They set out to hike America’s three longest trails in less than a year. What could go wrong?

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A typhoon in Colorado caused two college students to rush to cover a mountain ridge. One of them was charged with a black bear in Washington state. The wildfires in Northern California prompted a harrowing escape. And a raging infection kept travelers in the Wyoming wilderness for days.

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While much of the world was locked down during the first year of the pandemic, Jackson Parel and Sammy Potter were busy planning their escape. Stanford University students had faced shared coronavirus infection and quarantine. And after spending months in online classes, they were itching to break free.

So he hatched an ambitious plan: to hike three of the country’s toughest paths—the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide—in a single year.

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Jackson Parrell signs the Pacific Crest Trail logbook on April 4 at the southern terminus near Campo, Calif.
(Gina Farazzi /)

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The two carefully planned their journey, tracing their approximate routes through the most difficult terrain of the country. He converted the ground floor of the Parrell family’s New Hampshire cottage into a status room, taped paper maps to the walls and deposited boxes packed with trail provisions. He saved about $25,000 from summer jobs, internships, and Stanford research projects to fund Trek.

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“At the end of the day, there was a lot in it that had nothing to do with our will and desire,” Parel, 21, said. “A lot of it had to do with the luck and privilege we’ve been blessed with.”

In the fall of 2020, he began working out twice a day to build up strength for a trip that would take him more than 7,000 miles, from snowy climates in the eastern US to desert paths in the southwest and Pacific. To the lush green forests in the north-west.

Called the Calendar Year Triple Crown, less than a dozen people have won this trek. Potter and Parel became the youngest known climbers to achieve this feat.

But on the way – as in life – things happened.

Jackson Parel hiking with poles cross the Kennebec River
Parel makes its way across the Kennebec River on May 21 in Caratunk, Maine.
(Gina Farazzi /)

Appalachian Trail

With trimmed hair and a wide smile, Parel and Potter set off Springer Mountain in Georgia on New Year’s Day, in foggy rain,

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The Appalachian Trail runs through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire before ending at Baxter State Park in Maine.

As natives of the East Coast—Potter is from Maine, Florida to Parel—the two hikers set out on the early stages of their ambitious journey to grace the ruggedly scenic mountain trail even in winter.

Appalachian Trail Map.

His days began to run on a familiar rhythm. Waking up around 5:45 a.m. while chewing on oatmeal or bagels, Parel and Potter hoisted their packs, which weighed more than 20 pounds, and started walking.

The pair, who adopted the trail names Woody and Buzz, would cover an average of 27 miles a day, except for “zero days,” when they went off-trail to rest and replenish supplies. The breathtaking views, the kind that capture the attention of day hikers, bleed together, but Potter and Parel still enjoy their surroundings.

“We’ve seen a lot of things this year, and our portfolio of ideas has definitely filled up. The thing is, I think it’s always so good to stop yourself and appreciate a view,” Parel said “Because we’re moving so much that those few seconds or minutes you just get…

Each day brought joy as well as a new set of challenges. A cold river can refresh their aching feet and legs, but craggy rocks can put a bent ankle at risk.

Sometimes they took different paces, hiking a mile or more for part of the day before meeting again at night. A day trip usually doesn’t stop until after 8 pm, when they set up camp. If they were near a water source, friends brushed their teeth or took a cold shower before zipping into their tents—one in winter, two in summer. Once connected, he planned the next day’s course, journaled and sent an instant message on satellite phone to his parents: “I’m staying here xo love you.”

Kumhar & Parel Lean-To .  I prepare to sleep at night
Parel, left, and Potter prepare for bed at Lean-To on the Appalachian Trail near Caratunk, Maine, on May 20.
(Gina Farazzi /)

After some time they fell asleep.

Less than a month later, Parel and Potter were battling near-zero temperatures, barely talking to each other through frozen lips.

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The first few miles on the trail were hazy and cold, but soon the sun’s rays began to cut through the haze. i was listening daily [New York Times podcast] — of President Biden’s inauguration and his first few executive orders — but it was hard to imagine, as light dripping from branches and dead leaves like honey, it mattered anything or was real at all. The world I was hearing about and the world I was experiencing seemed too different, too different to exist together.

Entry from Jackson Parel’s Magazine, January 22, Saunders Shelter, VA.

By sunset, they had reached the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but stayed long enough to move from Clingmans Dome into the expanse of Tennessee and North Carolina. Dehydrated and almost hypothermic, the hikers walked side by side, almost delirious. Both assumed they were further than they were, insisting that they had seen marks that were not present. The potter thought that he had seen someone on the way but he did not say anything.

They went ahead, determined to reach the bathroom on the side of a trail, where they were bedridden among smelly stalls.

“I just remember thinking after that day, wow, like, we really live in extremes,” Parel said. “You just swing from one of the most beautiful sunsets of your life to sleep in a public restroom on the same day.”

A dozen park rangers swooped in to escort him out of the public facility the next morning, as a little boy, waiting for his father to finish his business, packed up his makeshift camp on sleepy pedestrians. To watch warily.

Hikers, left, sit on a rock painted with the message, "Keep Men Beautiful."  On the right, Potter greets his mother.
Hikers walk into Maine’s Baxter State Park on May 27. At right, Potter greets his mother, Dinah, on May 22 in Monson, Maine.
(Gina Farazzi /)

Back on the track, Parel and Potter are soon greeted by a “Trail Angel”, a volunteer who helps long-distance hikers. With gifts of breakfast from McDonald’s, Gatorade, and a new camp stove, their energy and spirits were renewed.

But it won’t last long.

After covering nearly half of the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, his initial trek abruptly came to a halt in late February. The harsh weather forced him off a snowy trail in Pennsylvania and prevented him from completing the hike in a straight shot.

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A potter washes his upper body in a pond at night
A potter washes at Harrison Pond near Cartank, Maine, on May 20.
(Gina Farazzi /)

“Doing so and absolutely sticking to a schedule is detrimental in the long run,” said Potter, 22. “What’s really good in the long run is to be measured… and just be happy.”

To maximize their time in favorable weather on each trail, Potter and Parel jumped between the three, beginning a stretch and then going back to complete the route in better conditions. Each time they returned to a trail, they left from there, linking their footprints across the country.

As Potter stood up, Parel hugged his mother.
Parel hugs her mother Nora as she and Potter prepare to leave the Berthoud Pass trailhead near Idaho Springs, Colo., on their northbound trek on the Continental Divide Trail. August 6th.
(Gina Farazzi /)

continental divide trail

They rejoined the Appalachian Trail and flew to the hot southwestern desert on the Continental Divide Trail, which, at its longest point, covers a distance of about 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada. The full trail runs through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana and can be tackled using a few shorter, alternate hikes, shaving a few hundred miles off the overall trek, which is “that trail”. special and unique,” said Potter.

continental divide trail map

The Continental Divide Trail, with its extreme temperature swings, brought new quirks and challenges. During a bar in New Mexico, a stray donkey chased pedestrians for about 10 miles. At another point, red and white spots began to spread on Parel’s arm. Instead of the 150-mile drive in a Trail Angel’s car to the nearest hospital, he opted for Halpern’s homemade herb salve. The next day the disease went away.

In Colorado, storms followed both almost daily. Climbing a mountain near Idaho Springs, Parel recalled that dark clouds were gathering in the distance. Within 10 minutes, the storm was on the upside. Jagged power cuts across the open ridgeline. As the tallest figures on top of the mountain, Potter and Parel knew they had to run for cover.

“You really have to keep going,” Potter said later. “If you try to bail on one of those side trails or something, you’re probably going to put yourself in more danger. It was definitely a tough call whether or not to keep going, But eventually… we just had to get there.”

Holding their packs tight, they ran about two miles downstream.

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Parel laughs with his mother, left, and Potter, right, doing laundry at the laundromat.
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