The Crux Series is a collection of interviews with mountain experts that have a wealth of knowledge about each of the peaks in our glasses. In celebration of the launch of our Katahdin Collection in Maine, we connect with Derick Lugo.
An accomplished hiker and writer Derick is best known for his memoir "The Unlikely Thru-Hiker: An Appalachian Trail Journey". After spending most of his early years in NYC, Derick decided to embark on a life-changing journey and hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. The experience would change the trajectory of his life and his love for the outdoors. His writing and public speaking have been praised for their humor, honesty, and inspiring message, and have garnered a wide following among outdoor enthusiasts and aspiring adventurers. He is also an advocate for diversity and inclusivity in the outdoors and has worked to encourage more people from all walks of life to explore nature and pursue outdoor activities. Dig in as we chat with the talented writer and adventurer who has inspired countless readers with his story of perseverance, self-discovery, and the power of the great outdoors.
It was the end of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I didn't know much about the trail before my hike, but I knew that Katahdin was my ultimate destination. The day I reached the summit of Katahdin could be a book in itself. Yesterday was actually my 11-year anniversary from when I started my thru-hike. Prior to that, I had zero experience camping or hiking, I had never even pitched a tent, so Katahdin was a special place.
I'm a huge reader, when I lived in New York City I always had a book in my back pocket or backpack. One day a friend handed me a book and said "Hey, read this. It's funny. You'll dig it." Anytime someone recommends a book I just devour it. The book was called “A Walk in the Woods”. I had no idea it was about thru-hiking or the Appalachian Trail. It was hilarious and the one thing that stuck out was the trail the author made sound super hard. He had a love-hate relationship with it. At the time, I was really into discovering new things and challenging myself. It was a pipe dream for me in the beginning. I would like to do that, but I probably won't. It's like traveling around the world or running a marathon. I would like to do it, but who knows?
About six or seven years later, I was in between jobs and had just come back to the States after living in Italy for a year. I came back without any real responsibilities and wanted to do something in America after being in Europe for so long. One of my favorite books is a short read, “Travels with Charley” by Steinbeck. He travels the southern part of America going west with his dog and has encounters with strangers and different people along the way. I thought that was endearing and something I really would've liked to have done. But I didn’t have a car so that went out the window quickly. Then I thought, "What about that thing called the Appalachian Trail? What about thru-hiking?" It was about 12 o'clock at night when I Googled the best time to do it. It said during the springtime, March. It was the beginning of March and I said to myself, "Okay, I could still do this."
When most people plan to do thru-hikes, they plan months, or years before. I had two weeks. It was the phase of my life where I wanted to push myself. It was the right time, the right moment. I'm a big believer that when the opportunity shows itself you have to take it. Once I decided I was going to, I just went for it. Something just told me to do it. Once I started hiking I began realizing that thru-hiking was more than just walking in the woods, it was about the outdoor community. It wasn’t everything that I thought the Appalachian Trail was, it was more than that. That's when my love of the outdoors and hiking started. I'm glad I was brave enough to say, "Hey, let's just do it and see what happens."
The planning was not that great, I just knew the basics. I needed a tent, sleeping bag, mini stove, water filter, and some other essentials. I didn't know how to use them but knew I could learn along the way. The gear I got turned out to be exactly what I needed and it got me through the entire hike. When I first started I had two weeks worth of food in my pack which weighed around 40 pounds. Turns out I didn't need two weeks worth of food, I could have gone with five days. The trail goes near towns where you can resupply often but I didn't know that. I quickly started learning all these things along the way. It worked out for the best because now I have a great story to share.
When most people plan to do thru-hikes, they plan months, or years before. I had two weeks. It was the phase of my life where I wanted to push myself. It was the right time, the right moment. I'm a big believer that when the opportunity shows itself you have to take it. Once I decided I was going to do it, I just went for it. Something just told me to do it.
Once I started hiking I began realizing that thru-hiking was more than just walking in the woods, it was about the outdoor community. It wasn’t everything that I thought the Appalachian Trail was, it was more than that. That's when my love of the outdoors and hiking started. I'm glad I was brave enough to say, "Hey, let's just do it and see what happens."
I had no plans to write a book. Towards the middle of my thru-hike was when I decided I was going to start writing about it. I met a trail angel who was super nice to me and we spoke for hours. I shared a little bit about my story and she said, "You should write about it. This is something that you need to share with others. I feel the passion that you have, and you just need to do it."
I've written short stories and poems before but I never imagined that I would write about the Appalachian Trail. The experience was just so amazing that I couldn't hold my feelings. I got off the trail and just felt that I had to share this. On the trail, I would tell stories around the campfire, which is how I wrote The Unlikely Thru-Hiker, it's just an extension of camp talk. It was the first piece of work that I wanted to get published, that I knew was going to get published. I didn't know how but I knew it was going to. I just focused on the writing, and then little by little I learned how to market myself, how to get it published, and all the things that I needed to do.
That's a good question because I don't see the AT as hard. I just finished the Continental Divide Trail last year, that was hard. The beginning might have been the toughest. The hardest part for me was climbing mountains and learning how to use my backpack. I was wearing it wrong and it was pulling down on my shoulder, and I was feeling all this pain. That and learning how to hike and getting my hiking legs. After a few weeks, it got easier and easier. I would say the beginning of it was a challenge for me, but it wasn't something that I didn't think I could overcome.
It was huge. I didn't know there was an outdoor community like that. I started this with zero experience, and it was obvious I didn't know what I was doing. It was like a big New York marquee on my forehead saying, "Novice." People on the trail weren't judging me, at least I didn't notice it. They were more helpful than anything. The first day I was pitching my tent and I didn't know how to get the stakes in the ground. A thru-hiker came by and tapped down the stakes with a rock, looked at me, tossed the rock and walked away. I thought to myself, "Dude, you're a genius."
I also learned a lot about “trail magic” where strangers leave food by the trailhead. I thought to myself, "Okay, what do they want from us?" That was the New Yorker in me. It took me a while to get used to people being so nice in that way. Once I warmed up to that, I felt guilty because, "Well, what am I going to give them? They're just giving us this. I'm not forced to be out here, I'm doing it because I can. They don't need to give me anything. I don't deserve it." I started thinking, what can I give? I can't give money because I need the money to thru-hike. I don't have anything to give them except for my stories and my experience.
I quickly learned that the people helping us out liked to hear our stories, what we were doing, where we were from, and how far we were going. I would share all my stories and I felt I was giving back that way.
I was hiking toward the halfway point, Harper's Ferry. It is the psychological halfway point, and I was in a hurry because I was going to bathe. However, along the way there was a family doing a day hike who stopped me and asked, "Hey, are you a thru-hiker?" As much as I wanted to be at Harper's Ferry, I stopped to talk to with them. We spoke for 20 minutes and I shared about the outdoors and my experience. I knew that it was something that was helping. They were helping me, and I was helping them. That was how I learned about this amazing community. It was about more than what I thought it was.
There were a lot of mixed emotions that day as you can imagine. I kept thinking if I had any regrets. How could I have done it differently? Especially climbing up to Katahdin, you start thinking about your entire thru-hike. All the people you met, all those you wish were there with you. I was hiking with a group in the beginning, and how I wished they were all there with me. I started that morning hiking with a group. Everyone kept saying, "Hey, you only need a day pack and no trekking poles." I had my backpack and my trekking poles with me the entire thru-hike. I left them at the bottom that morning and it just didn't feel right. They helped me get all the way to Katahdin. A mile and a half into our hike, I decided to turn back around and grab my poles. It was a sentimental thing for me. So, I went back and I ended up hiking alone. That's when all the emotions started hitting me and I was able to just take in the last few hours of my thru-hike.
I was able to enjoy all these little things because no one was around to distract me or talk to me while I was climbing. I was able to soak it all in and do it my own way. Once I saw the sign I just started bawling. I walked up to the top and the people parted and let me have my moment with the sign. It's a worn-out sign. People would sit on it and climb on it, but what's the one thing everyone does? They kiss the sign. That dirty, worn-out sign. I grabbed a bandana, wiped part of the sign down and kissed it. It's one of those things, that sign's been in your dreams for so long and now it's in front of you, and you want to be as close to it as possible.
It would have been different if I was hiking with a group. I don't think it would have been as sentimental for me. It was meant to happen the way it did. I was grateful that I was able to be alone during that time. I'll never forget it for the rest of my life.
That mountain and the sign symbolize the end of one journey, but the beginning of something way bigger. It redefined or added to who I was, or who I am. Every time I see that sign I think, "That's where everything started for me." It's not like I was trying to find myself, at that point I knew who I was, I knew what I wanted to do. From that moment on, I had meaning to what I wanted the rest of my life to be like. My first thru-hike was for myself, a discovery-type thing, and my second thru-hike was for others. Now I like to live the rest of my life sharing what I discovered and doing it for others. To educate others about it because I want people to experience that high with me.
When I said the AT changed my career path, I meant it. I didn't want to work in New York City anymore. All I want to do is just keep doing outdoor adventures and teaching others, or just writing about it. I finished my Continental Divide Trail thru-hike last year in the fall and am currently writing about it. I have a few adventures lined up. I'm going to climb Mount Shasta in June for a charity breast cancer prevention (Support the fundraiser here). I'm doing that with a group. I'm doing a bunch of shorter hikes, but ultimately what I want to do is just finish the book, which will take me the rest of the year. I'm putting everything into this book and trying to go a little bit beyond what I did with the first one.
Your cart is currently empty.