2,000 miles of Spitfire: Steamboat woman hikes Appalachian Trail in 165 days
Moving on from her time as an executive director at Partners in Routt County, Steamboat Springs local Michelle Petix wanted to heed the advice of so many and decided to take an adventure while in between jobs.
While the specific origin of her motivation was hard for her to pinpoint, Petix decided she would embark on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
“At the end of the day, I just knew I was supposed to do it and I was pretty sure it was going to become clear on the trail,” Petix said.
In preparation for her journey, Petix read books and online articles to get first-person accounts of what she was truly about to endure.
She did not have much time to hike and prepare physically, but took the little free time she did have to prepare for the mental battle she would face for the duration of her hike.
Distance-wise, completing the Appalachian Trail is the equivalent to hiking Mount Everest 16 times. The trail takes its travelers through 14 states from Georgia to Maine and covers a span of 2,194.6 miles. Petix described it as no easy feat for the negative-minded.
Petix had to pick her start date based on the finish. Her niece was getting married in mid-August, so she needed to be done a few days before then.
Being the 511th person of 2022 to sign-up for the thru-hike, Petix began her adventure on Feb. 26, giving her just shy of 170 days to finish before the wedding.
Even starting in Georgia, it was a cold winter start for Petix who began the hike by herself. It did not take long, however, for her trail family, known as a trailmily, to take its shape.
Petix’s trailmily formed from who she saw most commonly at shelters throughout the hike. These shelters were three-sided wooden shacks, stationed several miles apart meaning hikers with a similar pace would sleep in and around the same shelters each night.
For the most part, thru-hikers don’t go by their real names so Petix earned the trail name ‘Spitfire’ because of her consistent cussing along the trail. She traveled from place to place seeing Popeye, Baron, Speedo and Shrek everywhere she went. They became her trailmily.
Along the way, Petix encountered several checkpoints and milestones. One of the first milestones was the Smoky Mountains where her feet blistered, her toenails fell off and the pain was really started to set in.
To combat these pains, hikers take what are called “zero days” to rest, replenish, fix equipment and do laundry.
To further assist hikers, many people who formerly completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail would hand out what is called trail magic. Trail magic is simply food or other small supplies that would be useful and desired by the thru-hikers.
Petix explained that to counter every single obstacle was a trail magic moment for her and her friends.
She mentioned Popeye’s shoes blowing out and the next morning he came across shoes his size that he wore until he got new ones. She also said her trailmily discussed how much they loved and missed gingersnaps and the next morning there were gingersnaps via trail magic someone had left.
There were countless moments like this for Petix where everything worked out with no rhyme or reason to it.
Making it through Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, Petix was faced with the longest trail-stretch of any state, Virginia.
“Getting through Virginia is when you start to realize the honeymoon has worn off,” Petix said. “You realize this is it and this is never getting easier. There is not all of a sudden a flat and easy trail with no rocks, no roots and no hills. That does not exist.”
Reaching the halfway point of her travels, Petix felt rejuvenated at Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. She took a few days to rest and see her family in preparation for the second half of the hike.
Petix was the 222nd thru-hiker to reach the halfway point, meaning the other 289 people who started before her either quit or were now behind her.
It was the latter half of the trip that was the biggest struggle for Petix. She was tired, fighting injuries, missing her friends and family and was losing some trailmily members along the way.
Several people Petix became friends with had to drop-out, including Baron who developed shin splints and was in too much pain to continue. They made it all the way to New Hampshire together before Petix found her friend was unable to carry on.
“The biggest part of my story was Baron not finishing,” Petix said. “He represented to me all of the same humility that I had about potentially not finishing but I just couldn’t let my brain go there. At the end of the day, I wasn’t hurt enough.”
Petix said she was limping and aching everywhere but could not justify quitting. She had some miserable days toward the end that put her over the edge and the only thing keeping her going was the belief her family had in her and her hopes to accomplish the feat.
It was something she and so many others were able to bond over. Petix was by no means alone in her physical and mental pain.
“Hope likes company,” Petix said. “Hope breeds hope. There’s a sense of ‘you made it, I made it, we made it.’ We all were miserable, it’s not that I was any worse off than anyone else. It’s like in those moments where it’s the most painful that it’s the most rewarding.”
Petix had one focus for the entire journey and that was reaching Mount Katahdin, the end of the Appalachian Trail. As she approached the mountain, she retraced her steps for the first time and reminisced about her journey.
It was a full circle moment for Petix who officially completed her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail on Aug. 9, taking her 165 days and finishing just in time for the wedding.
Since returning to Routt County, Petix started up her own business, Spitfire Project Based Consulting where she helps nonprofit leaders manage their time and get things done.
Petix says she is trying to figure out how to keep trail magic in her life and how to keep the sense of adventure and putting herself first.
She is proud of her journey and says anyone can hike the Appalachian Trail, it’s just a matter of if you have the will to go until the end.
At 53 years old, Petix is a perfect example of that. The number one thing she brought with her was the knowledge that there was no way to know what obstacles would come but no matter what, you have to roll with the punches.
“My message to anyone that wants to try is to do the research and be prepared,” Petix said. “Be more prepared mentally than physically, in spirit. What kind of attitude are you going to bring on the trail? Wherever you go, there you are, so don’t expect to be somebody you aren’t.”
To reach Tom Skulski, call 970-871-4240, email tskulski@SteamboatPilot.com.
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