Must Love Dirt

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It’s been one month since Nikki Long returned to her hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado after completing the second longest thru-hike of her life on the the Oregon Desert Trail. As we weave through the dirt paths that twist behind her house, she describes the parts of the journey she remembers most vividly- expansive desert that seemed to never end and fresh air on her face as she woke up with the sunrise each morning. 

The hike took her two months, stretching from the Oregon Badlands Wilderness to the Lake Owylee Reservoir. Though she makes it clear the route was difficult, long, and boring at times, she also stresses it was one of the most important experiences in her life so far. The aches and pains associated with 750 miles of harsh weather and rugged terrain have started to fade, but the adjustment back to life as usual can take a little bit longer.

“I need to find a job, figure out where I will stay, and even get used to life with a bed and regular shower.”

Why Hike 750 Miles?

Nikki had always loved being outside in nature. She grew up camping with her Dad in nearby Wyoming, taking off on rafting and backpacking trips with her brother, exploring the ranch next to her house, and running competitively throughout high school. It was this love that brought her to Boston with a Scholarship to run for Boston University in 2009.

During her time at BU, she continued to develop an interest in exploring the places less explored, experiencing history in the nooks and crannies of the earth. She chose to pursue a degree in Archeology.

Despite having to manage a full course load and leading a division one cross country and track team, Nikki experienced success at BU, settling into her degree and even staying for a fifth year to get her Masters in Criminal Justice. However, after five years in the city, she was ready to escape and do the exploring she had always dreamed about. In 2014, freshly graduated, she committed to her first hike, the Hayduke Trail. 812 miles in three months.

"I wasn't expecting to think about quitting as much as I did. It hurt. I'm used to pushing my body through discomfort in running, but this was different."

Nikki finished the Hayduke trail on time, sure that she would try a long-term hike again.

“Hiking has made me a stronger person, capable of taking on challenges I never thought possible. I like the idea of being in a place that not many others have. I get there and I'm able to appreciate every moment.”

So, What's Next?

As Nikki looks ahead, she hopes to find a job that will include some of the aspects of backpacking she loves the most. From sifting through the ruins of Blackfriary in Trim, Ireland, to counting fish in the Grand Canyon, it’s apparent her passion for the outdoors has carried over into her professional life.

"The skills I’ve gained from thru-hikes have shaped my career as an archeologist. From digs that require an ability to endure rough conditions to simply being able to read a map, I’m able to take on projects many others can’t. Those are the projects that I am most fulfilled by.”

When I ask her about future hikes, her eyes light up.

“I have my eye on the Colorado Trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail, and the Long Trail in Vermont. Probably one in the very near future.”

Above photo courtesy of Emma Lagan