way to a stream and sat with his foot in the water until it was numbed and took it slowly that day.
“Then the next day, I got up, thought, ‘Well, if I go slowly at first, after an hour or two the pain will diminish to the point that I can continue hiking,’ so I finished the trail,” he says. “Maybe that wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I did it anyway.”
It’s that determination that he says makes the biggest difference in finishing a long distance hike.
“I think it depends upon their mental state, frankly, more than anything else. I think most people walking around could do something like that if they wanted to, but I think the want is largely dependent on their mental attitude. If they’re willing to sort of suspend disbelief and try it,” he says. “I would recommend people starting with something they can imagine doing. I don’t think I could have imagined hiking the Colorado Trail in 2008, but I could imagine hiking the much shorter John Muir Trail.”
The photographic bait provided by other hikers on the trail didn’t hurt, either. He plans to chase the lure of the Pacific Crest Trail this time next year.
“Everything I’ve heard about it — it’s a life-changing experience for people who do it,” he says. “They come back from that experience being more grateful for the opportunity to do it, plus just being more grateful for all the people they meet along the way and the scenery and the experience.”
All that gratitude builds up through the contributions that come from “trail angels,” people who show up along the trail to help hikers with a ride into town, a bed to sleep in overnight, a little food or a cold beer along the road.
“If that happens to you for five months, apparently it really changes your outlook on things and people just say, ‘My life is different now,’” he says.
In the meantime, he might do a long hike late in the summer. Or take a consolation prize like biking from Canada to Mexico. His wife, who also hiked part of the Colorado Trail with him, and his son may come along for part of that ride.
He’s also sharing more of what he’s learned along the way, from packing light to how to hitch-hike (Carpenter got his lesson in this at the top of Kenosha Pass, 70 miles into his first Colorado Trail tour). At 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 13, he’ll give a talk at Boulder’s REI that distills some of the wisdom racked up in all those miles.
“Basically, the purpose of that is to encourage people who show up to at least give it a try,” he says. The goal is to help them get over their fears of what they don’t know about the gear or being too young or too old, says Carpenter, who completed all of these trails over the age of 60.