About the Author: Debra Ballard (Chilly Bin) was born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand. She fell in love with tramping (hiking) when she was in her late teens, and with thru hiking in her late 20’s. She currently works as an Environmental Engineer and when she’s not working she heads into the New Zealand outdoors as often as possible. After walking the Te Araroa Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail in recent years she is once again quitting her job and heading up to the northern hemisphere summer to embark on another thru hiking attempt – this time the Appalachian Trail. You can find her on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.

Why am I planning to walk the Appalachian Trail? I’m not sure. There are plenty of people out there who have dreamed of this trail for months or even years. But for me it is both much more simple and more complicated than that. For me, I think it starts with the question – why tramp at all?  Why go out for a weekend of mud and rain, carrying everything I need on my back, when I could be warm and dry at home?
I didn’t grow up in a particularly outdoorsy family. Sure, we would go away for the weekend, or for several weeks during the summer holidays.  When I was very young this was camping or in a boat, as I got older it was in the family motorhome. Never in my childhood did I put my belongings and a bag and walk with them – that came later. When I was in high school I signed up for The Duke of Edinburgh Award.  This award involves learning a skill, taking part in physical activity, volunteering in the community, and adventurous journeys. For my adventurous journeys I went tramping, and for me as a 14 year old, this was my first taste of something that would become a huge part of my life.

Umukarikari Track in Kaimanawa Forest Park

In my final year of high school I did four multi-day tramping trips with my friends. I had a ball! None of these trips had adult supervision and I think that was definitely part of the appeal.  Then, during my time at university, I joined the Auckland University Tramping Club and took part in more and more adventures.  In November 2014 I was on a tramping club trip when I met some people near Cape Reinga (the northern tip of New Zealand) who were setting up camp on day one of a thru hike of the Te Araroa Trail.  At that point I didn’t know about the trail, but with a little bit of research I fell in love with the idea of a thru hike immediately.
It took a couple of years of thinking, and a break-up with a long term boyfriend for me to bite the bullet and do it.  During the summer of 2016 to 2017 I took 2 months off work and walked the South Island of the Te Araroa trail northbound to raise money for charity. The Te Araroa is a young trail, and typically walked southbound, so by walking the South Island only and walking it northbound I was walking against the grain, and definitely outside the bubble.  Combining this with the fact that there isn’t many people to begin with, my journey on the Te Araroa was a lonely experience. I loved every minute of it.

Left: Queen Charlotte Track, Te Araroa 2017; Right: Ocean Beach, Te Araroa 2018

While walking the Te Araroa trail I found out about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I almost rang my boss the same day to quit my job so I could just go from walking the South Island of the Te Araroa straight to the PCT. However, sanity prevailed and I went back to work. Before the Te Araroa I had been happy with my job.  Afterwards, although I liked the work I was doing, I struggled with the day to day office lifestyle. Every day that I was at my desk I wished I was somewhere else. So, after being back at work for less than a year, I quit my job again, walked the North Island of the Te Araroa and then attempted to walk PCT. It was on this journey that I realised that I didn’t want to go back to living a “normal”  lifestyle.
My thru hike attempt of the PCT didn’t quite end as planned.  Instead of finishing the trail I stopped only 300 km from the Canadian border with serious health issues and a three day stay in hospital.  When I got back to New Zealand I deferred my planned university studies, went back to work part time, and went tramping at every available opportunity.  It was so frustrating going from walking 20 to 30 miles a day to barely being able to walk up a short hill. However, every trip I felt like I was making progress.  Over the summer I did the most ambitious tramp since getting off the PCT and I finally felt like I was back to full health. It took 5 months for the doctors to clear me for travel and in fact, at the time of writing this blog post, it only happened a few days ago.
And it’s just as well they gave me clearance – because I already had plans in place to walk the Appalachian Trail.  Why? – because it is there. I am addicted to tramping. I don’t want to go back to my “normal” 9-5 office life. I want to be outdoors.  I want to be having new experiences. I want to be surrounded by people who have similar goals to me.
I know there are many people who think I am foolish.  I have given up my well paying job, stopped saving for a house deposit and spent some of my savings on flights to the other side of the world, twice. I no longer know what my life plan is. Once upon a time I had things so neatly mapped out and I was on course doing the “right” thing.

Now I look only to the next thing on my to do list.  And that is the Appalachian Trail.

Bring it on…