Hiker Spotlight with Lyla Harrod: Trans-Continental AT Adventurer

Here at The Trek, sometimes we can run a bit gear-heavy or focus steadily on the trail beat; that’s why we’ve decided to highlight some of the incredible hikers on trail right now that have unique and inspiring stories to share. Last week we interviewed Alice Wu, a first-generation Asian American, Navy veteran, and first-time thru-hiker taking on the PCT this year.

This week, we’re shifting gears to the AT and highlighting Trek Blogger Lyla “Sugar” Harrod who is currently ⅓ of the way through her first thru-hike. Lyla is a 34 year old sober, transgender, queer woman with a career in Youth Development. She’s dedicated a lot of energy both on and off-trail to making the outdoor community a more inclusive and accessible place and released a featured article on The Trek detailing “7 Ways to Be Trans Competent on Trail”. I highly recommend checking it out after you get to know Lyla through our conversation below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What life experiences inspired you to get into hiking?

I moved to Seattle when I was 23 and had a good friend there who often took me hiking and backpacking in the Cascades and Olympics. The staggering alpine beauty, the wildflowers, the floofy marmots… I couldn’t get enough.

Once I moved back to the East Coast two years later I was enamored with hiking and backpacking and I started exploring the Whites and the Berkshires. I’ve never lost my sense of awe and appreciation for the mountains of New England… to me they feel like “Home”, and yet I still have so much to discover.

Can you share a favorite hiking memory you’ve had from your life?

Well, I’m writing this as I lay in my tent after hiking to McAfee Knob at dusk so that would be an easy choice, but for an experience prior to the AT…

Backpacking around Marmot Pass in the Olympics with my best friend. It was August during peak wildflower and berry season, and marmots were chirping at us from the sun-warmed rocky outcroppings along the trail. That trip brought me so much joy and ensured my lifelong love for backpacking.

What initially drew you to the idea of hiking the AT?

The desire to thru-hike has been there since I found out about the AT, but the decision to actually thru-hike came from a few aspects of my life coming together perfectly to prepare me for it.

First, living in Massachusetts, the AT is never too far away. Some of my favorite hikes in my area are on the AT, such as Mt. Greylock, so I’ve been aware of it for much of my life.

Getting sober made thru-hiking a realistic option. Since quitting alcohol and drugs I’ve been lucky and privileged enough to get out of credit card debt and become physically healthier. That also means I don’t need to worry about carrying liquor bottles up and down every mountain or getting hurt while hiking under the influence.

While I have backpacking basics down from my years as a weekend warrior, in recent years I’ve gained more outdoor knowledge and confidence in my abilities through training with the AMC’s Educators Outdoors program (formerly the Youth Opportunities Program). They trained me to bring young people into the outdoors and teach basic backpacking skills and “Leave No Trace” principles. They also gave me access to Wilderness First Aid training so I can provide basic care for myself and others when needed.

Most importantly, over the past decade, I’ve realized that the “traditional” path (mortgage/marriage/having your own biological children) isn’t for me. I’ve also reached a point in my gender transition and sobriety where I’m comfortable and confident in who I am, and I’m living my life authentically. That being said, part of being authentic to yourself means making big decisions that might seem extreme or irresponsible to others… For me, that means leaving my wonderful, relatively stable life behind to find a new path of my heart’s choosing… And that path starts with the AT.

Have you gotten a trail name yet? If so, what is it and how did you get it?

Yes! My trail name is Sugar… because I usually have a jolly rancher or a blow pop in my mouth and at least a pound of sour gummy candy in my pack. If you see me on trail ask me for candy and I’ll hook you up 👍🍭

How is hiking on the AT different from the hiking you’re used to doing? What has been your favorite spot along the AT so far?

Well, hiking the AT in the South has its own feel for sure. The views are often vast but understated compared to places like the Pacific Northwest. The Smokies feel ancient and magical in a way that’s hard to describe. Feeling the quiet power of the breeze and the icy mists high in the Smokies is something I’ll never forget.

My favorite spot on trail so far has been Grayson Highlands. Meeting the wild ponies in their natural habitat and feeling how friendly and open they were to connecting with humans made my heart smile.

Why did you decide to keep a blog of your journey on the Trek?

I wanted to find a way to document and share my experiences on trail. As a transgender woman researching thru-hiking, I spent time searching for articles and resources by and for trans people on the trail and came up with almost nothing. I figured by sharing my thoughts and experiences publicly I would be helping to create content for future trans thru-hikers to find.

After I posted my introductory post on The Trek, I had lots of other trans and gender nonconforming hikers reach out to connect with me and share their experiences, and that’s exactly what I was hoping would happen! Today, I stay in touch with many trans hikers and we always cheer each other on and I value their support and guidance.

How are you practicing good trail ethics while on the AT and why is it important to you?

I practice good trail ethics by following Leave No Trace principles as much as I reasonably can. Simple actions like packing out other people’s litter when possible is a way I like to leave the environment better than how I found it.

It’s important to me because I believe in modeling positive behaviors to encourage others, especially youth, to make good choices too. In my youth development work, I’ve tried to promote Leave No Trace principles by teaching them in fun ways so youth are more likely to internalize positive outdoor ethics as they get older and take their own trips, or even just on their family car camping trips.

How do you feel your article “7 Ways to Be Trans Competent on Trail” was received and what was your inspiration for writing it? What do you say to people who dismiss your writing as “identity politics”, “PC culture”, and the like?

I feel the article was received well overall! People read it as it was intended. It is a list of suggestions from one trans person for proactive ways anyone could make the outdoors a more comfortable place for everyone.

My inspiration was my own experience as a trans hiker. In spite of the various privileges I benefit from, I have encountered transphobia and a lack of trans competence while hiking. I also know other trans people who have experienced much worse than me. However, I didn’t write that article to lay down a set of rules for how everyone should always behave while hiking… It’s a set of open suggestions as a means to contribute to the larger conversation about LGBTQ+ inclusion and equity in the outdoors.

In response to people considering the article “identity politics” or “PC culture run amok”, I’d say I understand how it might feel that way given our larger political and social climate. The truth though is that this is a matter of basic human rights. If you believe that all humans deserve dignity and respect, and you believe in trying your best to respect others (even if you make mistakes sometimes!) then we are on the same side. And if you don’t believe in dignity and respect for all people, well then that article isn’t meant for you!

What do you hope people struggling with sobriety can learn from following along with your journey? Has thru-hiking challenged your sobriety at all?

If anyone is struggling with drugs and alcohol, I’d want them to know that life doesn’t end when you quit using substances. For so long I told myself I didn’t want to get sober because I assumed sober people must be bored out of their minds all the time. The reality is my life only truly started once I got sober. Now I have more capacity to develop as a person and seek out what I truly want in life, instead of just struggling to keep up appearances with friends and family.

Thru-hiking can seem daunting to sober people with all the stories of hard partying on trail, and some of them are true! The key for me is to stay in contact with my sober support network back home. I do my best to stay focused on the loving people and positive habits and program of recovery that allows me to maintain my sobriety and all the gifts that have come with it.

How have your expectations matched up to the reality of life on trail? Have you encountered any of the fears you mentioned in your intro post?

I couldn’t really know what it’s like to give my life over to thru-hiking until I did it. I did however feel I was prepared from my experience, research, and from following others trail experiences on sites like The Trek. Once I got started I adjusted to trail life relatively quickly, fell into a rhythm with hiker chores and resupplies and successfully got my trail legs within the first month so things have gone as well as I’d hoped they would!

Thankfully most of my fears have been unfounded thus far. No Lyme disease, no big injuries, I’ve kept my expenses within my $1,000 per month budget allotment, and I’ve had no issues with remaining sober on trail.

The only issue that I’ve encountered is a general lack of trans competence and a couple of intrusive questions related to my gender. However, I feel that both the hikers and the locals in the trail towns have mostly come from a place of kindness and positive intent. That fact makes being misgendered and fielding the occasional intrusive question less painful.

What I care about the most is that my friends on trail all know I’m a woman and use the correct pronouns for me, so while I advocate for trans competence on trail, I won’t allow any difficult or upsetting interactions to ruin my experience!

Name a book/movie/podcast/song that inspires you as a hiker.

Ryan Leighton’s documentary “Walking Home” inspired my interest in trail life with a personal and realistic take on a father and son’s experience on the AT. Also Alex Maier’s “Figure It Out on the Hayduke Trail” is a beautifully shot documentary that motivates me to eventually gain the skills and confidence needed for a successful thru-hike of the Hayduke Trail or a similarly difficult and remote long-distance trail.

What hobbies do you have outside of hiking?

For sportiness, I like to play disc golf, run, skateboard, and play squash.

Within my community, I’m active in the substance use recovery world, attending meetings and volunteering my time to support others in recovery. I also serve on the Board of Directors for my local LGBTQ+ youth nonprofit.

In my personal time, I go to concerts, listen to podcasts, read, and cook food with friends.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Yes! I’m grateful The Trek is making strides towards making space for underrepresented communities in the backpacking world. I’d encourage readers to seek out more trans voices in outdoor spaces. If you’re interested in supporting some current trans AT thru-hikers, here are a few you can follow. They’ve all given me permission to share their information:

Oliver aka “Bowie”

They/She, IG: @foolscard

Description: “I like to chew bubblegum, look for four-leaf clovers and make art of this world!”

Austin aka “Goblin” (Trek Blogger)

They/Them, IG: @morninhays

Description: I’m a skirt-wearing punk walking in spite of a bad ankle.”

Bowie (no trail name yet)

They/Them, IG: @cobaltcowboy

Description: “I am trans masc and hiking the A.T. is the first thing I’m crossing off my list on a trip around the world.”

Skylar aka “Chef”

They/Them, IG: @evildoombabies

Description: “I’m an artist just trying to collect every ‘wow’-moment that words can’t describe and pictures can’t capture; painting reminds me that I’m here for a greater experience than just putting one foot in front of another.”

Continue to follow along with Lyla as she makes her way NOBO towards Katahdin on her Trek Blog or through her Instagram, @seltzerskelter. Thanks for tuning in to this edition of the Hiker Spotlight, and as always, happy hiking!

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