The Eastern terminus of the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin marks the end of a 19-year odyssey.
Arlette “Apple Pie” Laan is the first woman to hike all eleven of the National Scenic Trails in the United States, with mileage totaling close to 18,000 miles. Born in the Netherlands, she began her quest with the Pacific Crest Trail in 2003 and just this month, completed the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin at its eastern terminus. I was thrilled to have a chance to talk with her and share laughs about some of the challenges of hiking and of the trails themselves, but also marvel at the sheer beauty of these wild places and the promise of adventure that keeps calling us back.
Blissful Hiker: Congratulations! How do you feel?
Apple Pie: It’s sinking in a little bit, but it’s still weird because I’m now just sitting here at my desk making dolls again which is a totally different thing, and then I’m reading about this thing I just finished, and thinking that just happened? Wow. The trail somehow feels far removed and I’m switching back on this different life right now and it’s all so weird. But then, when I’m on the trail, I forget about my other life. Is so surreal.
BH: Do you come back from a hike and almost immediately have to plan for your next hike so you don’t go through withdrawal?
AP: Yes, logistically I’ve had to do that and I’ve learned that it’s good to have plans swirling around so that we don’t drop into that after-trail depression. It’s good to have something that you can look forward to.
BH: And it’s weird to stop walking after you’ve been walking for 20-25 miles a day.
AP: Yes, your body is like, what’s going on, why are you just sitting here?
BH: Why are you sleeping in a bed?
AP: Yes! I heard from people on the AT (Appalachian Trail) as their first thru-hike and weren’t able to sleep in their bed for the longest time so just set their tent downstairs. I haven’t had it that bad, but I have heard people have the hardest time.
BH: You’re the first woman to hike all eleven National Scenic Trails. Why did you make this a goal and what made you set out to do all of them?
AP: I started with the Pacific Crest Trail back in 2003. I just randomly found a brochure at the visitor’s center when I was hiking in the Sierra. And then I heard about all these people that hiked the Appalachian Trail and I thought hmmm, sounds mostly like trees, I don’t know about that one. (laugh)
And then I heard about the Continental Divide Trail and that one sounded really cool but I was like, I don’t know, that feels as little too far out of my comfort zone. But I ended up hiking the CDT the next year with people I actually hadn’t hiked with before, but it worked out really well. Then I took a little break but just randomly kept hiking, doing more of the National Scenic Trails before I even knew about that designation – the Arizona Trail, the Florida Trail just because it fit with our season when we had time off in the wintertime.
Then in 2018, I met Nimblewill Nomad when we were on the Pinhoti Trail and he’s done them all and he was like, Wow, you’ve done so many already, you only have a few left! Yes, but one of those was the North Country Trail which is extremely long and I wasn’t particularly excited about that trail.
I thought it would be cool to be the first woman to do them all and I thought thst if I did the North Country Trail, then the ones I have left aren’t that long. So from then on, I started making that my goal.
I was also following my buddy Buck-30 and he was kind of doing the same thing, also randomly finishing the list, so that’s how I made it a focus. But when I got started, I didn’t even know there were other long distance trails out there.
BH: I love how you say the trails that were left were not really that long, even though the Ice Age Trail is over 1,000 miles long. I mean we have to get some perspective here!
AP: Right! That’s true, but after doing the North Country Trail, which ended up for me being 4,800 miles, everything else is short. (laugh)
BH: How did you get into hiking? Is it part of your culture, something you family did or are you the first?
AP: No! I was born in Holland and we’d go camping, maybe in France with the giant canvas tent, set it up at the lake or the ocean. We might do a little day hike, but really just a walk. At home, we’d go biking because there are such great bike paths, why would you walk?!
When I was 18, my boyfriend at the time always went to Switzerland and I went with him. That’s when I started to get into hiking. We’d go out and back and I thought that maybe it would be cool to go over the pass and into the next town. But we were greenhorns, we didn’t know anything, so we went to an outdoor store and got backpacks and leather, ankle-high, heavy-duty mountain boots and I think I still wore cotton.
Then when I moved to California, I ramped it up because I went to the Sierra and thought, oh my goodness, this is so beautiful. You see more people backpacking and you think I can go for several days. I was 31 when I did the Pacific Crest Trail.
BH: In some ways older than a lot of hiker, I would imagine.
AP: Yes. Most were retired in their 60’s or right out of college in early 20’s.
BH: How did you have the time for this much hiking? Do you have a job?
AP: It’s the worst and the best when you have your own business or part time seasonal jobs! I make dolls when I’m home and sell online and the last couple of years I’ve been guiding in the White Mountains (New Hampshire)
There have been a few years where I was doing craft fairs every weekend in the summertime and then I would give myself one month off. So I tried to finish the Pacific Northwest Trail during that time in sections.
My husband has a seasonal business and doesn’t work in the wintertime, so that’s when we did the Florida Trail because we didn’t have work anyway. That’s also how we were able to do the Arizona Trail in early spring.
And some of the trails are short like the New England Trail at 215 miles or the Potomac Heritage (710) I was able to do that in a month in late November, so there are some trails you can fit it when you don’t have your 9-5.
BH: Did you hike some of these trails people normally hike in the summer, in the winter?
AP: We ended up doing the North Country Trail in winter because I ran out of time – the Upper Peninsula in December and the Lower in January. That was interesting…I wasn’t going fast enough to do it all in one season.
And sometimes it’s just for fun. We thought it would be interesting to do the Appalachian Trail in winter and start on Katahdin. We did allow ourselves some freedom and weren’t always on trail. We didn’t want to do the Mahoosuc Notch in snow and ice because we figured that just wasn’t safe. We initially had planned to but then got dumped with snow and thought no.
BH: It must be really special in winter – not as many people, it requires more skills, your days are shorter.
AP: Yes, the days are shorter and you have to carry a lot more gear, a lot heavier gear. But if you have a gorgeous day, it is absolutely amazing.
Up in Maine, we were on the Bigelow’s and we had this amazing undercast because you get a lot more of that in winter, which is like an inversion and you’re above the clouds. It feels like you’re in the Himalayas. We’re just poking out and you look over this sea of clouds and you see another couple of peaks in the distance. It’s a really cool experience but it’s also really, really hard.
BH: You mention “we” are you generally hiking with your husband, with friends, alone?
AP: I like all of it. In wintertime, I partner up with my husband because that’s just safer for me. He’s got better circulation. My fingers and toes get cold so I have to be really careful. And for him it’s better because when you get tired, sometimes you’re not as careful and you might not have your buff covering your nose, so even for him it’s better to have a partner even though he’s super strong and skilled in winter.
In summertime, I like to do sections by myself, I like to have company, it’s just a different experience. I did most of the North Country Trail by myself and I got really lonely because there’s not the thru-hiker culture like to AT or the PCT, so when you’re out there by yourself, you’re by yourself.
BH: Do you prefer thru-hiking or hiking in sections?
AP: I prefer thru-hiking, because that’s the challenge if I can do the whole thing at once. I also like the idea that you start at point A and finish at point B. I think if you section hike, you can pick better seasons! (laugh) You might not end up in the UP in snow!
But for me there’s something magical about doing it all in one swoop. I would really like to do the Pacific Northwest Trail again since I did it in three sections. Also, I did it in 2007 when there was hardly any information out there and there are new maps and I’d like to see what it would be like to do that again.
BH: For most people, the PNT is a bit terrifying because it’s more of a route than a trail. What was your most daunting moment and how did you overcome maybe thinking you were out of your depth on a particular trail?
AP: That would really be on the Hayduke Trail, which is not a National Scenic Trail. That’s a desert one where there is minor canyoneering and I have no experience and I ended up in this canyon where I thought I really don’t think I know how to do this bouldering thing.
That one had a lot of tears and tension, but I did eventually make it. The Pacific Northwest Trail I was completely by myself and there was no satellite phone, no inReach, I didn’t even have a smartphone because this was 2007. I would look at my map and up ahead at this mountain ridge and think I have to climb up over there? That does not look safe!
But, you know how things from afar can look way steeper? So I had to do it and I did, but yeah, that was intimidating especially because the margin of error was so small because I wouldn’t be able to reach anybody if anything happened. That was probably when I was most aware that if something happened, I’d be screwed.
BH: So you have this motto to not let life or the dessert tray pass you by. I love it! How did you get your trail name and what does that motto mean to you?
AP: I coined my own trail name. Love Apple Pie, I love Dutch Apple Pie. My mom makes it and it reminds me of my mom. I love my sweets and my deserts and it’s kind of like don’t let life pass you by. Enjoy the juicy moments of life. Live life to the fullest and don’t restrict yourself too much.
BH: I was thinking about your winter hiking, but in the pictures of finishing the Ice Age Trail, you’re in an orange polka-dotted dress. Do you always wear dresses when you hike?
AP: Yes, dresses fit my body type best. I always wore dresses, even growing up and I wear dresses and leggings at home, so for hiking, it just makes sense to me. I do wear shorts underneath to avoid chafing. That orange dress made sense because it’s a hiking dress by Lightheart Gear with wider straps. And orange was so I would be visible during hunting season and visible on road walks.
Even in winter, I wear a skirt because it has pockets and a little extra coverage. They don’t all have to see my bum!
BH: Ha! I was actually surprised that on the IAT you had your arms and legs exposed because at the same time, I was hiking the Superior Hiking Trail and had so many bugs. Did you have problems with bugs?
AP: Yes! I did try to wear a sun-shirt when I could, but I just get too hot. Then something I wore on the PCT early on is this cotton, sort of sarong-shawl kind of thing. I just drape that over my head and my arms and I look like a total idiot, but it works great because it flops in the wind and keeps the bugs away.
I tried to put pants on for two days for the ticks, and then I got paranoid that they would creep up my pants and I wouldn’t see them and I thought this isn’t any better than just having bare legs so I ditched them.
BH: And what about your shoes, because I see you’re hiking in sandals?
AP: I like to wear sandals for road walks. For the Ice Age Trail, I had two pairs of sandals because I wanted something with arch support because I did get Plantar fasciitis last year and I wasn’t sure if I could go back to my old shoes yet.
My Teva sandals have open toes, and I wanted something with closed toes for the woods. So I bought these heavy-duty Keen sandals that have great arch support, but they were super heavy. I preferred not to wear them, but then I was carrying them in my backpack. Ultralight? Not so much.
BH: Did you get Plantar fasciitis from road walking?
AP: Yes, I was pushing too hard on the road walk in Minnesota. I’ve only been injured twice – in Florida on a road walk and in Minnesota on a road walk. It’s just hard on the body.
BH: It is a completely different way of walking and I think we think that here is a chance that I can take large strides and go fast.
AP: Right, it’s better for me to go short stride because it’s not as much heavy impact and it doesn’t hurt as much, but I have to be very aware of it, like OK, I can do my long stride in the woods, I can do my power walk in the woods and let my trekking poles and my arms help me but on the roads I have to take short strides. I really have to pay attention to that.
BH: What is a typical day like for you? Are you an early riser, do you cook, are you ultralight?
AP: Lately I’ve been an early riser. I wasn’t always. I do cook in wintertime for sure, If it’s a little colder, I’ll cook too. If it’s summertime, I’m just too lazy. I might still carry my little stove and mug so I can have some coffee in the morning or tea in the evening. But you might as well just get some crackers or tortillas and be able to much right away when I get to camp. I don’t want to have to wait, it’s just too time consuming. I want it right there, right now. It’s a laziness kind of thing and not a weight conscious thing. I think I carry heavier food.
I’m not ultra-lightweight. I go through my periods where I think I should pare down and I purge and fit everything into my 36-liter backpack. I did that last summer and it was great until the temperatures dropped into the 40s and I was like, now I’m cold! I think if I was warmer sleeper, I could get away with it.
BH: Do you have a luxury item you take?
AP: I have my sock dolly, but she doesn’t weigh anything. I did adopt a pillow. I was making fun of everyone like, you can just use your sweater! And then I found a pillow in a hiker box at some point and I thought I could try this because I don’t have to pay money for it and it’s awesome!
I was such a snob. I was the same with the pStyle. I was like, why would need such a thing when you can just squat? And then I bought one for winter camping and this thing is awesome.
BH: I am also a long distance backpacker and so many people ask me, how do you shower? When do you take breaks? Where do you get food? How would you answer those questions if you were speaking to people who don’t normally backpack?
AP: I try not carry more than 4-5 days worth of food because it gets heavy and is hard to fit into your backpack. So I try to do research on towns and make a mail drop.
I carry wet wipes, if you can find them in a small package because I don’t want to carry 40 wet wipes! When it’s summer, you can just rinse out in a stream.
BH: Do you try to hike a certain number of miles before a break or do you just go with how the day unfolds?
AP: It’s nice when you’ve done half of your day by lunch. That doesn’t always work so I figure if I get up earlier, then I’ll feel better at lunch because I’ll have less to walk after lunch. I usually let dictate how I feel. If I get tired, I take a break. If I get overheated, I definitely take a break.
BH: How many miles a day to you hike on average?
AP: My body likes 17 and my ego likes 20. Somewhere between 15 and 20.
BH: And you get the job done.
AP: Yeah! It depends on the tread. On the PCT, on the northern end, I was doing 25’s and it was easy. On the Appalachian Trail, I don’t think I ever reached 25. It was just harder and slower and steeper and rockier. I’m really a pretty average hiker for thru-hiker mileage-wise.
BH: I sometimes found the “crushing miles” attitude and constant talk about how fast someone was going actually crushing of my spirit on long hikes. Does that talk affect you at all?
AP: Oh, I hated it when people would pass me. When I was starting, 30 was the big day. Now I hear that 40 is the big day and there’s no way in hell I’m going to do a 40! (laugh)
But you get caught up in it sometimes. I remember on the PCT I was doing high 20’s because it was easy and then someone asked me if I’d done a 30 yet and I thought, ok, I’ll do a 30. And then I never did one again!
My body doesn’t like it, but I see what you’re getting at, it’s that competitive thing like, oh, but they’re doing this, maybe I should be doing this too. You feel down on yourself for not doing it. But the older I get and the more I hike, the less I care about it. They’re doing that but I don’t have to unless I’m racing a season.
Last year I was trying to get 25’s so I would finish before winter, but then I get tired and grumpy, and I don’t have a good time. It doesn’t help my enjoyment so I have really learned to not care about what miles other people do.
BH: Gives a whole new meaning to “hike your own hike.” Earlier, you told us about lots of tears and tension and I wonder how you keep going when things get tough. Do you talk to yourself, have a mantra?
AP: I guess it’s just to know there are going to be good time and there are going to be bad times and you just have to be goal oriented thinking I want to keep going, this will get better. Or, take a day off; take two days off! You’ll feel better and think it really wasn’t so bad.
But then you’re back on and realize it really was that bad, the mosquitos still suck! But most trails, it’s worth it like the Sierra. The mosquitos were terrible but the views were amazing. It’s something inside that keeps you going; a stubbornness! (laugh)
BH: I want to talk a bit about fitness level. A lot of aspiring backpackers say I could never do that, I’m too out of shape, I’m too old, I’m scared. What would you tell someone starting out to alleviate those concerns?
AP: Don’t get scared! Start with something that looks feasible. Don’t make it intimidating, like I want to do the Pacific Crest Trail and I have to hike 20 miles per day to make it to Canada before winter comes! But you don’t have to do that right now. You can make that as a dream and as a goal, but go back to where your fitness level is at this point and build on top of that.
You don’t have to be in top shape. Listen to your body, do what you can and build from there. Obviously I am not in top fitness shape, athlete, whatever. Someone just commented on Facebook this morning that I was sponsored by Little Debbie because I don’t look fit. I thought it was hilarious because I don’t care! Yes, I have some extra weight on me, but you know what? I got it done!
So don’t get intimidated. In the media, it’s still people that look fit and athletic and young. Don’t let it get to you. If you can only do a mile-and-a-half, get your gear, go out there and build from there to bigger goals, if that’s what you want.
BH: How old are you?
AP: I’m 50 and did my first hike, the John Muir Trail when I was 30. I was much heavier than I am now and I was able to do that, so there you go!
BH: Are there any mistakes along these two decades that you learned from that you might want to share?
AP: Listen to your body and don’t overdo it in the first two weeks of a hike. Make sure your body is used to hiking and the backpacking weight and start out with slower days so your body can get used to it.
I tend to get blisters in the desert, so I learned I needed a size bigger shoe or to do the sandal thing because my feet swell up and I hadn’t anticipated that.
BH: Do you take anything with you like entertainment?
AP: I have an mp3 player. I have music on my phone. I finally started listening to podcasts. I find it enriches my experience. People say you should just listen to the birds. And I’m like, well, you can listen to birds for five months and that’s a lot of birds.
Sometimes you want to listen to artistry someone has created that’s really gorgeous to listen to. Sometimes I listen to a song I listened to on trail and it puts me back in that moment.
Last summer, there was so much road walking in Ohio and it was so hot and miserable. I needed something to get my mind off this misery, so I listened to podcasts. I get to listen to other people’s adventures. One time, we were in a tent in a snowstorm. We took the day off because it was miserable and we weren’t feeling very good. We watched little videos of people in the Antarctic freezing their asses off and we thought we’re pretty cozy, life is good!
BH: So, if you were the marketing director for each of the hikes, could you give me one sentence to describe each one?
AP: I actually wrote them down because I am starting to forget each one! So here goes –
Pacific Crest Trail: Great vistas, beautiful trail, wonderful hike…you might die in the desert. (laugh)
Continental Divide Trail: Wild adventure, lots of wildlife and mountain scenery.
Appalachian Trail: Lots of trees, rocks and roots. You have to work hard to see lots more trees and rocks and roots. New Hampshire and Maine have lots of views…and rocks and roots. (more laughs)
Arizona Trail: Lots of variety. High sky islands, low desert, great tread, end up in the Grand Canyon.
Florida Trail: Swamps, alligators and great flora…just don’t focus on the road walking.
New England Trail: Don’t do it in the summertime…no wait….Stay away from the gun ranges…no, sorry…. Quaint little towns and ridge walking. It’s only 200 miles, it’s not too bad.
Pacific Northwest Trail: Long climbs, not a lot of ridge walking, adventure, challenging, and an amazing ending at the Olympic National Park.
Potomac Heritage Trail: Get a bike and enjoy it!
North Country Trail: Minnesota is the best! Don’t do it as a thru-hike….oh, that’s too negative…North Dakota has amazing views and skies and storms. It will make you feel alive when there’s a thunderstorm and you’re out in the open with no cover. If you hated Pennsylvania on the AT, hike Pennsylvania on the NCT.
Natchez Trace: Get a car and do some day hikes. You will love it as a car visit. Don’t hike it…(laugh)
Ice Age Trail: Eskers, potholes, learn about the glaciers!
BH: What’s next?
AP: I’m going to the White Mountains this afternoon to hike a peak.
BH: Are you checking off a list of the 4,000-footers?
AP: I’ve done those already! I’m just going to hike for fun and not for a list, how novel!
BH: It seems you have a nice tension between hiking for a list and hiking just for fun.
AP: That’s why I got so far into list because I just wanted to hike the PCT, the CDT, the PNT, the AZT, the Florida Trail. I looked at them and they looked intriguing not because they were part of a list. I usually finish lists when I’m always done with them including the 48 4,000-footers. I’m like, I don’t like lists, they’re kind of silly. And then when I realize I’ve almost completed a list, I think I might as well finish it and check it off.
That’s what keeps me going – the exploration, the experience, the adventure – and of course, the scenery.