Painting the AT: How One Artist is Transforming the Trail, One Hostel at a Time
An artist is loose on the Appalachian Trail, and she’s leaving her mark everywhere she goes. Her unique, one-of-a-kind murals have been appearing at hostels the entire length of the Trail.
This is the story of Paint Splash, the artist behind all these marvelous works, whose life is driven by a passion for adventure and a love for art.
And now, for the fourth year in a row, she is headed back to the AT to follow her heart…and her art.
Standing Bear Interview with Paint Splash
When I heard that Bobbie Drelick, aka Paint Splash, was back on the trail this year, and that she was at my sister’s hostel, Standing Bear, doing a mural on the back of Maria’s office door, I knew I dare not waste this wonderful opportunity to interview one of the most amazing people on the Appalachian Trail.
Arriving on a sunny but chilly early February morning at the hostel, with only a tiny handful of hikers milling about a smoldering campfire, I greeted a slender, youthful-looking hiker who was walking up, her curly blonde hair still wet from her morning shower. After greetings were exchanged, we went into the cozy hiker kitchen and sat down for a little visit.
Sitting there across from each other at the rustic kitchen table, with portraits of the late Curtis Owen and the Blackalachian looking over us, the story of how she became the hiker/artist she is today began to unfold.
Early Life: “I was an Army brat.”
While growing up, Bobbie said she never had an area of the country that she could call home. Being the daughter of an Army soldier, they never stayed in one place too long. Once she became an adult though, she settled in Lakeland Florida, where she and her boyfriend started a family.
But as a young girl, Bobbie said she was always art-inclined and that her mother knew she had a talent. She started out drawing with pencils as a child, and from there, her talent grew.
Her yearning to paint full-time happened in 1999, where she was living for a while in Key West, FL. She remembers that that was the first time she saw some tourists out painting in the open. Seeing them producing such beautiful paintings ignited a passion within her and it was at that moment she became inspired to be a painter.
As she began explaining this experience to me, her green eyes widened in excitement and she said, “I started painting—I couldn’t put it down—and then I began learning to paint from other artists on YouTube, reading art books of Thomas Kinkaid and Bob Ross, and began to replicate some of Kinkaid’s work and actually sold some of them.”
Eventually, she developed her own style out of it. She went on to say, “My style has evolved,” describing how at first, she wanted to do what she called “fine art,” the style of just painting a facsimile of a subject but eventually branched out into her own style, which she refers to as Folk Art: more abstract expressions of how she views the world. She especially loves certain blends of green and blue and has perfected her own special colors which she incorporates into much of her trail art.
Bobbie said her first job as an adult was waiting tables, and she did this until 2006 when she decided to start working with her sister, a real estate agent. After a year, Bobbie got her real estate license. She said she did so well in her first year, she earned Rookie of the Year and was awarded the Million Dollar Pin.
Though successful, after 15 years as a realtor, she said with a long face, “It sucked the life out of my soul and caused me to lose faith in humanity.”
Over the course of those years, her life was mostly centered around work, but after a while, she realized that she desperately needed a vacation. But since nobody in her family wanted to go, she decided to hike part of the Florida Trail by herself.
While out on trail, Bobbie discovered that being alone in nature taught her to love the peace and tranquility there and she returned to it often. However, she never truly liked flat land; she wanted mountains.
As Bobbie’s love of being out in nature began to grow, she found herself yearning to hike in distant places. Initially, she set her sights on Havasu Falls near the Grand Canyon, but when she found out how expensive it would be to go out there, she decided to look for something closer.
That’s when the Appalachian Trail caught her attention. Being only a day’s drive from her Florida home, Bobbie came up with a plan to hike the trail in four sections, starting first with the section from Georgia to Damascus.
So, in the spring of 2016, she set out on her first leg. Unfortunately, she underestimated how much it actually costs to hike and only made it 344 miles to Erwin, 127 miles short of her goal.
However, while she was on her hike, she was overwhelmed with all the beauty surrounding her. Right from the start, as she approached Springer Mountain, noticing all the little flecks of mica scattered along the trail, she told me in amazement, “I love the way the trail glitters.”
As she made her way up the trail and into the Smokies, she said with a dreamy, distant look in her eyes, “Going into the Great Smoky Mountains section was like going into the land of Oz. There were so many shades of green, I felt like a fairy would pop out on me at any time and say ‘Hello!’ which would have been perfectly natural.” These vivid memories of color she witnessed would eventually come back to inspire her art.
Becoming Paint Splash
In the spring of 2017, Bobbie set out once again, this time with more money, and started at the beginning of the next leg of her section hike: Damascus.
Bobbie arrived in Damascus on May 19th during the Trail Days celebration. Right away she formed an attachment with a woman hiker, Perfect Storm, and another hiker, Papa Smurf, and the three of them decided to hike together as a “tramily” (trail family).
Together, this trio meandered their way through the beautiful springtime woods of southern Virginia, with splashes of colorful flowers, trees, and grass springing up everywhere along the way.
All of this colorful beauty really got to Bobbie; so much so that she had her paint supplies shipped to a post office in Bland, VA, where she decided to use them when she got to the next shelter—Jenny’s Knob.
It may seem like destiny, but this is where our paths crossed. I remember this particular weekend like it was yesterday. I had been interviewing Doc Peppa for a story on the newly opened Angel’s Rest Hiker Haven in Pearisburg and had coincidentally decided to take an afternoon day hike and carry a large, cold watermelon and beers to a nearby shelter—Jenny’s Knob.
With temperatures in the upper 80s, it was an unseasonably hot springtime in southern Virginia with very little rain, so I knew hikers were likely to be thirsty. With this in mind, I loaded my 85-liter, sand-colored military duffel pack with a watermelon that I’d put on ice overnight, along with 15 PBRs in a small cooler with ice.
On that hot, muggy afternoon, I set off with about 50 pounds on my back to hike the short 1.6 miles from the roadside parking to the shelter. With my shoulders burning from all this weight, I arrived at the shelter just as Paint Splash, Papa Smurf, and Perfect Storm were just finishing setting up their hammocks and tents.
The first thing I saw as I strode into camp was Perfect Storm hobbling around the shelter in a colorful hiking dress, apparently in great pain. She told me that all the streams that she’d been counting on that day were dried up, so she hadn’t had a drink of water in nine hours, causing her leg muscles to seize up with severe cramps.
When I opened my pack, pulled out the huge watermelon, and plunked it down on the table, the look of disbelief on her face was priceless. Staring at me in astonishment, unsure that she was actually seeing what she was seeing, Perfect Storm and Papa Smurf gladly accepted slice after slice of one of the sweetest melons I think any of us had ever tasted. After an hour or so, the fluid from the melon must have done her some good because her cramps began to subside.
I left the remaining slices of watermelon for any other hikers who might come along.
Meanwhile, in the background, I could see Paint Splash rummaging around her hammock. What I didn’t realize at the time was that she was busy arranging her art supplies that she got in what she called her “bounce box.”
She told me that after I left the shelter that day, she was so moved by all the colors she’d seen on her hike, she suddenly got inspired to paint and started to go on a painting spree, painting all kinds of pictures of flowers, mushrooms, and knotholes. Another thing she liked to paint was a paint splash, resembling a five-sided clover. This soon became her signature mark.
She also wanted to use up all this paint because, at 55 pounds, her pack was already too heavy. She told me that at one point, right before going into the Smokies, someone gifted her a three-legged, two-pound camp chair. She said, “I carried that mf’er because it was a gift but got rid of that mf’er after the Smokies.” She wants people to know, “Remember that if you gift someone with something heavy on the trail you are not doing them any favors.”
Anyway, by the time the night was over, she’d painted on every scrap of dead wood available. When the rest of her tramily and other hikers woke up the next morning, there were splashes of paint everywhere, which gave Perfect Storm the idea of naming her “Paint Splash,” which also fit perfectly with the tramily as the initials of all three of their trail names were P.S.
Though she felt a reinvigorated urge to paint, she didn’t do much more painting on this hike. However, she did manage to paint a mural at Zero Days Inn—a now-closed hostel—and another big mural on the chicken coop wall at Four Pines Hostel.
By the time Bobbie got to Harpers Ferry, she said, “I fell in love with the thru hiking culture.” At this point, she realized she was just going to have to return and thru-hike the entire AT in 2018.
Upon reaching Harpers Ferry, after a sad parting with her friends who had continued on with their hikes, Bobbie reluctantly headed back to Florida, and back to work.
2018: Time for a Thru-Hike
Early in 2018, realizing their relationship was going nowhere, she finally broke up with her long-time boyfriend, quit her job as a realtor, sold everything, and embarked on her NOBO (northbound) thru hike.
Again, as soon as she set foot on the trail on March 8th, she experienced the same sense of awe at all the natural beauty she did before, but this time with a pared-down 35-pound pack.
Not wanting to miss out on any of the beauty surrounding the Appalachian Trail, Bobbie never missed an opportunity to peel off on almost every blue blaze side trail that led to a waterfall or scenic overlook. However, she confided in me, “Many of the waterfalls along the trail were not very interesting.”
Week after week and mile after mile ticked away as spring merged into summer. By the time she reached the “Shennies” (Shenandoah Mountains), she and her tramily decided to do an Aqua Blaze—the term for a kayaking trip around this mountain range, another popular way that some hikers use to enrich the experience of their hikes. “I loved every minute of it, lots of drinking and partying, but we learned our lesson about drinking in the middle of the day in the hot sun! My hike was all about smiles, not miles,” she said with a grin.
Because she did all this blue-blazing, she was afraid that she wouldn’t reach Katahdin in time, so she decided to flip-flop at Pine Grove Furnace. That’s where she made friends with the trail angel, Tambourine, who “picked me up and took me all the way to Maine. All I had to do was pay for gas, food, and lodging.”
On August 28th, when she finished with her thru/blue/aqua blaze hike, she returned yet again to Florida.
But Bobbie didn’t just sit around. She spent the winter in her studio working on her artwork, working hard at developing her style so that she would be able to more quickly produce unique works of art to sell so that she could make it possible to pursue her dream of hiking and painting along the Appalachian Trail.
2019: First mural tour.
“I painted the $h!+ out of the trail.”
In 2019, Bobbie returned to the trail with a new purpose—her purpose—to go out on the trail, take what she sees there, and paint it on the walls of some of the hostels along the way.
So, in the early spring she headed down to Georgia and, starting at Gooch Gap, she began hiking sections of the trail to immerse herself in the beauty of the forest, taking pic’s and making sketches to inspire her art projects.
From there, she contacted some local hostels and began producing her one-of-kind murals.
After finishing her fantastic murals, she and others would post pictures of works on various social media platforms, especially Instagram and Facebook. It didn’t take long before word got out about a rogue painter—Paint Splash—who was slowly working her way up the trail.
Once she got going, she visited hostel after hostel painting all the way on her northbound journey to the hiker promised land: Mt. Katahdin.
All this painting was challenging for Bobbie, because she had to learn to paint on various surfaces, from the easiest, drywall, to concrete block, wood, glass, and her most challenging: metal. She had to learn the techniques of surface prep, to make her paintings look right and last long.
She said, “I learned to blend scenes together,” making fantastic abstract versions of scenes that she had seen along the trail. “It might see a special tree or rock formation that people would recognize, take a pic of it, then tweak it to my own style”. She liked to paint what’s in the immediate vicinity of the hostel where she paints so that hikers would instantly recognize the scene because they were just there.
Once started, Bobbie said it usually takes two or three days to do most murals; sometimes a week or more if the surfaces are really large. What takes much of her time is the surface prep: cleaning, sanding, patching, and priming take a lot of time and effort. After that point, it doesn’t take long to produce a full mural.
Slowly, one hostel at a time, hiking and painting and hiking and painting, Bobbie moved her way up the trail doing some of her best work, combining and blending all kinds of scenes from all the wonderful places she’d seen on the trail.
At the end of her 2019 “Paint-the-$h!+ out-of-the-trail” tour, Bobbie had left her mark all up and down the trail, establishing herself as the premier artist of the Appalachian Trail.
2020: Another Try at a Thru-Hike
In February of 2020, Bobbie set off for another thru-hike—her second attempt. Little did she know what an insidious little virus was going to do to her hopes of finishing.
By the time she saw the writing on the wall, she was forced to concede to the severe restrictions placed on hikers during the pandemic.
Not to be deterred from hiking, Bobbie set her sights on California, as the Pacific Crest Trail was still open to hikers, so she drove out to section hike parts of the PCT in Northern California.
Once out there, she immersed herself in the unique wilderness found in the western mountains, filling her head with all kinds of cool new art.
At one point on her hike, when she reached the town of Seiad Valley, she stopped off at the Seiad Valley store, a popular resupply spot for hikers, and asked if they wanted a mural done. Seeing examples of her artwork on her Instagram page, they didn’t hesitate to take her up on her offer. Bobbie said that by the time she was done with the murals, her back was aching because of all the crouching she did to paint the low strip of wall below a long row of windows.
While she was painting a series of dramatic scenes on the sides of the building, Bobbie attracted the attention of the Redding California newspaper, The Redding Record-Searchlight, which showcased her life and art in a nice article.
Once she was done with her section hikes on the PCT, she found an opportunity to work on a farm in Oregon for the winter.
After the winter was over, she couldn’t shake the irresistible urge to go back east. The Appalachian Mountains, and the trail that she loves, were calling her. “Ever since I discovered the AT in 2017, I knew this is where I belong.”
Bobbie said that, although she liked her time in the western mountains, she got tired of all the smoke from the persistent, widespread wildfires. Plus, it was distressing to see what the long-term drought had done to the flora and fauna. About the fires, she remarked, “The fires out there are scary as f**k.”
Yes, Bobbie was ready to go home to the AT.
2021: Time to paint the trail—again.
In the spring of 2021, Bobbie was itching to get back to the east coast and the AT, because, as she tells it, “that was where all my friends were.” She set out once again, section hiking the trail a week at a time while stopping to do murals and paintings at hostels for income; the kind of art that had first gotten her noticed.
Since her previous years of art put her on the map, she had no shortage of places wanting her to do more paintings at their places. This time, however, instead of her calling them, many of the hostels began contacting her on social media.
One of the types of art she created was what she termed, “Sexy Hiker Art.” Essentially, she was asked to do murals in and around the shower rooms of some of the hostels, where she would paint scenes of the trail with scantily clad men and women hikers enjoying the wet and wild places along the Appalachian Trail. When I asked what she did to make sure the paint wouldn’t wash away in the showers, she answered, “I polyurethaned the $h!+ out of it”
Later on in the year, Bobbie said her pickup truck “blew up” in Pennsylvania, so she switched to a Dodge minivan, which she has found is the perfect vehicle for the hiker/painter life she lives. “I love van life.”
At the end of her painting season, she returned to Florida to spend time with her kids and grandkids.
2022: At It Again
This year, Bobbie, and her friend and hiking partner, Shadow, returned yet again to the Appalachian Trail.
Starting near AT mile 20 with the Hostel Above the Clouds, she spent several days painting a huge wall in their new bunkhouse—her biggest mural to date. Bobbie said she loved hanging out with Lucky and Nimrod, two excellent hosts, whose hostel is now in its 3rd year and doing well. Bobbie couldn’t say enough good things about them, “Nimrod is great. He tells wonderful slackpacking stories from the 80s.” One of the things she really liked is that they serve two meals a day, which has got to be a hit with hikers.
Right after that she moved on to the AT’s newest hostel, Hostel Around the Bend (formerly Top of Georgia Hostel), and stayed with George and Lisa, the new owners, who she says are wonderful people. Bobbie said that she painted on canvas the Bly Gap Tree, an iconic landmark at the TN/NC border that’s said to have been coaxed into its distinctive bent shape centuries ago by Native Americans. She also painted the sign out front of the hostel.
I recently spoke with Lisa at Hostel Around the Bend on the phone, and she told me that when they first bought the property, while they were there working on the house, hikers kept walking up from Dick’s Creek Gap and asking to stay. Since the former owner, Bob “Sir Packs-a-Lot” Gabrielson had already fixed it up as a hostel, it was easy for Lisa and George to take them in. It didn’t take them long for them to realize that the Trail had chosen them to become a full-fledged hostel, and, from the looks of their beautiful website, they responded by jumping in with both feet.
Since then, Bobbie has moved on to Standing Bear, where she did an excellent painting of Charlie’s Bunion, another recognizable spot in the Smokies, on the back of Maria’s office door.
Bobbie’s immediate plans are to keep working her way up the AT, doing work at Laughing Heart Hostel, Uncle Johnnies, and Boots off.
The Hard Life of a Trail Artist
The life of a full-time artist can be hard, but Bobbie is devoted to her art and willing to do whatever it takes to keep it going.
She said the first thing she does when she gets up every morning was to look at other online artists to learn things about their style that she could incorporate into her own paintings. She follows with meditation and reflection before she starts her day.
Afterward, she goes for long hikes on the nearby trails, then returns to the hostel she’s at and begins painting scenes from her hikes.
She does this day in and day out, painting her way up the 2000 miles of trail, rarely sleeping in the same place for more than a few days.
Even during her off-season, she is in her studio studying other artists and working on techniques to make her a better artist.
Eventually, Bobbie knows this nomadic lifestyle is going to have to come to an end. This year will be her last mural tour. After that, she is looking to buy a piece of property and settle down in southern Virginia so that she can be close to the trail she loves and her children and grandchildren, who live nearby.
She plans to grow a garden and take odd jobs like construction, while her goal is to explore other painting options, maybe painting on pieces of wood, doors, live edge wood, things that she can sell to support her art.
Keeping Alive the Legacy of Paint Splash
Most of the hostels and/or trail angels along the way feed and house her, some pay her for her work, and most of them buy the paint for her murals. Even so, the money Bobbie makes on her artwork is barely enough to cover all her other expenses.
She said she keeps her costs down by saving all the leftover paint she had from one hostel and using it on the next. Sometimes she even does hostels for free when they don’t have enough money to pay her. Using this method, she very efficiently travels the trail.
This year Bobbie has broken with tradition and has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help her with some of her costs. Other trail personalities—Miss J, Fresh Ground, Odie—have been supported this way with great success, often meeting their goal in less than 24 hours so that they can add their special touches to enhance the hiking experience of many.
Since the trail is ever-changing—hostels closing, trail angels passing away (RIP Robert Bird), Hiker Yearbook bus retiring—what Bobbie is doing is important. By painting the trail, not only is Bobbie making the trail a more beautiful place, but she is also making history by recording the unique Appalachian Trail images as they are NOW, for generations to come.
What motivates Bobbie to continue with this trail/art life is, in her words, “I love the Appalachian Trail. I love everything about it. I can’t see my life without the Appalachian Trail.”
With her trail art leading the way, Bobbie is fast becoming a trail legend, leaving a legacy of beauty that will last beyond her lifetime
If you want to see all the amazing things Bobbie is painting, check her out on Instagram @paintsplashonthetrail or on Facebook—Bobbie Drelick.
Featured image: Paint Splash with one of her creations at Hikers Welcome Hostel in New Hampshire.
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So happy someone wrote about Paint Splash! I met her on trail in 19′ and have enjoyed her wonderous paintings, she has enhanced every hikers trail experience with her masterful art work! Kudos!
Please someone make a coffee table book of her artwork. I’d love to purchase it.
Honored to have met her at Four Pines Hostel, where she was helping out. I had seen lots of her work before I met her, of course. Lovely bright palette, great sense of theme; all her paintings warm and engaging.
Great article (!) about a super-worthwhile person. Loved it!