How a Pair of Boots Thru-Hiked the Appalachian Trail

2,189 miles, 40 hikers, 2 boots, 1 adventure

When Paul, an outdoors enthusiast who dreamed of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, passed away at age 53 before he could complete it, his wife, M’Lynn, reached out to the outdoor creative company Duct Tape Than Beer. Paul spent years caring for his mother, who suffered from Parkinson’s, and father when he developed Alzheimer’s disease. Then, a series of heart attacks prevented Paul from walking the trail himself. So after he died, M’Lynn wanted to find other hikers willing to carry his boots from Georgia to Maine in his honor. “It was a simple, heartfelt request, and one we knew we could help with,” says Becca Cahall, team director and owner of Duct Tape Than Beer.

We partnered with the staff to help document the project (which became a 37-minute video, viewable above). They asked the hiking community if anyone would be willing to carry Paul’s boots for a portion of the trail. The response was overwhelming: A whopping 400 hikers volunteered, and the crew at Duct Tape Than Beer sat down with a giant spreadsheet to map out logistics. With each hiker, came a story. “We asked people to tell us about themselves, and they opened up because they were so moved by [M’Lynn’s] story,” says Cahall.

They chose 17 groups of hikers, which came down to roughly 40 in total. Ages ranged from 8 to 70 and skill level varied, too. Cahall says they chose some volunteers who were headed out on their first backpacking trip and others who, like Paul, were avid hikers.

Jim Parker, a sixth grade teacher in Boulder, Colorado, was one of the chosen volunteers. After losing two of his brothers to sudden cardiac death, Parker decided to strive to create memories he felt were worthy of them. “When the call to action for Paul’s Boots went out last [winter], I felt like I had been kicked in the gut,” Parker, a long-time listener of Duct Tape Than Beer’s podcast, the Dirtbag Diaries, tells REI. “Paul’s story and the theme of dreams left unfulfilled resonated so strongly with me.”

Parker used his summer vacation to carry Paul’s four-pound boots through Vermont, completing the entire 150-mile stretch from North Adams, Massachusetts, to Hanover, New Hampshire. He chose the stretch because he’d lived in the area for 10 years during and after college, and Vermont was where he really discovered mountains.

It can be easy to get bogged down in the pettiness and small discomforts of our everyday lives and lose sight of our dreams, says Parker. “What’s important, though, is to focus on the things that bring us joy, get us stoked, and energize us. Once we can do that, we can then spread that energy to those around us. It’s never too early or too late to live the life you’ve been dreaming of.”

For Cahall, the takeaway from this project is that we can all help each other achieve one anothers’ dreams with a simple ask. “Sometimes we’re resistant to ask for help,” she says, “but when we do, that can build connections within the community around us.”

Although future plans for Paul’s boots aren’t in place yet, many hikers have reached out, hoping to take them on another AT trip. Others want to organize a similar project on the Pacific Crest Trail. “It’ll be interesting to see where they end up next season,” says Cahall.

Learn more about the hikers and Paul—and listen to the Dirtbag Diaries’ podcast episodes on Paul’s Boots.

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