Carolyn Ryan took to the Appalachian Trail over 20 years after making it a dream of hers and when COVID hit, she didn't let it stop her. Read on for her amazing story!
Empower Her had an opportunity to interview Carolyn Ryan, a Massachusetts resident at age 52 pursuing her lifelong dream to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Her journey started when she was in her mid-20s. At the time, she belonged to a photography club. Each month the club would bring in a guest speaker. One particular month a man came in to tell his story of his journey on the Appalachian Trail. He shared a slide presentation of amazing photos he had taken during his six months on the trail. His storytelling was such an inspiration that Carolyn at that moment was in awe and said to herself "I too, would love to do that “someday”." That was the spark that lit the flame.
“The idea of hiking the AT was a fantasy for more than 21 years. I was a wife and a stay-at-home mother. I had a full family life with all its responsibilities. I was busy and happy. A 6-month adventure during those years was not an option or a possibility and I had different priorities. The intrigue of the trail never left me though, and I still believed in 'someday.' As my children grew and I had more 'me time,' I started to focus a little on my needs. I was overweight and underactive. With encouragement from a friend, I joined a running group and in time, began to enjoy running. With more confidence in myself and more time on my hands, my desire to try hiking grew.”
Now that Carolyn found her passion in wanting to hike the AT it was time to get motivated. She shares a very sentimental piece of her life with us about her reasoning to complete this dream."
“I was twenty-five years old when I lost my dad. He died much too young. Cancer, more specifically a brain tumor took him from our family. His birth name was Robert Henry Vattes, to me he was dad, but most simply called him Bob. A true outdoorsmen Alaska was on the top of my dad's bucket list. A dream of someday seeing the wilderness country. A fitting choice for the outdoorsman that he was. Unfortunately, that dream never happened. He never had the opportunity. He died at just forty-nine years old. I did not know at the time what an impact losing him at such a premature age would have on how I view life and ultimately the way I choose to live mine. Ironically, at forty-nine I was diagnosed with cancer and on my 50th birthday underwent surgery to have a melanoma removed from my right shin. A small scare gave the history and the timing, however today I’m blessed to already have four more additional years on this earth than did my father. Consequently, I now look at things a little differently. Truth is, life is a gift. A precious gift not to be taken for granted. How much time do we have? That’s a question with no known answer. One only hopes to have a long life with the time to do all the things they dream of. Often we wait, putting off experiences, saying someday, but for some, someday never comes.”
With the right motivation and passion, Carylon knew this process was going to be difficult but life-fulfilling. Hiking 2,200 miles was going to bring many challenges not only physically but mentally as well. We spoke about each milestone in-depth starting with physical preparation. “I have never been athletic. An athlete is not even a word I would use if asked to describe myself. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Yet despite how I view myself, over the last several years I have managed to run four half marathons. Although it was I who did the actual running, I believe the successful completion of those races was due to the coaching I received. More specifically, a given training plan. A printed paper, a 3-month guide, a schedule, a written formula for success that I put on my refrigerator followed fatefully and checked off daily. Long-distance hiking is different. I’ve heard it said, the best way to physically train for a thru-hike is to hike. That makes a lot of sense and yet I felt there may be more to it. Over the months leading up to my start date, I tried to consistently run three to four miles two times a week and I attended a local gym where I worked on strength training and balance. Throughout the summer, I hiked as often as my schedule allowed but sadly I had no 'How to Successfully Complete an Appalachian Trail Thru-hike training plan'. Social media is full of people offering their ideas and advice. I didn’t have to look far to find a multitude of different opinions. Some even say, 'no training needed, you’ll get your trail legs while hiking the trail.' I personally felt I needed to do more. I wanted to feel better prepared before I set out on my journey. I took my pack to the gym, wore it with all my gear, set the treadmill on rolling hills, and walked for seven miles. I can tell you, it’s definitely more enjoyable hiking seven miles in the woods but the ability to bang out the miles on a consistent basis I believe, was invaluable for preparing my body for the stress it endured day after day while I was on the trail.” To put in perspective Carolyn hiked 20 miles in one day, her longest day on trail over Franconia Ridge in NH.
Mental preparation was a key component for her while completing the trail. She talked herself through these challenges out in the wilderness. “I took on the mental preparation by first buying and then reading a book written by Zack Davis called Appalachian Trials. A physiological and emotional guide to successfully thru hiking the Appalachian Trail, then incorporating the hands-on strategies and advice, like making a list of my reasons 'my way' for getting out there in the first place and carrying it with me, so on hard days I could take out the list and be reminded why I’m out there. It talked about how successful thru-hikers don’t sweat the small stuff - the heat, cold, wet, chafing, insect bites, injuries, uncertainty, hunger, thirst, mistakes, misunderstandings, getting lost, etc. There will be a constant level of discomfort for 4-6 months. Leaning not to allow negativity to grow. To keep yourself pushing on when you are physically and mentally tired takes determination and strength of will. It takes emotional energy and intensity and it’s a skill to raise it up and maintain it for long periods. Seek to understand your emotions and develop the skill of observing them and influencing them, through self-control techniques like self-talk, meditation, breathing, changing your mood through music, stories, etc. Ultimately, it’s about controlling your negative emotions and having a proactive, positive attitude.
Practice an attitude of acceptance. If it’s raining, it’s raining. Don’t hate it or be annoyed. Just accept it and adapt. It’s a good mental trick to be able to distinguish between the controllable and uncontrollable. Use motivational mantras when things get difficult. Like, this too shall pass, nothing lasts forever, this is tough but I am tougher, or I can do hard things, etc. Also, to remind me to be grateful for the experience! The above are all tricks and techniques passed on from hikers who came before me and I listened to their words and advice.
Carlyon got to share her greatest moments and memories on the trail. Carlyon had been enduring this goal of hers during the COVID-19 pandemic back in March of 2020. She was on the trail when this tragic time hit the world. She had to leave the trail for a couple of months and her greatest feeling was returning to the trail after 2.5 months under a stay-at-home order. Being able to reconnect with some members of her 'Trail Family' people on the trail that hiked with her. She also states, “experiencing the true generosity and kindness through what’s known on the trail as 'Trail Magic' -unforeseen help and support provided by others. 'Trail Magic' may be as simple as being offered a bottle of water or a candy bar to full-on roadside lunches or ride into town." Her last greatest moment was being able to explore the little 'Trail Towns' along the way.
Carolyn's motivation, determination, and perseverance as a woman in completing a lifelong dream is inspiring. We asked her if she could give advice or motivation to other women who want to live out their dreams but are afraid to. She says, “Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was quoted as saying, 'The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.' And I truly believe that! She touches upon how a dream can become a goal and a reality. Write it down. Get specific. Focus even a small amount of time every day on it because your mind believes what you tell it. Tell it often of your intentions and your willingness to make it happen. Read books. Research. Reach out to people who have accomplished your dream, talk to them, they will inspire you! Most importantly, don’t ever give up your dreams. Anything is possible!”
Carolyn is a proud example of empowering women to go out there and pursue a lifelong dream of yours. If you are interested in Carolyn journey you can follow her trail page on Facebook “Stopped Talking It, Started Walking it.”