Katy Segment of 6,800-Mile American Discovery Trail Is a Favorite
By Karen Cernich Dickhut
“People on the Katy Trail smell really good!” So says Briana DeSanctis, a cross country hiker from Maine who goes by the trail name “Rocky Mountain High.” She should know. She has hiked thousands of miles across America, including a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2015, and she was nearly half-way through her hike of the American Discovery Trail (ADT) when she stopped at the KT Caboose in mid-July.
The ADT, if you’re not familiar with it, is a 6,800-mile route that connects various trails across the country, beginning at Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware and ending at Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California, just north of San Francisco. It has two routes, a Northern and a Southern (the trail splits into two in Elizabethtown, Ohio, and reconnects in Denver, Colo.), and Briana is planning to complete them both. She is hiking the ADT alone, and her goal is to set a record as the first female solo hiker to complete the full length (both routes) of the official ADT. She would like to reach the Pacific Ocean by the end of the year, when she will fly to Elizabethtown to start the Northern route.
So far, the Katy ranks as one of Briana’s favorite trails, and not just because of the sweet-smelling hikers and cyclists.
“There are very few miles of the ADT that I would enjoy hiking again, but I love the Katy. There is no traffic. There are no barking dogs off leash that want to attack me. And the Katy is an actual trail.”
It’s really just a bonus to her that all the people on it smell really good. “When you’re outside a lot, you start to notice the way that things smell, and I can smell someone coming from a quarter-mile away if the wind is blowing right. I can smell the citronella from their bug spray, their dryer sheet, sunscreen . . . I can’t wear any of that, because I just sweat it right off.”
Hikers who stop at the Peers Store repeatedly tell us that they love the abundance of shade found on the Katy, as well as the variety of flora/fauna and the smoothness of the trail itself. And the section that we call the Country Store Corridor — those few miles between Peers Store and the Treloar Mercantile building in Treloar — is extra special with thru-hikers like Briana because the services available at Peers Store (drinks, snacks, air-conditioning and a public restroom).
Began January 1
It was an unseasonable 62 degrees in Delaware on January 1 when Briana began her hike. Two days later, reality set in when she woke up to a foot of snow on the ground. “That was my first Zero day with zero miles.”
A month later, she had shin splints so painful that she was forced to take a 20-day break.
Those slowdowns mean she is already further behind schedule than she planned and, as a result, she fears she may run into bad weather while she’s crossing the Rocky Mountains.
Although, the truth is, weather isn’t Briana’s biggest concern as she heads west. Being able to find water is.
“I was told it’s not possible to make it on the official route unsupported without water, because you can’t find enough water out there . . . About halfway from Colorado to Nevada is where water is really scarce.”
Carrying enough water isn’t really an option, since a gallon of water weighs 8 pounds. However, there is a Facebook page for Trail Angels, where people offer to meet hikers to offer things like a shuttle, shower or a water/food resupply. Briana knows she may need help from those Angels to make it safely across the mountains.
So far, the worst part of this hike (other than having to pause for nearly three weeks because of shin splints) has been the 100-plus degree temperatures the last two months. “The heat is really killing me. I’m from Maine, and I do a lot of winter hiking.
“I hike a lot better when it’s cold and when it’s raining too, actually, because I don’t stop to take photos really.”
Working as a Journalist
Briana is working as a journalist while she’s hiking the trail, filing a monthly column, “America on Two Feet,” about her journey for The Daily Bulldog in Maine. She’s doing it in part to help fund her year-long hike, but also to share the knowledge of her experience. Similarly, she has written blog posts while completing other hikes, including one down east Maine. “I hitchhiked all the way to the starting point and then hitchhiked all the way home when I was finished,” Briana said. “It was interesting because most of the people who picked me up were women, and I ended up writing another piece on hitchhiking in general, ‘How to Effectively Hitchhike.’ ”
Prior to her writing career, Briana worked 15 years in the hospitality/restaurant industry. That changed when Covid hit. She found work in a metal shop making reamers (a steel tool that makes a hole bigger to a precise amount). But it seems like she’s found her calling sharing her hiking knowledge. Ultimately, she would like to write a book about her thru-hike of the ADT.
“I desperately want to complete this hike to prove a point,” Briana wrote in her June 25 article. “I want people to overcome their fears and stop thinking that the world is a bad place. It’s those people who are creating this manifestation and it is absolutely not okay. There are areas that have crime, sure. But as a whole, stop being afraid of the unknown. Accept the preposterous truths I tell you and understand that I’m living out here in the real world and seeing it first hand, not from the comfort of my living room watching fake news and social media scams. Don’t let these things into your life that don’t serve you. My life is more important than money, greed and politics. Yours should be, too.”
Enjoys Giving Presentations
Briana enjoys hiking alone, in fact she prefers it, but she also loves sharing her experience with others. In fact, she craves the opportunity to give presentations to anyone who is curious, but especially kids and fellow hikers. A lot of times she gives impromptu presentations that begin when people approach her because they think she’s lost.
“It’s a great way to meet people, actually. I love to do that. I really like to raise awareness about being outdoors and hiking, and also teaching people who to be outdoors without leaving a trace. One of the things I’ve seen a lot of that really bothers me is the trash.”
She has talked with the ADT coordinators (there is one or two for every state) about putting information on the ADT webpage about how to hike without leaving a trace.
Earlier this month while she was in the Kansas City area, Briana was invited by Garmin to speak at their headquarters. “It was fun! A lot of people were there, and it was really great to talk about my trip,” she said in a Facebook video chronicling her hike (www.facebook.com/rockygoeshiking/). Even better, the company gave her lots of gear to help her complete her hike safely and successfully: Garmin clothes, a Garmin Instinct® 2 Solar Watch and a Garmin inReach® Mini satellite communicator, “for when I get out to the desert and can’t navigate my way or it’s hard or I break my leg and really need to call somebody,” Briana said in her post.
She posts live videos frequently, usually in the morning when she’s in the tent, around 6 a.m. or as she’s hiking if she has something to talk about. “What I’m doing is pretty extreme, but if someone is interested in doing something like this, I encourage them to try it out, start small, get your feet wet, see if you like it, because it can change your life,” Briana said. “It’s a game changer. You learn a lot about yourself and a lot about other people. And it’s good discipline. You need a lot of discipline for this.”
Briana was already on her fourth pair of shoes (Ultras) when she stopped at the KT Caboose in Marthasville. They are the only type of shoes that she wears for hiking. Before she began her hike on the ADT, she bought eight pairs hoping that would be enough to see her through to the end. She isn’t sure yet if her calculations were correct. Her first pair only lasted 29 days (almost 300 miles), but she’s hoping that was a result of hiking through snow and some rough terrain. But the truth is, her feet are taking a beating, no matter what.
“I was thinking my book title might be ‘Until the Wheels Fall Off,’ because that’s pretty much what’s going to happen. I wear Ultras because they have a really wide toe box, and they also have a zero millimeter drop in the shoe, which means from the ball to the heel. For someone with bunions like me, any sort of drop puts pressure on them.”
Along with her Ultras, Briana always wears Darn Tough socks.
Her backpack looks massive and it holds a lot of gear, but Briana makes sure to carry only the essentials. Every ounce matters when you’re carrying it on your back across 6,800 miles.
“My pack weighs between 25 and 30 pounds,” she said, noting this is not the one
she started with. “I had a 70L one, but it was 5 ½ pounds empty and I needed something lighter.” This new pack, at 2 ½ pounds, is less than half of that, which means she can carry a few more essentials.
Along with her tent and food, her pack includes things like a foam pad for sleeping, a Sawyer filter to clean water she takes from a stream or other source, a solar light that floats, and a nylon water bucket that she calls “the Friend Maker.”
“On the Appalachian Trail there’s plenty of water, although sometimes you have to hike a steep hill to get to it, so when I would get to a shelter, I would go fill up this up with water, filter it and then hang it up to dry. And I’d offer it to other hikers who came through, so I call it the Friend Maker.”
On the ADT, it can be harder to find natural sources of water like a stream, so Briana can’t be shy about going up to a home she may pass by to see if she can fill up with water.
Thru-Hike Budget: $20,000
Planning is a serious part of a thru-hike of any trail, but for something like the ADT, so is saving up enough cash. Briana has budgeted $20,000 to get her to the finish line.
“You can do a thru-hike of the AT on $5,000, or even less if you’ve hiked it before and know the ins and outs. For the AT, about 2,200 miles. I saved $10,000 after I bought all my gear.
“My gear for this trip was more expensive. For this trail, I would recommend someone save $20,000 after buying all of their gear. It’s three times as long as the AT, so you have to think, ‘Am I going to need one tent or three? My shoes, I bought them over a period of six months. They are between $120 and $170 a pair. My backpack was $400. Tents are $125, my sleeping bag was $300.”
Briana is bringing in some money while she’s hiking by writing monthly articles for The Daily Bulldog. She gets paid through Venmo, so the money goes straight into her bank account. She also has a few sponsors and, believe it or not, a lot of people she meets just donate money to her. So many people, once they hear about what she’s doing, want to help her succeed. Sometimes they want to give her things, which is nice, but only adds to the weight in her backpack. Cash is really the ideal way to show support. It helps her buy food when she needs it or pay for a hotel room, when they are available to her. Most of the time, however, she’s camping.
Finding Places to Sleep
Finding a place to sleep for the night isn’t always easy, but Briana has found one sure-fire solution:
“My bread and butter is the American Legion. I go to the American Legion halls all of the time. I walk into the American Legion with my American flag bandana on, and they love me,” she said, noting quite a few Legion halls are either right on the trail or not far off.
“When I got to Denton, Md., I was overjoyed to see an American Legion. It was cold outside, there was fresh snow on the ground, and I was all bundled up. There was no music playing when I walked in, but if there was, it would have stopped,” she said, with a laugh. “They all slowly turned around to look at me as I walked in, and I said, ‘Well, now that I have your attention, my name is Briana and I’m walking across America. Can someone sign me in so I can get a beer?’ And then I get all the questions . . . I did not even take my backpack off, and I already had a place to stay for the night.”
There was one night in Maryland where she actually slept in the bathroom of a campground that was shut down for the winter. “It was 5 degrees outside, and I couldn’t bear the thought of taking my freezing cold tent poles down in the next morning.”
Although Briana did extensive planning to prepare for her hike of the ADT, she doesn’t ever have a rigid plan for how far she wants to hike each day (the most she’s hiked in a single day so far was 30-plus miles) or where she will sleep that night.
“I would have a horrible time if I did that, because I meet people along the way, and someone will want to stop and talk, or I have an interview, or I just know a lot of people (who lives) along my route, so it’s really cool, because I get to see my friends.”
A Thru-Hiking Trick: Bouncing Packages Ahead
If you’ve never hiked across America like Briana, you may not realize this is an option, but one of the ways Briana is able to have all the gear she needs (like a new pair of shoes when her current ones wear out) without having to carry it all with her is by shipping packages ahead or having others ship her packages to her next destination. She calls it bouncing packages ahead.
For example, her laptop, which she uses to write her monthly newspaper column, isn’t something she carries with her on the trail. Instead, she ships it ahead to the destination she expects to be in just before her next column is due. She writes her column, sends it off to the paper, then goes to the post office and ships her laptop to herself at the address of the post office in whatever city she wants to pick it up in.
“You write on it ‘General Delivery,’ so it goes to the post office. When it arrives, the post office is supposed to hold the box there until I show up with my ID. I also write ‘Hold for Brianna DeSanctis, Cross Country Hiker.”
“It’s hard to time it right,” she admits.
Along with her laptop, Briana often includes things like the extra battery for her camera, tampons, hair conditioner, extra socks — things she needs, but not all the time. Unfortunately, things don’t always go as planned. Briana arrived in St. Louis to find that packages she had been expecting were lost.
‘Cool’ and ‘Weird’ Things She’s Seen, So Far
Despite the extreme cold and heat that she has endured, hiking through the seasons has been one Briana’s favorite aspects of her journey. “I had not been to every state that I have walked through so far, and so that’s cool. I’ve seen a lot of animals that I don’t normally see. I hadn’t seen a ton of possums, although I’ve seen more dead than alive now . . . I really enjoy seeing all of the plants, I like all of the vines that I see and all of the flowers, just the different things. And I’m really looking forward to getting to Colorado, because it’s just going to be so beautiful.”
Of course, she’s seen a lot of weird things too.
“I’ve seen a man with a huge trash bag filled with clothes and he was taking things out one by one and burning them in this fire on his lawn,” Briana said. “In Cincinnati, I saw a guy riding a bicycle, and he was pulling a lawnmower behind him trying to sell it for $30. On the Katy Trail (near St. Charles), I saw a guy juggling as he was walking. He didn’t say hi to me or anything, he was walking toward me, and I had just gotten up from taking a break, and I was like, ‘Really? Am I seeing this right?’ He was just juggling with these tennis balls.”
At one point on the trail, a stray dog began to follow and stay with Briana. It got to the point that she went to a local store and asked the staff to help the dog get to a shelter.
Briana uses an app on her phone (which she charges anytime she stops long enough in a location with an outlet) to follow the ADT route, but she has gone the wrong way a time or two. One time was during a heavy rain storm that lasted a couple of days. Her first mistake was when she had to pick up the trail from a state park, and she stopped taking her map out because of the rain, and a couple of miles in she realized it was the wrong trail. “There aren’t always a lot of signs marking the trail.”
‘95% Mental, 5% Physical’
As unbelievable as it sounds, Briana’s advice to thru-hikers is that they don’t have to physically train for the experience as much as they might expect. It’s the mental training that’s more important.
“Someone on the AT told me, hiking that kind of distance is 95% mental and 5% physical. Your body will catch up, but it’s the boredom of walking that’s tough, especially through farmland. Kansas is going to be tough.
“Just keeping yourself sane is a bigger challenge I think than the hiking. Hiking alone, I may not see someone for days, so I get really excited just to see a house, because it gives me something to think about as I hike for a while. I get to think about the house and the people who live there, wonder what kind of work they do, things like that.”
One step at a time.