POWNAL, Maine — Stephanie Dragoon started hiking when she was a little girl.
Dragoon, along with her siblings and parents, would often head into the woods on the weekends and explore. Luckily, she said she didn't mind because she quickly fell in love with the trails.
But the hikes that stick out the most are the ones she completed with her dad. Dragoon is especially fond of her memories of taking on the Appalachian Trail together when she was still in college.
The two would rent a car and drive south to pick up where they left off on the trail each time Dragoon was finished with finals. She said they learned early on that their hiking paces were different, and were quickly nicknamed "pace" and "chase."
"Him and I have a connection that is unlike anybody else in my family, we can look at a piece of a trail or a tree and say, 'That reminds us of this moment and this memory,'" Dragoon said. "It’s just this deeper, different connection that we found, and some days we don't even have to talk when we’re in the woods. I’ll say, 'Do you feel that,' and he’ll say, 'Yeah, I feel that same thing.'"
Dragoon's passion for reaching the top of a mountain has only grown over the years. She said that love got even stronger during the COVID-19 pandemic while she worked as an ICU nurse at MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta.
"On my days off I was like I need to escape the people and what the world is dealing with. I found going to the mountains was a lot easier," Dragoon said. "I would go to the mountains, hike all day, and go home and go back to work and do it again. So, through COVID this became my outlet."
That outlet led Dragoon to her biggest project yet: the New Hampshire Grid. To complete it, hikers must climb all 48 4,000-footers in the White Mountains each calendar month. That's a total of 576 peaks.
The challenge lasts as long as it takes you to complete each hike in every calendar month, and there is no time limit to complete it.
"I hiked in the winter, I hiked in the rain, I hiked in all different seasons to get every peak I needed in every single month," Dragoon said.
Dragoon explained she would drive anywhere from two hours to three and a half hours to reach her destination. Sometimes she would tackle multiple summits in one trip. Her goal was to complete the Grid in 10 years, but she ended up completing it in three.
"I was quiet about it at first until I realized I was 60 percent done with this project and then I was like, 'Oh, okay. I can do this,'" Dragoon said.
Dragoon used a spreadsheet to keep track of her progress. The spreadsheet was created by a man in New Hampshire who keeps track of how many people have completed the challenge.
In addition to completing the Grid, Dragoon picked up a few new hiking buddies along the way. She said a lot of times they were total strangers whom she met at the summit or along the trails and formed a bond with.
They would start to talk about upcoming hikes and coordinate plans and before she knew it, they would be out tackling another summit together.
"It just sort of evolves and then you realize you’re actually compatible in the woods and throughout the process," Dragoon said. "We can all struggle together to get to a summit and it's way more enjoyable when you're struggling with other people."
Dragoon officially completed the New Hampshire Grid on Aug. 27 this year and is only the 129th person to ever complete the challenge.
She’s already working towards her next goal, which is to complete the New England 67 4,000-footers. That is a combined total of 804 peaks. It also means Dragoon will have to summit Mt. Katahdin every single month.
She doesn't deny she's 'nuts.'
"Sometimes I'll be driving to a trailhead and I'm like, ‘It's two in the morning, why am I driving,' but it's all worth it when you summit the mountain for the first light, or you see someone else's face that’s never seen the sunrise," Dragoon said. "You remember why you traveled in the middle of the night and you remember everything is fine now, it's all good, I'm here in the moment and the sun is rising and no one else is on the summit in these weird hours and I don't know, you just forget the hard stuff when you see what you've accomplished and the beauty of what is out there."