An interview with Appalachian Trail trekker, Heather Machelle
Interview by Jeremy Lux, article by Eric Gasa
Heather Machelle’s story is a lesson on alternative lifestyles in a conformist world. Nothing too crazy or drastic, but rather a person simply driven by their passion to push their body and truly see the world. In short, for her 30th birthday Machelle hiked the famed Appalachian Trail; an impressive 144-day trek across the 2,189 miles stretching from Maine to Georgia.
Machelle’s journey was more than just a long walk though. It required years of training and preparation, that along the way completely transformed her outlook on life and what makes us happy. Machelle traded possessions for genuine human experiences, and an average job for a vibrant once-in-a-lifetime view of the natural world. Not very often does life give us such opportunities, but when Machelle saw it, she seized the chance.
For the latest episode, Jeremy Lux sits down for an insightful chat with Machelle about her the hike that changed her life, that time she almost got struck by lightning, and why turning 30 really isn’t that bad. All that and more on the Life in Motion podcast.
Growing up in rural Arkansas, Machelle always had a bit of connection to nature. After college she enjoyed a great deal of freedom, working odd jobs, everything from bartending to managing radio stations, then taking off six months at a time to focus on hiking. For Machelle, getting outdoors was an escape from modern life.
“I started going out on hikes almost any chance that I had off work,” she says, “I found freedom in that. It helped me find clarity away from, you know, the bar and the hustle of working long nights and every weekend.”
Today, Machelle works as an assistant at a farm growing produce. An enriching experience that she says is like getting “paid to play in the dirt all day.”
Going out on hikes here and there is one thing but how does one convince themselves of undertaking a 144-day trek? Well, for Machelle it all started with car ride and a little daydreaming.
“I was giving a friend a ride and we started talking about almost being 30. I think it was his year to turn 30 and then another two years for me, and we were just thinking ‘Oh my gosh, we better do something crazy with our life before we turn 30 or the world is going to end!’” she recalls.
Instead of suggesting something like going to Coachella, Burning Man, or running the Boston Marathon, Machelle’s friend mentioned the Appalachian Trail and how he had always wanted to do it. Maybe it was the direness of turning 30, but right there and then, Machelle thought “what the heck,” and agreed to do it with him. Their plan would be to train for two years so by the time they were both in their 30s they would be in shape to hit the trail.
The Appalachian Trail stretches along the eastern states for thousands of miles and takes months to complete. So, how does one prepare and pack for such an endeavor? Machelle started by following expert hikers on social media for advice, especially on what kind of food to bring. As one could imagine, hiking for hours at a time requires huge amounts of energy, about 4,000 calories per day, so Honeybuns became a favorite of Machelle’s. She also jokes about downing an entire large pizza from Little Caesars and loving every moment of it. But equally important is packing light and smart. That means trimming every loose ounce from your pack, even if that means cutting your toothbrush in half.
“The best advice anyone has given me was the saying ‘you pack your fears.’ And that’s usually what you pack too much of. For me, it was food,” Machelle shares, “I was constantly wanting to pack out more food then I needed. I ended up getting rid of almost everything I had and getting new gear. I went from a 25-pound pack to almost 15.”
Cutting that 10 pounds was a huge help for Machelle as it turned out. But what is also a huge aid for those first few hundred miles on the trail, are trail buddies. Machelle calls them her “traimily” or trail family. A close coterie of friends made on the trail that are there to help with morale and bond with along the way. As it turns out plenty of people hit the Appalachian Trail each year, so it wasn’t hard for Machelle to make some lifelong friends in the mountains.
But the trail also comes with plenty of toils and snares. A couple hundred miles in, Machelle’s knee cap collapsed under the weight. Undeterred, she had to wear a bandage for several weeks, but as she and her group made their way to Chesire, Massachusetts, they got hit with a massive thunderstorm.
“I was hiking with a guy named Stitch and we were about two miles from town when the sky got super dark all of a sudden. Then dead silent. We instantly thought it was a tornado,” Machelle says.
She took off into the woods for cover as hail began to plummet from the sky. That’s when a bolt of lightning struck the ground about 20 feet from Machelle. The bolt sent her stumbling as she screamed then headed in the opposite direction. Machelle and Stitch ran through some cornfields as more lightning struck around them.
“Sounds like a horror movie doesn’t it?” Machelle jokes.
After they made it into town Machelle checked her phone to discover that it got fried by the lightning strike. But even with all the scares and injuries aside, Machelle enjoyed every minute of her time on that trail. She describes the last week as being the hardest and most bittersweet. After being out in the wilderness for so long you begin to miss things like showers and Netflix, but at the same time it’s not every day that you get to sleep under the stars and escape modern society.
“I remember getting to Springer Mountain and just crying at the sight of that plaque,” Machelle says, “I couldn’t really comprehend what I just did. I was in disbelief that I just did that!”
Machelle returned from that trip a different person. Her body was stronger, her mind was clearer, she even remembers looking into a mirror for the first time in weeks and not fully recognizing herself. But most important of all, being away from all of society’s modern conveniences and distractions made Machelle reevaluate what she truly valued.
“Before I left, I sold everything that I had. So, as I started eliminating things from my pack I began to realize that I could live minimally back in the real world…living out in the wilderness for a really long time can really have an effect on your lifestyle. It shows you what you want and value, and that you could really hack it with just a gas station, toilet paper, and maybe a map.”
It all kind of goes back to that piece of advice Machelle gave about “packing your fears.” Now after her life-changing journey, she leaves all of the luggage behind and lives fearlessly.
To connect with Heather Machelle check out her travels via Instagram @tiltgravity. In all honesty though, it’s kind of impossible to pack in a 144-day hiking story into one profile, so be sure to check out the full Heather Machelle interview to learn more about what to pack, how to plan, and what to expect on the Appalachian Trail. All available on the Life in Motion podcast with Jeremy Lux on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play.