While classmates were zipping up graduation gowns and walking across the stage at Saint Joseph’s College’s commencement in May 2015, Effie Drew ’15 was embarking on what would become, at the time, the biggest walk of her life—traversing 14 states to complete the 2,180+ grueling miles of the iconic Appalachian Trail (AT). In less than three years she would nearly complete the Triple Crown by hiking all of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and over half of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
Effie had spent two years at the College as a Business student, after transferring from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She played field hockey for the Monks—a tenacious center forward with a knack for scoring goals. She had always enjoyed spending time outdoors and hiking with her family, but as she neared graduation, she felt a greater urge to test her limits and to go it alone.
Effie chose a four-legged friend as her hiking partner—an energetic Australian Shepherd named Luna. The American Kennel Club describes Australian Shepherds as “smart, exuberant, and needing a lot of activity and sense of purpose to be truly content.” Effie started to train Luna using the scenic trails that wind around campus and down to Sebago Lake. Scrolling back through Effie’s Instagram feed to 2013, one photo shows Luna as a fluffy young pup with an adorably small nose staring out pensively across Sebago Lake, her paw resting on rocks by the water’s edge. Distinct black spots and light brown streaks blend across salt and pepper colored fur.
In less than three years Effie Drew ’15 nearly completed the Triple Crown by hiking. Here she is pictured at Montana’s Glacier National Park.
After the Effie-Luna duo bagged the AT, Effie’s hunger for terrifyingly beautiful landscapes only grew. She embarked on cross country road trips throughout the west, plunged from cliffs into azure waters, and slept in deserts under bowls of stars. She met friends, hitched rides, and picked up nannying jobs to earn enough cash for each new journey. Mostly, she just kept walking—for over 7,000 miles. In 2017, this included traversing the Wind River Range in Wyoming, which encompasses an area of 2.25 million acres with 40 named peaks over 13,000 feet and seven of the ten largest glaciers in the Lower 48. Dramatic, exposed granite peaks tower above the treeline in this Rocky Mountain range, affectionately known by hikers as “The Winds.”
“The West just has this feeling of more space,” says Effie. “You have all this freedom; it’s choose your own adventure—you can truly explore what you want to see.”
Even though Effie pored over maps, carefully checking routes and marking where to obtain water, where to resupply, and where to watch for impasses, she learned, “You can’t plan for everything, like trail conditions, or when your body will need a rest, or the weather.” She had to learn when to take the lead and when to hang back and listen to fellow hikers with whom she connected on the trail.
“I’m not naturally laid back,” she says. Coming from the world of business where everything is “go, go, go” she has needed to learn to be more patient, to go with the flow, and to honestly answer, “when is it good to push forward and when is it good to rest?”
In California, Effie once walked four days without seeing another hiker. Solitude brought reflection. “I’ve learned a lot about myself—how I make decisions, how I form relationships, what kind of thinker I am.” When she did meet up with other hikers, their colorful conversations and eclectic backgrounds created a camaraderie that forged almost instantaneously. “You form bonds quickly because there are no distractions… It’s like pre-filtering through friends because you share a similar ethos and drive. You’re working towards the same goal.”
Hikers, Effie explains, have their own lingo. They abbreviate mountain ranges and gear and bestow trail names upon one another. Some of Effie’s companions have included “Killer,” “Still Smilin,’” “Diva Dan,” “Sunrise Chatterbox,” and “Pounds.” Effie’s trail name “Baby” comes from Baby Wipes that she carried on the AT. It’s also fitting because of her small five-foot frame and how young she was when first setting off alone.
The nickname can be misleading, however, because Effie has certainly faced her share of adult challenges. Take, for instance, the blizzard she encountered on the CDT in Colorado. Wind whipped ferociously at her face, blurring her vision. Her drinking water froze. During moments like these, she says, “It was hard not to fall into a dark place in my mind.”
She explains that she and her hiking companion during that stretch, a carpenter named “Dingo” from Connecticut, “got through that tough day because we stayed light, optimistic, and humorous…Having a partner makes it sometimes easier to keep bouncing that positivity off each other.” Beyond the physical resilience needed to overcome adverse conditions, Effie also practiced mindfulness. “To go out you need to be ambitious, but to finish you need a different level of mental toughness.” How did she dig deep and push through the pain of bloody, blistered feet, long nights enveloped in cold, and the frustration of setbacks as harrowing as blizzards?
Trail magic occurs when something happens when you need it to—a stream appears, a brilliant sunset sweeps across the sky, a stranger offers a ride or food or a bed for a night. Trail magic can also be savoring special snacks or taking goofy photos or seeing grizzly bears, bobcats, elk, and pronghorn. Effie often tries to live completely in the moment, enjoying each breath in and each breath out. Hiking is about delayed gratification, she says, and that can be especially difficult to accept, given the instantaneous gratification that pervades most of modern American life.
“The outdoors are not exclusive. That’s a huge reason I decided to blog. At first, when I was hiking the AT I didn’t want people to know where I was. After two major trails, I realized that was a bit selfish.” Effie feels like it’s a responsibility to share her experience with others, so as she walks she thinks about the greater meaning of her journey and she will sometimes jot down notes in her phone throughout the day. Later on, she will write in her tent and when she gets “into town” she’ll hook up to wifi and post via her phone on her website, babygotbackwoods.com. Her posts range from lyrical ponderings about emotional discovery to practical advice about gear, food, and shelter. She’s utilizing the business acumen acquired while at Saint Joseph’s and even gaining sponsorships that cover gear for Luna like Sojos dehydrated pet food and VetriScience® food supplements.
Effie says her adventures in the wild are not so much about what’s she doing; it’s how she’s doing it. “I get so much out of what’s new and uncomfortable. The act of going alone was a risk—it tested my confidence.”
Anyone can have a great adventure, she explains. He or she could try a new job or move to a new place or pick up a new hobby. It doesn’t have to be as extreme as tenting out at 10,000 feet.
So what’s up next for this intrepid traveler? She’s dating Dingo—they ended up walking most of the CDT together, finishing at the Mexican border. They’re brainstorming trips for the summer—maybe a thru-paddle on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, from New York to Maine. Maybe they’ll check out the Green Mountains of Vermont’s Long Trail. Wherever she ends up, Effie plans to trust the journey and keep moving forward.
Photos courtesy of Effie Drew.