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by Meghan Deerin
Updated August 19, 2022
In 2015, three friends who loved the outdoors took a plunge. They sold everything they owned, quit their jobs, bought RVs and set off on the greatest adventure of their lives.
Since trading their Colorado Springs homes for RVs, Kristy Burns, 56, her partner, Annette Demel, 62, and their friend Lynn Edmiston, 63, are hiking, biking and kayaking their way across the country. They’ve already crossed 45 of the country’s 62 national parks off their bucket list. In 2019, they tackled their biggest challenge yet: hiking the roughly 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine.
“There’s that line in a Mary Oliver poem that’s so quoted: “What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?” Annette said. “For years, we really had conversations about that, ‘What are we going to do?’ ”
She found her answer in a book, Die Broke: A Radical Four-Part Financial Plan, by Stephen M. Pollan and Mark Levine. After reading the line, “Quit today,” it hit her. They should sell everything they owned, live in RVs and travel the country. It wasn’t hard to convince Kristy, but Lynn was a harder sell.
“First, I was like, well, that’s really dumb, and then I just kind of fell onboard,” Lynn said. “I had this realization that this is really the only life I get and there were so many things I wanted to do.”
They didn’t have lucrative careers or family trust funds. Kristy was a licensed professional counselor specializing in trauma in young children, and Annette was a librarian at the same Colorado Springs high school where Lynn worked as a technology specialist. Undeterred, the trio made a five-year plan and figured out that by selling all of their possessions — which for Kristy and Annette included selling their house — they could pay off any debts, buy RVs to live in, and survive off their pensions. There was one catch: They didn’t know anything about RVs.
From little tents to big RVs
“We were backpackers,” Annette said. “We’d be camping in our little tents and someone would pull up next to us in an RV, and we’d be, like, “That’s not camping.”
“We used to make fun of RVs,” Lynn agreed.
“But we had to have home of some sort,” Kristy explained.
After a lot of trial and error and more than a few video tutorials, they learned to drive and even fix their rigs — travel trailers pulled by pickup trucks. Lynn hauls 16-foot Cupcake, while Kristy and Annette share Big Momma, a 35-foot travel trailer tricked out with a toy hauler for bikes and backpacking equipment and a kayak rack. After installing solar panels themselves, they now can boondock: camp for free on public lands and never have to plug in for electricity.
“I looked at it like a big science project,” said Annette, who spearheaded the solar panel effort. “I think it’s the librarian mindset: If you can research it and you can find out about it, then you might as well try it.”
While backpacking the 567-mile Colorado Trail in 2015, they christened themselves the “Wander Women.” The next summer, they walked the 425-mile Oregon Coast Trail that hugs the Pacific coast from the Columbia River in Oregon to the California border. While hiking the 129-mile Texas Lone Star Recreation Trail in 2016, Kristy suggested they attempt a through-hike (end-to-end hike) of the Appalachian Trail.
“I always come up with these ideas, and these guys never say no,” Kristy said.
To prepare for the what is thought to be the longest hiking-only trail in the world, the Wander Women trained for six weeks on their old stomping grounds of Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs. On Feb. 21, 2019, they began the Appalachian Trail’s Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls in Georgia. Six months and nine days later, they summited Mount Katahdin at the trail’s end in Maine.
To finish in six months, they had to average 15 miles a day. Most days, they hiked for eight to 10 hours, each carrying 25 pounds of supplies — tents, sleeping bags, pads, meals and more. They used David “AWOL” Miller’s The A.T. Guide: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail, and Guthook, a mobile phone application that provided exact locations of water sources and towns along the way so that they could plan how to restock their food and water supplies.
Grueling hikes, kind souls
All three were seasoned backpackers, but the Appalachian Trail was no cakewalk. In the Great Smoky Mountains, the friends struggled to keep warm when the temperature fell to 17 degrees, and in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, they had to claw their way through a vertical boulder trough of rocks.
“It’s like total joy out there even though we were in pain,” Kristy said.
Numerous studies have shown that regular walks can help fend off cognitive decline, but hiking outdoors amplifies that benefit. In his 2020 book, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives, Daniel J. Levitin writes that hiking is exactly the type of navigation human brains evolved to perform. Hiking can strengthen synapses that are crucial to brain communication, rejuvenate memory in the brain’s hippocampus and hone eye-body coordination. “Outdoors, anything can happen. And that’s the most potent way of keeping the brain flexible and active that we have so far discovered.”
Social media success
Prior to their Appalachian adventure, Kristy started a YouTube channel so her mom could get a glimpse of their RV life. On the Appalachian Trail, she began to post more frequently, hoping to motivate women and older people to get out in the wilderness and explore. Their number of followers jumped from a handful to over 3,000.
Strangers wrote to meet up with them on the trail. A 25-year-old Virginia man hiked nearly the whole trail with them. In Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, a couple took them to a grocery store to resupply and met up with them again in New York. In Maine’s notoriously grueling 100-Mile Wilderness, a couple drove four hours in their RV to meet them and cooked the women a spaghetti dinner.
“The Appalachian Trail will totally restore your faith in humanity,” Annette said. “You find out people are really rooting for you and people are really so kind.”
When they’re not on a backpacking trip. Kristy, Annette and Lynn hike at least two hours a day, typically setting out by 6 or 7 a.m. They stretch and work out with weights daily, and do foot exercises to guard against injury.
The women also intentionally exercise their brains. In addition to constantly researching and plan their newest adventure, all three are learning Spanish, and each has taken up a musical instrument: Annette and Lynn are learning guitar, and Kristy has taken up the ukulele. They also try to meditate daily, and Kristy uses jigsaw puzzles to deal with stress.
Kristy, Annette and Lynn maintain a healthy diet, avoid caffeine and alcohol, and rarely eat out. They don’t eat much meat, getting their protein instead from cottage cheese, eggs and tuna.
“Quinoa, green salads, fresh fruit, yogurt, veggies and hummus” are all staples, Lynn said. Kristy and Annette also occasionally practice intermittent fasting — not consuming anything after 5 p.m.
• "Aerobic physical activity to improve memory and executive function in sedentary adults without cognitive impairment: A systematic review and meta-analysis," Preventive Medicine Reports, September 2021. This review of research looked at randomized controlled trials of sedentary adults 50 and older and found that aerobic physical activity such as walking is associated with improved memory and executive function. Read the full study.
• "Hiking: A Low-Cost, Accessible Intervention to Promote Health Benefits," American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, July 2016. This scientific paper explores the research behind the specific health benefits of hiking. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)