Thousands of hikers attempt to complete the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail each year. Only about a quarter of those who start complete it, and only about a quarter of those who complete it are women.
Jena Stone, a 2015 Hood graduate, took on the challenge and finished in five months. She began on Springer Mountain in Georgia on April 16, 2016, and summited Mount Katahdin in Maine on Sept. 17, 2016.
After graduating from Hood, she wasn’t ready to jump into a career as a teacher and wanted to go on an adventure. She had no previous backpacking experience, but after talking to some “thru-hikers” (people who have hiked the entire trail), she decided to jump out of her comfort zone and go for it.
Each section of the trail had a personality of its own, created by the weather, terrain and the people. Her favorite part of the experience was the people. Everyone she met challenged or engaged her in a different way. She also met a lot of Trail Angels throughout the trek. These are people who help hikers by handing out snacks along and trail or offering beds and showers.
“I made some friendships that I know will last for a very long time,” Stone said. “Everyone challenged or engaged me in a different way. From religion to politics to the way I interact with others, I learned so much from every person I hiked with.”
Early on in her journey, she received the trail name Skittles due to the fact that she had rainbow-colored hair when she began. Thru-hikers know each other by their trail names, which are generally given to them by other hikers based on something specific about the person.
Among the most enjoyable sections of the trek for Stone were the White Mountains in New Hampshire, which included some of the most difficult trails and some of the best views.
“I was lucky enough to have good weather through that stretch,” she said. “I was also hiking with [trail friends] Giggles and Sage at that point, and I think we spent more time laughing than hiking. Some days we did only a few miles, and others we did more than 20.”
However, at some point, the AT tests every hiker physically and mentally. The Great Smoky Mountains along the Tennessee-North Carolina border and the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia were the most difficult parts for Stone. She began her hike later in the season to avoid snow, but she ended up in an early May snowstorm in the Smokies, a tough stretch of the trail that lasts about a week. It was the first time she was alone on the trail, and she hiked through the cold snow to the highest point on the AT.
In the Shenandoahs, she was hiking by herself again, between 23 and 28 miles per day through “boring” terrain. While in that stretch, she experienced what thru-hikers call the Virginia Blues—after the thrill of the trip subsided and it sunk in that she would be hiking for several months, the mental challenge of walking monotonous terrain tempted her to leave the trail.
She pushed through the trying times with perseverance and a “roll with the punches attitude” that she developed during her journey.
“The only thing I have control over is how I react,” she said. “The trail taught me that it is okay to take a moment and get upset and frustrated. It’s okay to feel defeated, but those feelings won’t last forever. It’s important to take time to acknowledge those feelings and then figure out what you are going to do to deal with the situation. Perseverance and a little spite are what enabled me to finish the trail.”
Stone summited Katahdin Sept. 17, but her accomplishment didn’t start to sink in until she started back down to the base of the mountain.
“Once I started to head back down the mountain, I got really excited and basically skipped my way down, smiling like an idiot,” she said. “Getting back down to the base of Katahdin is when I got really overwhelmed with what I had just accomplished.”
Stone majored in elementary special education with a concentration in mathematics education. She is currently living in Gaithersburg, substitute teaching in Frederick County and at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. Her goal is to become a middle school math teacher.