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Sixteen thousand miles: That’s how far Arlette “Apple Pie” Laan had to hike to become the first recorded woman to complete all 11 National Scenic Trails. Before Laan, 50, notched the feat by completing the Ice Age Trail on July 11, only about 5 hikers had finished them.
Her journey to joining them would span nearly 20 years. After Laan’s first thruhike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2003, she was hooked. In 2004, she tackled the Continental Divide Trail, and in 2005, she hiked both Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit and the Appalachian Trail. The Pacific Northwest Trail followed.
It wasn’t until 2018 that serial thruhiker, M.J. “Nimblewill Nomad” Eberhart, planted the idea of becoming the first woman to complete all National Scenic Trails in her head. Eberhart, himself, completed all 11 trails after 14 years when he made it to the summit of Grand Monadnock Mountain in New Hampshire in 2012, and he thought that she should, too.
Laan says the Continental Divide Trail quickly became her favorite trail because of its sheer ruggedness.
”It feels more like a wilderness experience, where you have the herds of elk, and it’s remote,” Laan says. “It was an adventure. That was the most important part of that for me. You’re on this big adventure, and this was in the early days when I didn’t have an app. We went by these really minimalistic GPS units, and mostly just went by map and compass.”
She found the Florida Trail to be the most surprising of all of the National Scenic Trails. The amount of road walking was an unpleasant surprise. Just because a path is a National Scenic Trail, she says, doesn’t always mean that it’s always scenic. But the flora and fauna made up for some of the bland sections of the Florida Trail. She’d never hiked in the south prior to her thru-hike, and spotting alligators and armadillos was enough to pique her curiosity.
Before Laan’s journey could draw to a close, she’d have to tackle the extremely lengthy North Country Trail (4,800 miles) and the lesser-known Ice Age Trail.,
That’s how she found herself in Michigan on the North Country Trail last winter, hiking in temperatures as low as -10 Fahrenheit. Laan was no stranger to the cold: She had previously hiked all of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks in the winter with her husband, and she knew that snow made for slow foot travel. But she was committed. Strangers, friends, and family members opened their homes and accompanied her for sections of her hike, letting her dry her gear overnight before she braved the freezing temperatures again.
It’s easy to imagine that a serial thru-hiker like Laan would be completely enamored by their journeys all of the time. But Laan will be the first to admit that it’s not all sunshine and roses:
“There’s definitely some misery. Last year I broke a trekking pole, and I set my tent up with a trekking pole, so I had to find a tree to tie up this guyline,” Laan says. “And it was raining. And oh my God, it sucked, and everything was sopping wet … You just have to laugh about it. Some days are good, and some days are not.”
During the off-season, Laan works as a hiking guide in the White Mountains, and she also has an online doll business. Even with those sources of income, it can be tough to make ends meet. Her sponsorship from Gossamer Gear helped her quite a bit on her quest. She also expressed her gratitude to her husband who she leaned on for support during her last few trails.
When asked if she thinks hiking long trails changed her, Laan explained that they brought her back to herself rather than turning her into someone else.
“The best moments are the times when I’m on top of a mountain, surrounded by mountains, [and] valleys, [with] no evidence of civilization,” she says. “Just pure nature. I breathe the mountain air, having pushed my body uphill, feeling fully alive, taking it all in.”
After 35,000 miles over the past two decades, of which her National Scenic Trail quest was only about half, Laan isn’t done. In the future, she hopes to hike the Arizona Trail again, and she might also return to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in a different way. For the time being, however, some of her biggest goals are closer to home.
“I want to hike all of the trails in the White Mountains guidebook,” she says. “I’m pretty close to being done with that.”