Toward the end of November 2002, Lauren DeLand’s body started to ache. Her head hurt. She was fatigued. Barely able to get up in the mornings, she slept most days, flip-flopping between the bed and the couch.
The athletic and driven 20-year-old studying pre-med at Eastern Washington University wasn’t worried. She had the flu. She’d recover.
Except, she didn’t.
Now, 17 years, 8,000 miles and 1 million vertical feet later, she still struggles with those symptoms — a never-ending flu of sorts — also known as chronic fatigue syndrome.
“It totally ripped apart my life,” DeLand said. “It took away everything I knew or identified as. And one of those things was being an athlete.”
Which made Nov. 2 all the more remarkable.
On that day the 37-year-old stepped from Montana into Canada, thus completing a six-month continuous hike from Mexico to Canada. It was her third long-distance thru-hike since 2016.
Those final snowy steps put DeLand in elite company: She is now a Triple Crowner having completed the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail. Only 396 hikers have been officially recognized as Triple Crowners, with unofficial estimates putting the number of finishers around 600.
“Lauren has now spent 16 months of her life outside sleeping on the ground every night, walking 25 miles a day on average,” said her husband and hiking partner, Travis Nichols.
‘I hike a little different’
Nichols and DeLand started their journey April 22 at the Crazy Cook Monument in New Mexico’s boot heel. There, a barbed wire fence marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico. They lifted the fence, placed one foot into Mexico and were off.
For the next 800 or so miles they trekked through the desert, which Nichols called “the land of enchantment.” They started slowly, allowing their bodies to adapt to the grind of trail life and soaking in the stark beauty. Because of her disease, having time to recover properly from physical exertion is vital for DeLand. In an effort to do that, they kept their daily mileage to around 25, religiously avoiding sunburns.
One of the cruelties of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is that it makes sleeping hard. For DeLand, 10 hours of quality sleep a night is a must. A comfortable sleeping set-up was vital.
“I hike a little different,” she said. “Ultralight backpacking is very popular. … People get down to a base weight of 10 pounds. I don’t get that option, because my sleep needs are more.”
She brought a pillow and a thick sleeping pad and sleeping bag — items most thru-hikers would consider heavy luxuries. All told, her pack weighed 22 pounds without food or water. Nichols’ pack weighed more than that, although he intentionally never weighed it.
“It’s just better not to know,” he said.
From New Mexico the duo passed into Colorado. Here they faced their first major obstacle. This year the snowpack in Colorado (and the Rocky Mountains in general) was 751 percent higher than normal after late spring and early summer storms.
That meant hikers traveling north were faced with hundreds of miles of deep, mountain snow. For Nichols and DeLand, doing the trip south to north in one continuous push was worth the effort. So they shipped their skis and avalanche gear from Spokane and trekked into the Colorado snow.
Throughout New Mexico they’d often run into and camp with some of the 400 or so other hikers doing the CDT in 2019.
The snow changed that. The majority of those hikers opted to either skip that section and come back later, or start hiking from the north instead, to give the Rocky Mountains time to melt out. Only five other people pushed through the Colorado snow, they estimated.
“It was full spring ski mountaineering,” Nichols said.
That section was one of the hardest, if not the hardest, part of the trip — physically and mentally. The snow brought a host of associated risks, particularly avalanches. Nichols, an experienced ski-mountaineer, ended up having to “guide” DeLand, who has less experience with technical mountain terrain and had never snow-camped prior to the trip, although she was an experienced backcountry skier.
This was a challenging dynamic for the couple.
“Travis had to switch into a guide role for a bit,” DeLand said. “As anybody in a relationship would tell you, you don’t want to be the one teaching your partner. That dynamic is always prickly.”
“That was a really tough shift, I think for both of us,” Nichols said. “I didn’t necessarily want to. You didn’t want it to happen, but it had to happen.”
They persisted. After 200 snowy miles they finished that section of the trip and shipped their skis home. Continuing through Colorado they stayed as high as they could. While the Continental Divide Trail is, at points, a designated trail, there are many possible variations. DeLand and Nichols decided from the outset they would stay as high as they could and summit peaks when possible.
“You can never say my CTD hike was the same as anybody else, because there are always going to be different choices about the path you take.” Nichols said.
Throughout the trek they noticed major cultural differences. In New Mexico they were greeted enthusiastically and, often, with awe. “You’re doing what?” people would wonder. “You’re hiking for how long?”
That was not the case in Colorado. Flooded with outdoor adventurers, whether it’s the hoards of hikers hoping to summit one of the state’s highest mountains or racers training for the infamous Leadville 100, the fact that they were hiking the CDT was not a big deal.
“You’re so not cool in Colorado,” he said. “It’s a totally different culture there. Everyone is fit. Everyone is healthy and super active.”
At the same time they saw stark socioeconomic differences. In New Mexico they passed trailers in the desert, their occupants clearly living on the edge of things, struggling to find food and health care.
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In Colorado, hotel prices double or triple on the weekends in advance of the crowds. Weekend warriors regularly spend thousands of dollars on gear, lodging transportation and food.
“The CDT is a trail of extremes. It’s a trail of high and low temperatures. A trail of high and low elevations,” Nichols said. “It’s also cultural extremes. It’s also economic and poverty extremes.”
Those cultural differences only continued. By August, they’d made it to Wyoming entering the state at Battle Pass. As they walked into the nearest town to shower and rest a man pulled up in a well-used orange 1970s Ford and, with a cigarette hanging from his lip, offered them a beer.
They turned down the beer but took the ride.
Because of DeLand’s disease, the duo took impeccable care to eat and drink well (thus declining the beer).
For many thru-hikers food is simply fuel. When hikers arrive in a town they buy what they can. In practice, that may mean Snickers bars, Cheetos, peanut butter and flour tortillas. Often all together.
This wouldn’t work for them.
“Everything about our hike had to be designed about my recovery every night,” DeLand said.
Since the diagnosis, DeLand and Nichols have experimented with their diets, trying to see what works best. The knowledge gained from years of trial and error allowed them to meticulously plan and pack their food.
For breakfast most days they ate chia seeds. Dried fruits and nuts were their snacks. Lunch was some type of protein, generally a salmon, chicken or tuna packet. For dinner they had a grain (brown rice, quinoa or couscous, for example) with dried vegetables.
They packed all this food in advance of their trip and shipped more than 30 packages to post offices and hotels along their route. At packing parties before the trip friends mixed spices into Ziploc bags full of grain and veggies.
While this extra effort was necessitated by DeLand’s health, it paid dividends in other ways. By the time they hit Wyoming hikers heading the other direction were commenting on their physique. One, who they’d first met in New Mexico asked, “How do you guys look more buff now?”
While most thru-hikers lost muscle during their hikes, DeLand and Nichols gained muscle, despite eating about 3,000 calories per day.
“Over the long haul the differentiating factor in health is diet,” Nichols said. “And we’ve lived that and understand really clearly that you are what you eat.”
Throughout the trek they passed through some of the continent’s most beautiful and remote vistas. While hiking along the divide they saw rivers flowing in opposite directions, one heading, eventually, to the Pacific, the other cascading to the Atlantic.
By August they’d entered Wyoming’s basin, a high desert steppe known for short and hot summers and long, cold winters.
“We’re out there watching wild horses, antelope and these crazy sunsets,” Nichols said. “It’s a really special desert.”
After passing through the basin they entered the Wind River Range. Here they saw the clearest signs of climate change. In Colorado they knew they’d walked across areas once covered by glaciers. But in Wyoming’s Wind Rivers the rapidity of the melting was viscerally driven home.
“You look on the topographic map and there’s this big expanse of all these glaciers,” Nichols said. “And then you get there, and they’ve receded. There are barely any left.”
The maps in question were made in 2017.
Meanwhile, Wyoming’s economy remains yoked to natural gas extraction.
“The community is caught in the middle,” Nichols said. “Because on one hand, they want the recreation dollars … and yet they also rely on the fossil fuel thing and they’re killing the thing they want to transition to.”
‘A healing journey’
By the end of September they’d made it through a short section of Idaho and into Montana and had fewer than 500 miles to go.
That’s when winter came screaming in.
“We get to Helena, Montana, and on Sept. 30 the skies unload and winter arrives,” Nichols said. “We didn’t even see fall. Until that point, leaves were hanging. There was really no indication of what was going to happen.”
They had about 350 miles left. Land that suddenly was covered in as much as 4 feet of snow. They spent the next month trudging through that, mostly with snowshoes.
While traveling through the snow was a struggle, it came with some benefits. Animal tracks. The constant movement of animals, no doubt present throughout the trip, was made visible by the snow. During their final month on the trail they became familiar with the travels of moose, wolves and grizzlies.
“When we started coming across the grizzly bear tracks we were a little hesitant,” DeLand said. “But also kind of elated because they break trail wonderfully.”
By the end of October, they were in Glacier National Park with the end in sight. Several storms forced them to stop and wait. But finally on Nov. 2, they stepped into Canada, thus finishing their six-month adventure.
Completing the CDT is a considerable physical and mental accomplishment for anyone. But for DeLand, it represented something larger. While her disease is not gone, and likely never will be, she’s rebuilt her life around this new reality, forging an identity one step at a time.
“I’ve come back with more self-confidence and self-knowledge after every hike,” she said. “It’s absolutely been a healing journey for me.”