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IDEM Risk Assessor finds love and new purpose on the Appalachian Trail

When ‘Banana Boat’ Met ‘Roadside’

Stephanie RedickStephanie Redick had just turned 30, and life wasn’t coming together in quite the way she’d hoped.

Pictured right: IDEM Senior Environmental Manager Stephanie Redick completed the 2,189 mile Appalachian Trail over the course of five months and 12 days in 2015.

Like many young professionals, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) Office of Land Quality (Science Services Branch) risk assessor left college with a veritable mountain of debt, and even though she enjoyed her job, the sum of her life just didn’t equal the parts.

And it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Something was missing from the equation – many things, maybe, in spite of Stephanie’s best intentions.

"I felt like I had always done the ‘right’ things in life, and the result of that left me with an overwhelming student loan debt and the realization that I’d never stepped back to consider if the traditional life path to success was right for me," Redick reflected.

The Owen County resident took a long look at her life and herself, considered her options, and finally left her job to take on an adventure she hoped would, quite literally, lead her down a new path.

Starting in Georgia and finishing in Maine, it took Stephanie almost five-and-a-half months to complete a nearly 2,200-mile trek on the legendary Appalachian Trail, but along the way she found excitement, purpose, and unexpected love.

And waiting at the end of the trail was perhaps what she’d set out to find in the first place: the best version of herself and a new outlook on life.

Call of the Wild

Redick planned her Appalachian Trail hike in only seven weeks, a significantly shorter period of time than many others set aside to map out their routes, gather their supplies and steel themselves for a rugged wilderness journey straight out of the mind and pen of Jack London.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates around 2 to 3 million people attempt at least a part of the trail, which passes through a dozen states, each year, but only a select few set out to tame the entirety of one of the nation’s longest hikes. Even fewer find themselves at the "finish line," the trail’s northern terminus at Mt. Katahdin, the tallest peak in the Pine Tree State.

The "AT" is among the oldest trails in the country, and compared to some, the path is relatively hospitable. All the same, Redick said she battled the elements as much as she managed fatigue and evaded natural threats.

Record-setting rain in Vermont at a time when temperatures hovered in the 40s -- at best -- was one challenge, while life on the trail and occasionally scant food sources led to a dramatic weight loss for the IDEM risk assessor.

"I lost 30 pounds and finished the trail weighing only 85 pounds," Stephanie recalled.

Conquering the trail is certainly no picnic, and though Stephanie was a novice hiker, her brief time for research still helped her prepare appropriately for the trip.

Redick began the trail March 3, 2015, about a month before most hikers set off on their journeys.

Each hiker tackles the course for reasons largely known only to them, and those intrinsic goals serve both as a guide and as a source of motivation when the trail begins to take its toll. The elements, as expected, can be unforgiving. With weeks to go before the onset of spring-like weather, Stephanie encountered Mother Nature’s mercurial moods almost as soon as she hit the trail.

"My first few weeks on the trail, it snowed several times in northern Georgia and along the Tennessee/North Carolina border, and sometimes temperatures in the mountains were in the single digits," Stephanie said.

Giving up and turning back wasn’t an option, so Redick took the weather’s best shots and kept moving.

Some of the best days of the lengthy sojourn, unbeknownst to Stephanie at the time, lay ahead.

‘Banana Boat’ and ‘Roadside’

Banana Boat and RoadsideAn avid kayaker and spelunker, Redick’s signature yellow kayak didn’t make the journey with her, but Stephanie’s ownership of the brightly hued canoe would soon earn her a unique nickname: "Banana Boat."

Pictured right: IDEM Senior Environmental Manager Stephanie Redick met North Carolina native Rob Angst while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2015. The two co-authored a book about their experiences, which they self-published earlier this year.

It’s customary for AT hikers to refer to one another only by nicknames, which may reflect one’s gear, personality, activities, or even embarrassing trail mishaps.

Redick’s yellow "boat" gave her a nickname as colorful as some others on the trail, but there was one other hiker bearing a similarly unique AT moniker with whom she eventually formed an indelible bond.

Before tackling the AT, Rob Angst was given the trail name "Roadside" for his propensity in his younger days to walk along the roads near his North Carolina home. Rob’s travels sometimes even took him into neighboring counties, so it seems only natural that the Raleigh native would eventually take on hiking as a favorite activity.

Angst, then 23, set out on his AT journey March 1, but Stephanie caught up to him at a camp in the Tar Heel State.

It was there that "Banana Boat" met "Roadside" and an unexpected friendship began taking root. Romance, however, was the furthest thing from either hiker’s mind.

"The AT is a very social trail," explained Stephanie. "Even when you start as early before the main crowd as Rob and I both did, there are many other people out there, and friendships quickly form among hikers."

The trail has a way of breaking down social barriers that might separate people in their
day-to-day lives, making such relationships possible.

"One special aspect of the trail is that it is the ultimate equalizer," Redick said. "Everyone out there is experiencing the same miles and conditions, and shares the same common goal of hiking north to Mt. Katahdin for whatever compelling personal reasons.

For a large leg of the Appalachian expedition, Banana Boat and Roadside were part of a group of about 10 hikers navigating approximately 1,000 miles of the southern portion of the AT. As the journey continued the bond between Redick and Angst grew, bolstered as much by the difficult times as it was by the pleasant experiences.

Stephanie cared for Rob when he fell ill with food poisoning – twice – and Roadside returned the favor by helping Banana Boat battle through hypothermia.

On the trail, the pair found comfort in one another’s companionship. Soon enough, though they started their journeys separately, they knew that they wanted to reach Mt. Katahdin together.

"We liked each other’s character," Stephanie said of the birth of her relationship with Rob. "I think that makes a relationship special – when you’re not looking for it and then you meet a person you’d rather be with than be without."

Trail Mix

Along the way to Maine, the myriad adventurers trekking through the AT were aided by "trail angels" – people who live near the route who provide food, shelter and encouragement to road-weary hikers – and others, such as hostel operators. A kindly mobile food vendor who operates solely on donations was one such person who made the trip a little bit easier – and more memorable.

Meeting people who were willing to open up their homes – and hearts -- to complete strangers reaffirmed Redick’s belief in the common good of people, and in the connections inherently shared via the human spirit.

"Being part of such a kind and welcoming community restored my faith in humanity and made me realize how much human goodness there is in the world," Redick reflected.

By the time Stephanie finished her journey, the many colorful characters that had joined her along the AT had woven their way into an eclectic tapestry of memories she will always cherish.

Two Wolves in a Wood

Stephanie and Rob initially wanted to keep their experiences on the trail primarily to themselves, but after examining how their situation differed from so many other tales of the AT, they decided to detail their journey in a book.

Redick and Angst co-wrote Two Wolves in a Wood: Savagery and Circumstance on the Appalachian Trail and self-published it earlier this year in paperback and electronic formats.

Stephanie said she hopes her book will inspire people to heed life’s call – even if it borders on something a bit wild.

"I hope people will find the courage to go answer whatever is calling them," the author said. "It is so easy to think of things you’d like to do, but never actually find the time to do them. Life is short."

Redick’s journey was documented by her IDEM colleagues in her absence. The crew set up a four-foot-tall trail map on a wall in the office that kept track of Stephanie’s progress on the AT.

She returned to her previous position in October 2015, this time with a new sense of self
and purpose.

It didn’t take long for Roadside and Banana Boat to find themselves at home in the Hoosier State, together, either. Rob relocated to Indiana about a year-and-a-half ago to be with Stephanie.

With any luck, the two will have many more journeys to share.

Stephanie said they ventured through Iceland’s famed Laugavegur Trail last summer, and the next item on the hiking agenda may be the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT is about 2,650 miles long – a fair bit lengthier than the AT and no less arduous.

But what fun is life if there are no (figurative and literal) peaks to climb?

These days Stephanie Redick works as a Senior Environmental Manager for IDEM. She occasionally still sleeps outside, at once at peace with nature, and at long last, with her direction in life and her place in the world.

She hopes the same for any other disillusioned person who may one day stop to wonder, "Isn’t there more to life than this?"

"For me, taking the time and stepping away from my life to hike gave me the clarity to reevaluate what things in life are truly important," Redick said. "I have a much stronger appreciation for experiences and the people I’m close to, and don’t have much need for material possessions. I’d hope that other people can step away to reconsider what is truly important to them."

Photos provided by Stephanie Redick

Story by Brent Brown, INSPD Communications