YARMOUTH, Maine — On the first day of 2021, Sammy Potter set out with Jackson Parell, a friend and fellow classmate from Stanford University, in pursuit of a dream.
Their goal: to hike America’s three great hiking trails—the Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest—before the end of December and achieve what is known in hiking circles as the Calendar-Year Triple Crown.
It’s an enormously difficult feat—and they pulled it off. What’s even more impressive is that Potter and Parell, both 21, are the youngest hikers ever to complete the Calendar-Year Triple Crown.
On October 22, not far from Medford, Oregon, their nearly 8,000-mile odyssey came to an end on the Pacific Crest Trail.
“I really thought we would do it,” Potter told me as we sat in a park in his hometown of Yarmouth soon after he’d returned to Maine. “But I had no idea how hard it was going to be. I was so naïve.”
Perhaps the worst time came when Potter developed a blister on top of an already huge blister, a painful condition under any circumstances but agonizing when hiking 25 miles a day while carrying a 35-pound backpack.
“I got actually two cuts on my feet, and they were starting to have this kind of green pus stuff coming out of them,” he said. “I thought I might have a staph infection. So I took a lot of Advil, but it wouldn’t numb the pain. I just had to keep going because I think there were 40 or 50 miles to get to the next road. It was hell.”
The best day on the trail might have come at Glacier National Park in Montana, where the weather gods smiled on the two hikers.
They had gone to bed prepared for the worst since the forecast called for a storm the next day to dump up to two feet of snow.
“We woke up that morning expecting dread” is the way Potter remembered it. Instead they were greeted by perfect blue skies and a temperature of 50 degrees.
“I think we went about 42 miles that day just because we were so excited at how lucky we’d gotten," he said.
Potter and Parell will return to college in January (they’re not sick of each other—they’ll be roommates), and Potter for one is still contemplating how this epic experience has changed him.
One lesson is already clear. “I think the biggest thing I took away from this year,” he said, “is just leading life with a really large sense of gratitude.”
Note: Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell will soon tell their own story in a podcast, “Impossible Odds,” from Backpacker magazine. You can also learn more about their accounts of their trip on the web and on Instagram