LOWELL — Armed with her bright yellow backpack, trekking pole and hiking dress, Arlette Laan took the last few steps of the National Park Service’s Ice Age trail in Wisconsin on July 11, marking the end of a long and historic journey.
The 50-year-old Lowell resident became the first woman — and sixth person ever — to traverse all 11 National Scenic Trails, a 17,830-mile feat that took her nearly two decades to complete.
“I love hiking and exploring, I love being outside, so to be able to spend months outside sounded like an amazing experience and a test of my endurance,” Laan said. “I get to see this beautiful scenery every day, and, ‘Can I do it?’ There’s that sense of exploration, seeing something new.”
Her journey began in California, where she lived at the time and backpacked frequently. The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches through California, Oregon and Washington, caught Laan’s eye back in 2003. The hike through California alone took three months, but Laan was already hooked.
The very next year, Laan finished the Continental Divide Trail that takes hikers from the north of Montana to the south of New Mexico, followed by the Appalachian Trail along the East Coast, thus completing “the big three” National Scenic Trails.
Funnily enough, it wasn’t until Laan hiked seven of these national trails — including the Arizona Trail in 2009 and the Florida Trail soon after — that she understood their distinction. Laan ran into Nimblewill Nomad, a famous American hiker who had already completed all 11 trails, who told her she could be the first woman to do so.
Laan was intrigued. She said she thought it would be “kind of cool,” especially since she had “only” four left, but wondered whether it would be “tedious,” considering one was more than 4,000 miles.
“That’s how it became a goal, and that wasn’t until 2018 that I really was like, ‘Oh, I guess I could finish this list,’ and then I started to focus on it,” she said.
The last two years have been hectic, as Laan had a few more trails to get under her belt, but to hear how women responded to her big accomplishment has made the arduous hike all the more rewarding.
“People’s reactions are really cool,” she said. “It’s empowering and inspiring to women, and I’m also not a young person and I have a little bit of weight on me, so it’s kind of like people are really inspired by it, or they just like that fact.”
The hardest part of her journey was the North Country Trail: a whopping 4,600-mile trek and the longest of the 11 National Scenic Trails. That one took Laan just under 300 days to complete, which she did in February.
Laan said the North Country “was just miserable,” and there were other points in her travels when the weather was bad, the environment wasn’t too interesting — specifically “some of New York and most of Ohio” — or the solo hike made her feel extra alone.
In moments of discouragement, Laan said she reminded herself of the end goal and tried to break up each trail into sections, celebrating each small achievement by getting ice cream or walking “half a mile to get to Dunkin’.” Clearly, Laan never lost touch with Massachusetts.
“My main mindset is, ‘Well, might as well muster on through,’” she said. “You put music on or podcasts or you take a day off or you go lay in a river for an hour, something just to take your mind off of it.”
Laan’s sponsor, Gossamer Gear, supplied her with several backpacks and lots of trekking poles, “because I kept breaking them,” which she said was a lifesaver and money-saver while she was out for months at a time.
Most hikers have a trail name, Laan said, and hers, “Apple Pie,” has a special sentimental meaning.
“I coined it because I like my desserts and my pastries, and then Dutch apple pie is one of my favorite dessert pies,” Laan said. “It reminds me of my mom and having apple pie at home with my mom in Holland.”
Laan, who is originally from the Netherlands, moved to Lowell with her husband, Rich Gambale, of Tewksbury, in 2008. When she’s off the trail, Laan works as a fiber artist at Western Avenue Studios, where she makes sock dolls. For the past couple years, she has also been guiding people up and down the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
Gambale joined his wife for several sections of her hikes, including parts of the North Country Trail during the winter and the Pacific Northwest Trail, and they completed the entirety of the Arizona Trail and New England Trail together.
Since she walked her last trail, Laan said she is taking it easy at home in Lowell, continuing to take guided tours in local mountain ranges and spend time at work and with family. The adventure still doesn’t feel real quite yet.
“For me, it’s like, ‘OK, well I did that, that was really cool,’ and now I have to go back to work and I can do some other hikes and not work on a list,” Laan said. “I thought that that would be this big feeling, and it wasn’t … so I think it still hasn’t quite sunk in.”
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