Finding My Why

The Who

I’m Sophia! I’m a 24-year-old newbie backpacker who is hoppin’ on the Appalachian Trail this spring and walking for a whiiiile until I get to Maine. I am so excited to be vlogging for The Trek on my hike, so keep an eye out for videos once I finally master the art of iMovie!

I love lists and fun facts, so here we go:

  1. I am a native (upstate depending on who you ask) New Yorker who is living in Baltimore right now. 
  2. I work at a nonprofit called Ulman Foundation that helps young adults with cancer. I spent the past year helping open Ulman House, a free lodging facility for young adults with cancer. It has been challenging and inspiring and they are letting me leave for half a year to follow my dream, so that is pretty rad!
  3. I like dogs, puns, and forcing my friends to watch reality television.
  4. In 2017, with 25 strangers, I biked across the country with the 4K for Cancer program to raise money for young adults with cancer (check it out if you haven’t heard of it; it rocks) and it completely changed my life #bikingisfun.
  5. I have funded/am funding my hike primarily through my woodburning art. Check out my wood-stagram (yes, I made that term up) @garburndesigns for all of your wooden needs.
  6. I like dogs. Did I mention that already? I really like dogs.
  7. I am terrified that I will be a socially shunned on trail for my lack of bear bag hanging skills/bad jokes.
  8. I am so dang excited to get out there and become a piece of dirty hiker trash!

The What

The Appalachian Trail, all 2,000+ miles of it (hopefully *knocks on every piece of wood I can find*).

The How

Am I sure exactly how I will do this? Absolutely not! I am guessing one foot in front of the other while having fun and goofin’ off with trail friends. 🙂

PSA: Looking for friends along trail; pls be my friend if you are nice, fun, and like poop jokes!

*Drum roll please*

The Why

Oh boy, here is the big one. *Prepares for emotions*

Earlier this fall, when I read Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis and started making my “why” list (if you know, you know), I surprised myself a bit when I found it challenging to pinpoint why I wanted so badly to hike the Appalachian Trail. 

Why the HECK was I doing this?

Why was I going to leave my family and friends and DOGS (I don’t have dogs, but I have many dog friends; refer to my Instagram if you need photographic evidence of said dogs)?

Why was I going to leave my job that I love so much?

Why was I going to freaking WALK to Maine? Don’t we have cars these days for that?

My List

That night, I wrote down a few things:

—for a great adventure;

—to get back to nature;

—to push myself outside of my comfort zone;

—to get back to the goofy, positive version of myself that I found on my cross-country bike trip two years ago.

While all of that is still very true, on December 1, 2019, my whole perspective on this crazy, half-year hike changed completely.


In 2017 I traveled to Baltimore to embark on my cross-country bike ride.

There, I met Cristal, the spunky, funky, bike riding, cancer fighting badass who told us all how she was going to make it all 4,000 miles across the US to show other young adults with cancer that their lives weren’t over the minute they got diagnosed. She was coming fresh out of her cancer fight guns blazing and no one would stop her from making it coast to coast.

Celebrating Cristal’s cancer-versary!

That August, despite the wind and the rain, the falls and flat tires, our group of weirdos somehow, some way made it to San Francisco on our beaten-up wheels.

Man, you should have seen our girl Cristal as she biked so proudly across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was the biggest and BEST metaphorical middle finger to cancer. That moment, throwing her bike to the side and running into the Pacific Ocean, meant more to her than any of us could have realized.


Cristal right after we biked into San Francisco.

I wish I could fill this blog with every memory I have of Cristal because I truly believe that everyone deserves to know her, but I will just say this: Cristal was a Snapchatting, hill conquering, trap music queen who could make us all laugh or cry better than anyone.

Be the Sunshine

On our bike ride, I used to write “Be the Sunshine” on my left forearm so that when the days were hard, I could look down and remind myself that there is meaning and light in times when it may not feel that way.

The following April, Cristal’s cancer came back and “Be the Sunshine” became a bit like her cancer-fighting mantra. It was proudly hashtagged in all her posts where she shared her story to the world, it was printed on the T-shirts we sold to raise money for her, it was the epitome of Cristal, really. She got dealt some seriously shitty cards and all the while, she smiled, laughed, and pushed through with positivity and passion.

I won’t go into detail about all the hurdles that came next for Cristal. (She never focused on the crappy stuff, so neither will I), but suffice it to say, cancer sucks.

After a whole heck of a lot of fighting, on December 1, 2019, Cristal passed away. Later that week, I sat in a church in Chicago, surrounded by my 4K for Cancer teammates and the hundreds of people who loved Cristal and cried as I heard “Be the Sunshine” woven into her eulogy.

I sat there and knew so deeply that my hike would be for her. Every one of those 2,000+ miles would be for her.  For her wild, adventurous self who never gave up (on the bike or in life). 

I remember one day on our ride when it was downpouring and our bikes were barely visible among the pelting rain. Cristal, Joey, and I laughed and danced like crazy people despite knowing the soggy repercussions (wet bike shorts, am I right cyclists?).

One of my favorite Cristal moments.

 That day (and so many others on our ride), we WERE the sunshine, throughout her battle with cancer, she WAS the sunshine, and on this iconic trail that I’m sure will push me in so many ways, I will be the sunshine just the way Cristal would have wanted.

When I am on trail, I will write “Be the Sunshine” on my arm, I will find the meaning in the dark moments and I will share her story all the way from Georgia to Maine.

Cristal, this hike is for you <3

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 8

  • Sunny : Jan 16th

    Great post. You will be an inspiration to all hikers you meet on trail. I was was given the trail name “Sunny” on my hike last year by hikers who enjoyed having a fun and positive ray of sunshine. It’s your moment to shine. SHINE ON!!!

  • Emma : Jan 18th

    Absolutely beautiful. I’m so excited to see your journey. It’s gonna be a pain in the ass at times but I have no doubt that you’ll power through. You’ve got this ❤️☀️

  • Liz : Jan 20th

    You made me cry darlin’…. Cristal, you will be with Soph the whole way.

  • Susan sterngold : Jan 20th

    Hey Sophia you are so awesome I can’t wait to start reading your vlog I will follow you every step of the way online and maybe a little bit locally in person if you can tolerate old and slow here. Love you girl and really impressed with your journey. So excited for you. I will bring my three dogs to comfort you on the trail

  • Mary Sue Burns : Jan 20th

    Wow! This is definitely awesome. I hope to follow your adventures and wish you the best in this endeavor! You are truly inspiring!

  • Linda Cooper : Jan 21st

    Atta way Sophia. Enjoy! The AT comes through Fahnestock State Park and several other NYS parks. Love talking to the many hikers who make their way along the trail but stop for food, shower or to spend the night.

    Not an easy challenge but bound to be life-changing. Good luck!

  • Julie : Jan 23rd

    You hooked me. I’m ready to follow your vlog.

  • Daddy Longlegs : Jan 24th

    You’ve already succeeded.
    Stay present in the moment and enjoy the walk.
    Happy Trails!


What Do You Think?