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My Trail Story featuring Peanut

Peanut, a.k.a. Melanie Harsha, withdrew all of her applications to doctorate programs, adopted a dog, and started planning her first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2016.

Natalie McMillan      My Trail Story       04/04/2019
Natalie McMillan
My Trail Story

What is your trail name?


What trail(s) did you hike?

Appalachian Trail – 2016 NOBO

Pacific Crest Trail – 2018 NOBO


How old are you?

28 years old (27 during PCT, 25 during AT)

A woman stands on the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Melanie Harsha

What was your favorite food on the trail?

If I had a penny for every time a hiker said, “I eat to live, not live to eat,” I could fund all my future thru hikes. I’m sorry to say that I am not one of these people. I get sick of eating the same food really quickly and I cannot stomach some of the typical hiker meals that people come up with. This became more evident on the Pacific Crest Trail, when I decided to go stoveless.

While on the Appalachian Trail, I had tuna on a tortilla for four days straight. On the fourth day, I literally got sick of it, regurgitating my lunch. I haven’t been able to consume tuna since. So, I have to get creative while on trail, and I must mix it up — no more than two of the same meals in a row.

On the Pacific Crest Trail, I decided to challenge myself to cold soak and not use a stove during my whole hike. I accomplished my goal, but I definitely see a stove in my future thru hikes.

My favorite cold soak meal is refried instant beans and rice, seasoned with taco flavor and topped with cheese and Cool Ranch Doritos. When I have a stove, my favorite meal is Annie’s Mac and Cheese (the bunny shapes with white cheddar flavoring) with added cheese and sometimes prosciutto, if I’m feelin’ fancy.

A woman stands next to a tree with a trail sign on it.
Photo by Melanie Harsha

What advice would you give to someone who has never done a thru-hike before?

A close friend of mine is about to start her thru hike attempt of the Appalachian Trail this April, and I try to answer this question for her everyday. I tell her that as soon as you take your first steps, all of that anxiety and worry instantly goes away. I’ll continue to tell her this every time I speak with her, but she won’t know it’s true until she’s there herself.

Thru hiking takes so much planning, and yes, some people plan way more than others, but it’s not easy leaving your life for half of a year. The best way to thru hike is to just get out there and do it. After your transportation leaves, it’s just you and that trail. Sure, you’ll have many other hikers with you and your gear, but once you take your first steps there’s not much you can control anymore. You just have to try your hardest everyday and realize that things aren’t going to go as planned, like ever.

Thru hiking is all about rolling with the punches and trying to maintain a positive outlook when problems inevitably arise. Unfortunately, you can’t really know all of these pieces of truth before going out on the trail and accepting them yourself. Honestly, you don’t want to know too much before you start the trail or it will ruin the surprise.

Would you do another thru-hike? If yes, which trail is next?

Yes, if I could afford it and my dog could always go with me, all I would do is thru hike. The Continental Divide Trail is definitely in my future, but not for a couple of years. I’m interested in doing some shorter, yet more challenging thru hikes and routes. We have some exciting things on the horizon for this summer. Stay tuned.

A hiker walking on a trail on the side of a green mountain hillside.
Photo by Melanie Harsha
A woman holding an ice pick in the air next to the Sequoia National Park sign.
Photo by Melanie Harsha

What do you wish you had done differently?

I would not do one thing differently. Even the time I hiked one thousand miles on a stress fracture in my hip.

During my Appalachian Trail thru hike in 2016, my hip began to hurt around mile 1000, near Harper’s Ferry. My mom picked me up for a day and we went to a massage therapist who had helped many hikers before. I felt great after getting a massage and the therapist gave me some pointers to keep me feeling good. About a mile after my mom dropped me off, my hip started hurting again. About a week and one hundred Advil later, my Uncle Tom came to get me so I could rest for a few days in Pennsylvania.

I went to three different doctors during this break with my family and all of them said the same thing: “Get off trail, this is a stress fracture.” After thinking about it for a couple of days, I decided to “rough” it out and finish the trail.

When I returned to the trail, I did not want to have to slow down too much, because I wanted to be able to reach Katahdin before it closed. I began hiking extremely early in the morning and hiked until dark in order to make the miles, because I was now hiking at a much slower pace. In addition, I was taking 4 Advil every four hours, which added up to almost sixteen ibuprofen per day.

A woman standing on the Mount Katahdin sign.
Photo by Melanie Harsha
A hiker resting her head against the Mount Katahdin sign with her backpack on.
Photo by Melanie Harsha

On September 27, 2016, I summited Katahdin and returned home to Nashville the next day. I spent the next six weeks in crutches after a scary talk with my doctor. He told me I had made some horrible decisions for my body, and he was right. My post-trail depression was especially bad because I couldn’t exercise, but my choices almost made future thru hikes totally out of the question. The doctor told me I had walked so long on the stress fracture it was mere millimeters from becoming a full-blown fracture. Not to mention what the amount of ibuprofen I had consumed did to my organs.

After having a long conversation with the physician about my habits, I had discovered that some of my initial habits had contributed to the fracture. I was not eating nearly enough calories in the beginning, which was probably the reason I stopped menstruating. I did not menstruate during my entire thru hike. When a woman ceases menstruation, she stops producing Vitamin D and Calcium. When this happens, stress fractures occur more easily.

No, I don’t regret these decisions, because I grew and learned from them. When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018, I stopped hiking when something hurt. I took more breaks, I ate more food, and took many vitamins. The Appalachian Trail made me learn so much about my body and made me learn to listen to it. That experience led to my successful thru hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.

What was your favorite feature in our app?

Do I have to pick just one? I only wish I had Guthook on the AT. During the end of my 2016 hike I walked with many people who had the app, and I knew that I needed it for my next adventure. This app was a crucial part of my PCT thru hike. I think the most useful feature of the app was probably the comment section, which was critical during the desert in order to know the water situation.

A woman stands with her thumbs up next to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy sign.
Photo by Melanie Harsha
A woman hitch-hiking with her dog on the side of the road.
Photo by Melanie Harsha

Why did you decide to go on a thru-hike in the first place?

In 2013, I went on my first backpacking trip with my mom. She section hiked the Appalachian Trail over a period of 12 years. I went on a couple of these trips with her before I decided I wasn’t as patient as her and needed to hike the AT all in one go.

In 2015, I was finishing up my Masters program at Appalachian State University and was applying to PhD programs. I was anxious, stressed, and unsure that more school was the right move at that point in my life. On one section hike, my mom and I were discussing my next steps when she reminded me that I had been going to school since I was 5 without any time off. My mother, Sticks, told me I was allowed to take time off and do something different. I think a part of me needed that permission even though I knew that I had a huge support system that would back me up no matter what I decided to do.

I withdrew all of my applications to doctorate programs, adopted a dog, and started planning my 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.

Every thru hiker gets asked throughout their journey, “What’s next?” This question comes before, during, and after a thru hike. I believe most will agree that this is a slightly annoying inquiry, as most of us are just trying to get through the current hike or trying to process one they just completed. I get it. People are eager to know if we are off to another one or if we have to go back to reality. Throughout my AT hike, I would always say that I would never do another hike. I was going to go back to Tennessee and get back to school.

The moment I touched that Katahdin sign, I felt so empty. I was happy to get to the top, because damnit I hate hiking uphill. Other than that, I didn’t want it to end. Hell, I would’ve done another 6,000-foot hike up to make the AT never end. But, it was over. At the Northern Terminus, I turned to my trail sister, Hot Toddy, and said, “What’s next?”

Just a couple of months after my successful thru hike of the AT, I met a man who was about to start his own attempt of completing the trail. Little did I know, just a year and a half later, we’d be doing our own thru hike together. So here we are, three years later, two trails down, and about a million to go. 

A hiker stands with her backpack and bear canister strapped to her back as she looks over the mountains.
Photo by Melanie Harsha

Did you hike solo or with other people?

In 2016, I solo hiked the Appalachian Trail. However, I did start my journey with my dog, Radley. She was able to hike, roughly, 900 miles with me. Besides my pup, I completed the AT by myself and with the various friends I made along the way. In 2018, I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with my partner, Cricket. He completed his thru hike of the AT in 2017.

How many pairs of shoes did you go through?

On my AT thru hike, I went through two pairs of La Sportiva hiking boots. On the PCT, I went through 4.5 pairs of Salomon Odyssey Pros.

What was the scariest part of your hike?

The scariest part of my thru hike wasn’t when three other hikers and I got stuck of Franconia Ridge in 80 mph winds. Although that was a frightening moment, the scariest part of a thru hike is when something occurs that threatens it to end that’s totally out of your control.

When Radley had to get off trail, I took off hiking faster than I ever had in my life. I was sad when she had to leave. She was my best bud on that trail, and it was heartbreaking when she let me know she couldn’t hike anymore. My average mileage went from twelve to twenty. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal when my hip began to hurt — I convinced myself it would go away and that my body would get used to the higher mileage. It didn’t.

My friend, Stubbs, found out she got a stress fracture in her hip about the same time I did. She had to make the difficult decision to get off trail. She healed and went on to complete the trail the following year. I saw many people get off trail due to injury. It’s scary because even though you can’t control it, you feel like you’ve failed.

I decided to complete the AT with the stress fracture, but it was a seriously painful 3 months, and my body will never be the same because of it. I will always be prone to stress fractures, especially in that hip. I will always get a painful twinge in my hip when I’m long distance hiking.

The scariest part of a thru hike is when something arises that gets between you and that finish line.

A woman crossing a river on a sketchy wooden tree bridge.
Photo by Melanie Harsha
A hiker hiking in the snow.
Photo by Melanie Harsha

Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to quit? How did you stay motivated to finish?

Everyone has a couple of moments on trail where they think about the possibility of quitting, I think. The thought definitely crossed my mind on a couple of occasions on both of my hikes. I’ve already gone over my stress fracture in great detail and how that made me think about getting off trail. That was the only time I ever seriously thought about quitting the Appalachian Trail. However, I did have a couple of times on the PCT where I thought about leaving.

They say your first thru hike is the equivalent to your first love, and I am a believer in this. Nothing will ever compare to my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail, and that’s just a fact. I knew this before I started the PCT, but it didn’t really hit me until we were on the other side of the country in the middle of California.

It probably goes without saying that the PCT and the AT are totally different trails in every way possible. The PCT was harder for me in a lot of ways. While the hiking was easier on the PCT, the trail itself was much more difficult mentally. The towns were fewer. The landscape was all new. I was further from my friends and family.

I grew up visiting the mountains in East Tennessee, and fell in love with the landscape of Western North Carolina. The Appalachians are the oldest mountains in the world, and what they lack in height they make up for in history and culture. These are the mountains where I fell in love with hiking.

Everyday on the PCT was a postcard. The views were incredible. I had never seen anything like it. However, there were many moments I felt like I needed to go back home. I had a lot going on with my family back in Tennessee, and sometimes I wanted to go home to be with them and Radley. Every time I felt like this, I tried to remember that everyone in Tennessee supported me and I would be so proud of myself if I reached Canada.

I knew I couldn’t go home until I finished this second thru hike, but it was extremely difficult, and there were many days I didn’t feel like I could do it. I stayed motivated to finish because I had already come too far to quit.

What was one thing you wish you knew before you started?

I wish I knew that I had it in me to hike 2,189.1 miles from the beginning. I will admit that I was probably a little underprepared for my first thru hike. I had gone on a couple of section hikes with my mom on the AT, but other than her guidance and advice, I had done little research. I left Springer with the gear that had been given to me throughout the years.

Don’t get me wrong, I did not camp at Hawk Mountain Shelter that first night without testing my gear. However, I was surrounded by people who I felt were much better prepared than I was. I do think that most people feel like this in the beginning.

I wish I knew, though, that it was okay I didn’t prepare that much; that it was okay I didn’t read a million blogs and watch hours of YouTube. I prepared mentally, which, I believe, is the reason I reached Katahdin. I was so afraid of not reaching the North Terminus that sometimes I feel like it interfered with my hike. I wish I had let that fear go earlier in my hike. Heck, there were days in Maine I was so anxious about not finishing that I would just fly by beautiful vistas because I was worried I wouldn’t make my mileage.

My advice to hikers is to slow down, enjoy the views, and as long as you follow the blazes and keep trekkin’ at your own pace, you’re going to make it. I know it’s cheesy to say “believe in yourself,” but just do it.

A woman in front of an Appalachian Trail sign.
A man and woman stand hugging next to the northern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Photo by Melanie Harsha

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Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail is an epic journey of over 2650 miles (4260 km) and is one of the most popular thru-hiking trails in the United States. Its path travels from the US-Mexico border to the northern US-Canada border, passing through California, Oregon, and Washington.

2650 miles
$29.99 full guide
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About the Author
A woman wearing a baseball cap and American flag tank top stands in front of a beautiful view.

Natalie McMillan

Natalie grew up hiking in Arizona where she fell in love with the outdoors. Her favorite hikes are to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, UT. She loves taking pictures of people and places and nature, which might explain why she has almost 23,000 photos currently residing on her phone. She takes care of all things social media/marketing-related and might be seen frolicking around Flagstaff taking photos of the Arizona Trail.