ALBANY — Andrea Robinson can say she’s hiked the Continental Divide Trail, and when she does, she jumps to the answer before even being asked.
“I went through four pairs of shoes,” she said with a laugh. “I feel like that’s the number one question everyone asks me: ‘How many shoes did she go through?’”
Looking back on her thru-hike, she reflected on the statistics. “I kept a daily log. I know that I hiked 2543 miles total. At the beginning, when I was in New Mexico, I was hiking 15 to 17 miles a day as an average. By the time I finished, I was doing 27 to 25 miles a day.”
The Continental Divide Trail spans over 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada. It is famous for its varied terrain. “When you’re in New Mexico, it’s very hot and dry. The number one challenge there was the heat. Especially coming from New York in April, where it was cold,” recounted Robinson.
“You leave New Mexico and go up into the mountains of Colorado. I had snowstorms the first couple of days in Colorado. The trail has 900,000 feet of elevation gain over the entire trail. So when you get into Colorado, it’s definitely a shock from the heat and flatness of New Mexico to these 14,000 ft. mountains and the snow, wind, and rain of Colorado.”
Each section and state within the trail is a different test of a long-distance hiker’s ability to adapt. “When you get through Colorado and go to Wyoming, you’re in the Basin, which is another desert, very hot and dry. By the time you get into Montana, you have the potential for snow again. It’s hot, cold, hot, cold.”
Robinson came to the trail equipped to handle these daily uncertainties and prepared to learn along the way. As a marathon runner, she understands how to push herself. Ever since she was a young girl, that urge to get out on the trail has been present, pushing her even further.
“I camped a lot in the Adirondacks when I was a kid,” she said. Her father often favored taking her brother on hikes instead, but Robinson didn’t let this set her back. “When I was old enough and had the means to get to a trail, I really started hiking.”
She section-hiked the Appalachian Trail, a trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine. “I went on my first backpacking trip with my son, who was seven at the time. We just went for a couple of days. I didn’t know long-distance trails even existed.”
“I always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to do a through-hike when I could,” she said. At first, she thought she’d hike the Pacific Crest Trail. “But once I started looking at the trails, I liked the sound of the Continental Divide Trail more because it has more mountains. I really love the mountains.”
Eventually, she said she “would like to do the Pacific Crest Trail. If you do all three of the trails (Appalachian, Pacific, and Continental), they call that the Triple Crown.”
To prepare for the CDT, she consulted hikers that she knew and read about what to expect. “Since I hadn’t through-hiked before, I did read a couple of blogs of other women who had hiked. I did have a better idea of mentally what I was going to be getting into.”
“I used Trail Journals. It’s where I read a lot of blogs from other hikers and wrote my blog. It’s a website for long-distance hikers who hike any trail. There is really a great community out there for non-distance hikers,” said Robinson. “It’s nice to be able to reach out to different people.”
Comradery amongst hikers was a valuable and necessary part of the hike. Far Out, the app she used to navigate the trail, allows hikers to keep everyone informed of trail conditions. “There’s a lot of word-of-mouth out there.”
“At the beginning, it’s definitely a little intimidating,” Robinson admits. “I had never been in the desert before. There was a part of me that was unsure if I’d be able to do it, if I had the right stuff.”
She came prepared for the unpredictable. “I did get a lighter backpack than I had been using. I dehydrated a lot of food that my husband was able to mail to me at spots along the trail.”
While some hikers temporarily shed their winter gear in the deserts, she chose not to. “I carried mittens and my puffy coat the whole time.” The temperature in the desert can unexpectedly drop, so she never left behind her 0 Degree sleeping bag.
The whole trail is like that. Every day is like that,” she acknowledged. “Every day you have to have in the back of your mind that you don’t know how the day is going to go and you have to be prepared for anything.”
Keeping to a routine helped her keep the stress of the unknown at bay. “I generally got up between 530 and 6. It took me about an hour to get going every day, to pack up, eat my breakfast, and get going.”
“I hiked about 12 hours a day. Some days I wouldn’t get as far, but generally I hiked from 7 a.m to 7 p.m. At 7 p.m I would stop wherever there was a good place to camp. You can camp anywhere on the trail. I would filter my water, set up my campsite, eat my dinner, wash and try to be in my tent by 8:30 p.m I carried a kindle, so I would read for half an hour and go to bed.”
She recounted the experience of how one night, a herd of elk went right by her tent. “The trail, it’s just stunning. Every day you wake up with a beautiful sunrise in the desert. Or you climb this mountain and you’re hot and tired, but the view is epic,” she said. “There was always something amazing coming around the next corner.”
The longer she was on the trail, as the days grew into weeks and then into months, her confidence grew, too. “The further you go, the more days you’re out there the more you realize that you really can accomplish the goal. I remember the last couple of weeks thinking, I can’t believe I’m in Montana. I’ve actually walked 2500 miles! It’s just kind of unreal.”
The solitude on the trail was less of a challenge for her, but summoning inner resilience was difficult at times. “I think the biggest challenge is not exactly being alone, because for me I don’t mind being alone— but being positive as you get more tired,” she said. “I think that is the biggest challenge, keeping yourself positive even though physically and mentally you’re very tired.
In Idaho, the combination of hot weather and her weight loss began to affect her physically and mentally. “I really only had one bad day where I was questioning my life choices. But there were a lot of days where I was thinking I’m really tired, it’s going to be a long, hard day.”
“I had one of my hardest days and one of my best days all at the same moment,” she remembered.
When Robinson was in Colorado, one of the most difficult sections of the trail lay in front of her at an imposing 14,000 feet. Greys Peak is the highest point on the trail, with steep drop-offs of 2000 feet on each side.
“I was tired and an emotional wreck because the trail was so hard. It was the worst part of the day,” she said. “I got to the top and I remember thinking Oh my god I can’t believe I just did that. I pushed myself way beyond my comfort zone to get up to the top by myself and it was amazing.”
“I think every day when you see those beautiful things, it makes you want to keep on going,” she added. “I’m a goal-ordinated person, I think a lot of through-hikers are. There’s nobody there clapping you on or saying ‘good job’. You have to find that inside of yourself.”
From April 19th to September 4th, it took her 139 days to hike from the Mexican to the Canadian border. She finished a week ahead of schedule. “I still can’t really believe that I did it,” she mused about the hike.
Long-distance hikers can sometimes struggle to adjust after a long hike. Robinson mentally prepared herself as much as possible in advance. “I made sure I was really busy after I got home, so I wouldn’t dwell on how much I missed hiking.”
“Hiking on the trail is an easy way of living— you walk all day and you don’t have to worry about anything, no emails or texts or time constraints,” she said. “That part of the trail was so easy.”
“It really has changed me. I can’t really describe how it’s changed me, but I feel like I’m a different person. I have a different perspective about myself and the world. It’s been such a great experience.”