Sleep In The Dirt

The Lasting Friendships of Thru-Hiking

Essays From the Field

My first thru-hiking experience was the Appalachian Trail in 2011. I was 24, and high on fumes for the first three weeks, consumed by my learning experience. What was this life of shelters and trailside banter? People spoke lingo, calling each other NOBOs (north bound hikers) and discussing plans for their next zero (hiking zero miles for a day). It was all I could do to keep up and learn this new trade.  

Shayla Paradeis in Shenandoah National Park
Shayla Paradeis standing between tents on Little Calf Mountain in Shenandoah National Park.

15-mile days soon jumped to 18-milers, then I settled in for an average in the low 20s that kept up for the rest of the trail. My legs were getting stronger, my mileage goals were getting met earlier, but something was missing.  

Forever friends

In the cargo space of a shuttle van in Erwin, Tennessee, I admitted some of my emptiness to another thru-hiking companion, Stephen. He was 21, fast, easy to talk to, and though romance had nothing to do with it, I was coveting him. 

“I want to laugh more. Maybe even make friends.” I looked up at him. We were leaning on opposite walls of the van with our legs in front of us. 

“Me too.” He reached out his hand. “You thinking what I’m thinking?” 

“Hiking partners?” I put my hand in his. 

“All the way to Katahdin.” A firm shake followed. 

Looking back, it may sound like a big promise, yet in the life of a thru-hiker, the ground beside you is your home and the person walking behind you is your best friend. Thru-hiking is full of trust and a desire to squeeze every last drop of juice out of life. And like all things, it was better shared. Stephen and I got right to goofing off, like siblings, in the trail-family way. 

Sara Leibold (Tide Walker), Shayla Paradeis, and Stephen Dunn outside of Buena Vista, Virginia in 2011.

Tide Walker, a 24-year-old southern woman with a bold personality, didn’t ever ask if she could hike with us, she simply never left. The three of us were a package deal before Virginia. We camped together each night while walking separately each day, we found our companionship to be comforting in an ever-changing setting. With exhausted bodies in the raw setting of Appalachia, we couldn’t conceal our self-doubts or personal road-blocks. We spent time with each other’s families, made group calls to each other’s significant others, and read letters from home out loud in post office parking lots. They knew me as Kiddo, a brand-new person, who was happier, tougher, and doing something I never dreamed possible. No one else knew me that way, just Tide and Stephen.   

A new era of thru-hiking

Being Kiddo in 2021 looked different. On an Appalachian Trail re-hike ten years later, I avoided trail families like the plague. It was my fifth time thru-hiking and I knew my style now. I hike without a smart phone or GPS, I stop when I’m tired, most days without a specific destination, and I avoid shelters. As often as possible, I cowboy camp, needing nothing but a patch of flat ground. My average is 30 miles a day, thanks to the light-weight gear I carry. I feel like the luckiest woman alive in my Sidewinder sleeping bag, watching the moon as I shut my eyes and hearing the birds when I open them. Life is easy. 

Shayla Paradeis in the Sidewinder sleeping bag
Shayla Paradeis cozied up in her Sidewinder sleeping bag.

It was my plan to stick to myself from Georgia to Maine. Tide Walker and Stephen would be visiting in different increments. That was all the company I needed. 

When Tide came to hike with me in the Shenandoah’s for a week, I was borderline grumpy about it. We were going slower, sticking to popular locations that were full of people, and having to plan out every day to fit an itinerary. Thru-hiking was the ultimate freedom, and I believed I was giving it up. 

Then magic hit: on a rock-cropping, gazing into the pink and orange hues of a Shenandoah sunset, I fell in love with family again. Tide was there, along with two other hikers. Bard was a warm-hearted young man with peaceful energy and a ukulele strapped to his pack. Seeker was an adventurer and a dreamer, with pink hair and a 3-pound keyboard. Without knowing how or why, we became a family. We sang, walked, and supported each other from that day on. These people were the true gold in the hills.  

Shayla Paradeis with thru-hiking friends in Vermont
Shayla Paradeis, Stephen Dunn, and Sara Leibold near Mt Statton, Vermont in 2021.

Tide had been a fierce friend, dropping me off at the start, giving me road support several times, and reminding me to slow down. Stephen hosted Seeker and I in Vermont and would be driving six hours to Mt. Katahdin to receive me at the finish. 

In August, just before I entered the 100 Mile Wilderness, I received a voicemail from Stephen. “I have been trying to think about who I would like standing next to me at my wedding. Who’s really been there for me in life. It became all too obvious that it’s my trail sisters. Would you be my Groom’s Woman?” 

I closed my flip phone and spoke softly into the dense fir trees of wild Maine, “If you want to fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

About the author: Shayla Paradeis is a Thru-Hiker, singer-songwriter, poet, and relentless dreamer. She lives in a dry cabin outside of Glacier National Park, Montana where she works as a naturalist and freelance writer, piecing together income for the next adventure. She has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide, Te Araroa in New Zealand, Haute Route in Switzerland/France, and the Appalachian Trail twice. Between these journeys and running around Glacier, she has hiked over 18,000 miles. You can follow her on atkiddo.com or listen to her songs on Youtube under Shayla Paradeis. 

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