Red Panda Sighted in the Upper Valley: A Trail Tale

Friday, October 30, 2015
On July 24, a red panda was sighted and captured in Hanover. A long way from home and exhausted from her journey, she arrived at her weekend home in Vershire.

Danielle Breakell, of Goshen, Conn., a childhood friend of mine, is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. She started her journey in Georgia on April 1 and was given the trail name Red Panda. It’s a good name for her, I think. Her auburn hair is certainly the right color, with her long braid looking a bit like a tail. She’s also little — her tiny frame stands barely over 5 feet tall. But it’s the sweet nature of the adorable animal that makes the name especially apt.

A grateful houseguest, even after nearly a lifetime of knowing each other, she was overjoyed to cook real food for us on a real stove. She made drunken noodles, something she learned when living in South Korea where she taught English.

After returning from South Korea, she spent over a year preparing for the trek, not only hiking nearly every day with a pack, but calculating the miles she would cover (“mile math”) and where her mail drops and care packages should be sent. Thru-hiking is so much more than physically taxing. One must also be mentally strong and completely organized. Red Panda is nothing if not prepared, which doesn’t stop her friends and family from worrying about her endlessly. She is hiking alone.

She hikes a cool average of 18 miles per day, which, to me, is nothing short of spectacular. Her pack is 30 to 35 pounds, nearly a third of her body weight if my estimation is correct. She has hiked more than 1,900 miles in four months.

I picked Red Panda up in front of the post office in the middle of Hanover. She has been through plenty of trail towns, but Hanover, she said, was different. The Ivy League atmosphere (she graduated from Brown in 2011) was jarring for someone who had been walking through the trees for four months. She was happy to be back in the woods when we arrived in Vershire.

“It is strange to walk through a town after being in the woods for a long time,” she said in an emailed message after departing.

She took a shower, cooked, ate, read her book on the porch, snuggled with my dog, Liza, on the couch, and slept on a bed, but happily returned to the trail even after enjoying the simple creature comforts.

During the car trip from Hanover to my Vershire home, Red Panda remarked that Vermont is one of her favorite states to hike — high praise from someone who has trekked nearly the entire East Coast. She likes it so much, she may turn around and hike her way back to Connecticut where her family lives.

“After the last day and a half, I have decided that I might want to live in Vermont someday,” Red Panda wrote in her online trail journal. My heart soared! I am among the many flatlanders proud to call this state my home, and I’m overjoyed that my old friend loves it as I do.

Her trail journal is speckled with places I recognize as she treks my neck of the woods.

“Going into Norwich was so cute!” she wrote, “Elm Street had trail magic (goodies left for thru-hikers) in front of like ten houses, it was adorable.”

She left a bag of snacks for some trail friends at the “super cute” Dan & Whit’s in Norwich, stopped at the CVS and post office in Hanover and stayed at the Mt. Cube Sugar Farm in Orford. While off the trail she ate veggies from Crossroad Farm in Post Mills, had a basket of fries at Worthy Burger in South Royalton and bought dinner from the South Royalton Market.

I left her with a big hug and a simple goodbye: “Onward and upward.”

She still has many mountains to climb before she reaches Katahdin in Maine, but she’s already come so far.

If you’d like to join me in cheering Red Panda on as she completes her journey, leave a comment on her guest book at bit.ly/RedPandaAT and tell her Jeralyn sent you. You can read her trail journal while you’re there. Here’s a snippet:

“Beautiful, amazing, glorious ... Mt. Moosilauke was all of these things. An amazing view, an amazing blue sky, an amazingly gentle breeze ... All of these greeted me at the summit, a reward for the climb. And I stood and looked and sucked in deep breaths of mountain air and was grateful that I had chosen to make the climb today. It filled my heart in the best of ways. It sparked an excitement for the Whites. So many more mountains await me!”

Posted to the Upper Valley Dispatch blog on Thursday at 10:15 p.m. Check back here for more of Jeralyn’s posts about learning the ins and outs of the Upper Valley, and follow the Valley News on Twitter @VNewsUV.