When Amelia Couture ’12 told her parents she planned to walk the Appalachian Trail, her father gently pointed out she’d never been on an overnight hike in her life.
“Dad suggested I might want to spend a few nights in the woods [near her home in Brewton, Alabama] before I made a decision like that,” Couture recalls. “But I did some running and other physical training and some research on the Appalachian Trail website and decided I was ready to go.”
On May 28, eight days after she received her Vassar diploma, Couture was at the start of the trail in Springer Mountain, Georgia. She was the last person of the season to register as a “through-hiker,” someone who intended to make the entire 2,184-mile trek through 14 states along the East Coast.
And 149 days later, Couture raised her arms in triumph at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Northern Maine, the last hiker of the season to finish the trip.
While the subfreezing October nights in the mountains of New Hampshire and Maine certainly posed a challenge, Couture says that, in many ways, the journey got easier along the way.
Just a few days after she started, she developed severe blisters on her feet (“I didn’t break in my shoes enough before I started,” she says). And while her mother accompanied her for the first three nights and her father stayed with her for about two weeks, it took her a while to find other hikers who were moving at her pace.
As she got to know some fellow hikers, Couture says, she began to realize two things: “There were plenty of other crazy people like me out there who had never done anything like this before, and there were plenty of experienced hikers willing to help the rest of us.”
The trail was particularly crowded last year, Couture says, in part because it was the 75th anniversary of its founding, and in part because “there were a lot of us unemployed people who had recently graduated from college.”
Less than three weeks into the hike, Couture befriended some other young hikers, and they spent much of the rest of the journey together. She says they devised ways to break down the enormity of their task into smaller, more digestible bites.
“If you tell yourself, ‘I’m walking from Georgia to Maine,’ you’ll drive yourself nuts,” Couture says. “There were shelter sites along the trail about every eight to 12 miles, so we set a goal every day how far we’d go before we stopped for lunch and how far until we stopped for the night, and we set other goals for the week ahead.”
She says she traveled about 15 miles a day at the start and increased her pace to up to 35 miles a day later in the trip.
Couture says the weather was generally pleasant on the first leg of the trip, but it changed abruptly one night as she was camping in the mountains near the Virginia-Tennessee border.
“Suddenly, I heard the storm coming, and it nearly blew me off the side of the mountain,” she recalls. “I was squatting inside this two-and-a-half-pound tent that pretty much took on the properties of a kite.”
The weather improved after the storm subsided, and when she got to New York, she met up with some friends, hitched a ride to a nearby railroad station, and took the train to New York City, then back up to Poughkeepsie for a visit to the Vassar campus.
“It was early August, so there weren’t many people around, but it was good to be in familiar surroundings,” Couture says.
It was during a trip home to Alabama from Vassar that Couture first hatched the idea for the hike.
“We were driving through these beautiful mountains in Virginia, and I said to my dad, ‘I wish there were a way to hike through this area.’ Dad said, ‘There is—it’s called the Appalachian Trail,’” she says. “That’s when I began planning the trip in my mind.”
Amelia’s father, Thomas Couture, says he remembers the conversation but never dreamed Amelia would follow through on it.
“She brought it up a few times while she was in college, but I thought the idea would wear off,” he says.
Thomas Couture says he was pleasantly surprised by how well his daughter had adapted to life in the outdoors while he was hiking with her. “I was also impressed with the people we met along the way, how fast the hikers built relationships with each other,” he says.
In some ways, he adds, he wasn’t all that surprised his daughter had succeeded in completing her quest.
“She was always a good athlete and was never afraid to try new things,” he says. “I started teaching her to waterski when she was three.”
Amelia says the trip enabled her to “learn a lot about myself” before she embarked on a new chapter in her life. A psychology and drama double major at Vassar, she said she hasn’t decided whether to go to graduate school or look for a job. Whatever comes next, she says, she’s certain the five months she spent on the Appalachian Trail will help her face future challenges.
“I’ve always been kind of a risk-taker. I came to Vassar from a small town in Alabama. I went out for the diving team my freshman year when I’d hardly ever been on a springboard before,” she says. “This trip taught me, again, that it’s good to get out of your comfort zone.”