A welcome change of terrain: Amanda Sasina ’20 takes semester off from college to thru-hike Appalachian Trail

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Over the course of almost five months, Amanda Sasina ’20 hiked 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, meeting people from all walks of life along her path. COURTESY PHOTO / AMANDA SASINA

The first time Amanda Sasina ’20 visited the Great Smoky Mountains, she was 12 years old. After laying her eyes on a sign that signaled 1,900 miles to Maine, she decided then and there that she would hike the Appalachian Trail one day.

“It’s always been a dream,” Sasina said. “And it’s always felt really distant.”

After completing the fall semester of her sophomore year, Sasina withdrew from the College of William and Mary to hike the Appalachian Trail in its entirety, starting in Springer Mountain in Georgia and ending 2,200 miles later in Mount Katahdin in Maine. She began the hike March 6 and completed it, four months and three weeks later, July 27.

Only about 20 percent of people who attempt a thru-hike on the northbound trail complete it successfully. As Sasina prepared to make her way, some people responded to her decision with skepticism.

“A lot of people said, ‘Yeah, right. You’re a woman. You can’t do that. You’re stupid,’” Sasina said. “But most people, like my family and everybody, they were really supportive. And they weren’t surprised because they knew I’d been wanting to do it.”

Despite the odds being against her, Sasina knew this hike was something she wanted to do and wanted to do then, not after she graduated or retired. She said that after experiencing a tough freshman year to have a change of pace — and terrain — would be beneficial to her.

“It was time to really do something and make a decision for myself,” Sasina said. “So I kept my head down, finished the semester and I withdrew, and I started planning it.”

“I just wanted to feel strong and capable again,” Sasina said. “I was questioning my ideas of self-worth, and I was feeling not great. … It was time to really do something and make a decision for myself. So I kept my head down, finished the semester and I withdrew, and I started planning it.”

While Sasina did not complete extensive physical training for the hike, a lot of work went into planning what she would bring along with her on the trip, and keeping six months’ worth of supplies in a single backpack was no easy feat. The four essential items were the pack itself, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad and a tent. Everything else was somewhat of a luxury: one pair of hiking clothes, one pair of sleeping clothes, a first-aid kit, a hairbrush, chapstick, a toothbrush, toothpaste and a portable phone charger rounded out her supplies.

Initially, Sasina was not nervous to embark on a solo hike, hoping there would be enough fellow hikers on the trail to be able to help her in case of an emergency. However, she wasn’t quite prepared for the often overwhelming loneliness she felt while on the trail.

“I should have been more afraid to do it alone, because I had never experienced that kind of silence and loneliness,” Sasina said. “Being out there at night when it’s two degrees and you can hear everything, miles and miles from civilization, it’s very humbling and really reminds you how small you are.”

Yet, Sasina found ways to cope with isolation on the trail, including using whatever phone battery she could save to listen to Norah Jones or even just talking to herself to fill the silence. However, she was rarely completely alone on the trail. Many people who hike the Appalachian Trail talk about developing trail families, affectionately dubbed “tramilies.”

“I’d always heard about the trail community, like the people, but it really surprised me how incredible they really were,” Sasina said. “The people that end up making it the whole way are so positive.”

On the trail, she met a hiker named Stephanie Lorenz, who went by Sunshine, and whom she still keeps in touch with regularly. Sasina’s trail family grew when she reached Pearisburg, Virginia, where she began hiking with Johann Hedlund, aka Raindance, and Bennet Varrichione, aka One-T. On the trail, Sasina went by Spoons, a nickname she earned when she broke three camp spoons in the first two weeks.

Varrichione, whose nickname is due to the fact he wore the same T-shirt for the entire hike, had actually crossed paths with Sasina the very first day of her hike, but she thought she would never see him again. However, another chance encounter at the same campsite proved serendipitous — they began to date on the trail and have been together ever since.

The journals she kept during her hike recount adventures along the trail, including a particularly delightful anecdote about picking up water-laden marshmallows from the side of a Maryland highway and chucking them at cars for hours to watch them explode. One especially emotional moment on the trail for her was crossing the Virginia border into Maryland. She actually missed the border itself because she was walking through a thunderstorm at night, but the experience of leaving the South, where she was raised, and her home state behind proved emotionally resonant for her.

“I thought I’d start, make it a day and then do something stupid and get hurt,” Sasina said. “I never thought I would make it all the way out of my home state.”

There were a lot of unexpectedly heightened emotions on the trail for Sasina. Every emotion she had was emphasized by the conditions of the trail. Being hungry was different — instead of driving to the closest grocery store, she might find herself rationing one Pop-Tart over two days.

“I cried a lot on the trail, because I was just really overwhelmed with what I was doing,” Sasina said. “And I don’t cry a lot, you know, in the ‘real world.’ But out there, everything was just so extreme. If I was happy, I was extremely happy. Nothing was just average, everything was just really powerful.”

After she finally completed the trail, life back outside of it brought some unexpected readjustments along with it. After she stepped off the trail, the adrenaline wore off, and the exhaustion kicked in. Even things that used to be mindless tasks, like using public restrooms or being in crowds, became difficult to return to after months of living on the trail.

“And I’m still adjusting,” Sasina said. “I’m still really trying to figure out how to be a normal person again.”

“And I’m still adjusting,” Sasina said. “I’m still really trying to figure out how to be a normal person again.”

Part of figuring out how to be a normal person again entailed re-enrolling at the College and coming back to life as a student in Williamsburg. Sasina is a geology major, and after she graduates, she is hoping to possibly work for an outdoor recreation company or go into environmental consulting or even become a farmer — anything that would allow her to remain connected to the outdoors. While her four-month endeavor hiking the Appalachian Trail was exhausting, Sasina doesn’t rule out doing something similar again in the future.

“I think if I had that kind of time again, I would way rather do the [Pacific Crest Trail] or explore a different trail, but I would absolutely do it again,” Sasina said.

Sasina is proud of her experience and happy to have made the decision to take time off from college when she did. Though the initial prospect was frightening, she encourages anyone thinking of doing it to just go for it.

“People ask what I was scared of a lot,” Sasina said. “I was scared of lightning, hypothermia and norovirus, but honestly the scariest thing about the trail is failure. … Withdrawing from school, risking my education and career, spending my life savings, doing it alone, all with no guarantee of finishing or even getting far, was absolutely terrifying. But it ended up being the best, most empowering decision I have ever made.”