Allow Me to (Re)Introduce Myself

TLDR; I’m hiking because I’m sad my mom died and a medium told me to go to the woods to find myself.

Skeptical? Fair enough, I would be rolling my eyes if I were you.

Hi there. Allow me to (re)introduce myself. My name is Ellie, aka “Sparky,” I blogged for The Trek seven years ago when I hiked the Appalachian Trail  (AT) and now I’m about to embark on a southbound Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hike starting in mid-July.

Ellie and Champ

Champ and I hiking in VT last weekend.

I’ll start by getting some of the basics and hiking history out of the way. I’m 30 years old and from the great(est) state of Vermont, so naturally, my first long hike was the Long Trail. I hiked it in 2010 with my brother and it got me hooked. I went to college at Claremont McKenna College in southern California and hiked the AT the season after I graduated (2014). After the AT, I went to grad school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where I was able to squeeze in some magical time on the West Highland Way and Skye Trail (2015). After grad school, I went to New Zealand and hiked Te Araroa, a 3000km trail from the northern tip of the North Island to the southern tip of the South Island (2015-2016). When I finished that trail, I moved to Washington D.C. after a short stint at home in Vermont. I have about two weeks left at my job at a non-profit that does economic development policy work on behalf of Native American Tribal Governments that I’ve been doing for the last three and a half years. During my time in D.C. I managed to get out for a few “short” week-long hikes on the Laugavegur in Iceland (2017) and the Tahoe Rim Trail in CA/NV (2018). Pre-COVID, my plan was to leave D.C. a year ago and hike the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). As with all of us, this year has come with a lot of adjustments and plan Bs.

Honestly, it’s good that the CDT fell through last summer. The trip derailment was a blessing for the way things worked out in my life, despite the cause being a global pandemic. I left D.C. last year in early August to come home for my brother’s wedding. It was an intimate ceremony in the Adirondacks, and even pre-covid the celebration was always going to be small and outside. I initially planned to come off the trail for a few days to attend, but once the trail was no longer in the cards, I planned on spending the month here at home and then going out west to live a socially distanced life on the beach for the rest of the year while my physical location didn’t matter for my job.

Mom officiating my brother’s wedding last August.

The wedding was beautiful; such a happy event in the midst of a challenging year. However, the year was about to get much more challenging for me and my family. My mom died 10 days after the wedding. I was able to be there with her and say goodbye; an opportunity that few get, and one that wouldn’t have been possible had she passed a month before or after, or if I hadn’t already been in Vermont, or if I had I been on the CDT.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected when given full knowledge of her prognosis (which I never had). Even if I had known the severity, based on how strong my mom was and how well she deflected attention I never thought it was possible that she could die. She was truly an inspirational person. She died from a complication related to cancer that she developed caused by inhalation of toxic fumes during her two deployments to Kuwait in 2004 and Iraq in 2010. If you didn’t know, and most people don’t, it’s common practice for the U.S. military to burn their hazardous waste—including batteries, medical waste, amputated body parts, plastics, ammunition, human waste, animal carcasses, rubber, chemicals, and more—using jet fuel in burn pits on the edge of their forward operating bases in the Middle East.

My mom spent a year living in the same square mile inhaling toxic fumes day in and day out. Though the effects of these fumes on human health are well documented, the VA denies benefits to most veterans who develop fatal diseases due to this exposure, because the onset is delayed and they allege that they can’t definitively prove the connection between the service and disease. Luckily for my mom (and I do mean luckily, because this is rare), she was able to get her cancer 100% connected to her service due to persistence and a great medical team. She received health coverage from the VA for all medical-related expenses incurred. She retired in March 2020 and intended to spend her retirement helping other affected veterans navigate the VA system to help them get coverage for their burn pit related health complications.

My wonderful mother in 2011 in Taji, Iraq.

My mom died because she was brave and selfless enough to serve her country, and her own country killed her, not the forces with whom we were at war. This fate was entirely avoidable. While we always seem to have endless money for our troops, we still fail to protect their health and fail to provide their health coverage for the fatal diseases they later develop in connection to their service. I hope you’ll excuse me for getting a bit off-topic for a hiking forum, but it’s an important piece for understanding my motivation for getting out on the trail, and the anger and sadness I’m hoping to work through out there.

If you want to learn more about this issue, donate, or get involved, see

Since mom passed, I have really fallen apart. Outwardly I think people think I’m generally fine. I still have my job, an apartment, I got a puppy, I’m generally pretty capable of presenting very positively—mentally, though, I was already on a bad track and this has pushed me over an edge I didn’t know I was teetering on. To add to matters, COVID made it difficult over the winter months to see the friends and family that would have helped keep me from an emotional spiral. I’m sure over the next few months I’ll delve into this a bit more, but since you’re just meeting me that might be a bit much for post number one.

Lincoln Peak

Sunrise at Lincoln Peak in Vermont last weekend.

I wasn’t planning on doing a long hike this year. Back in January, when I was at my lowest emotional state, I had a conversation with a friend about a spiritual coach that she talks to and had been tremendously helpful in her life. Shortly after, I booked a session. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, just wildly curious. I never considered myself spiritual, but such a deep loss made me open to it, and I figured a conversation couldn’t hurt but could potentially help. She immediately picked up on a strong energy encouraging me to be in the woods. She wasn’t sure if it was literal or metaphorical but after talking about my hiking history she was very insistent that a long hike would help me heal and help me find confidence and direction.

Initially, I was very resistant—I had just signed a lease on an apartment that I love and got a puppy that I would never have fathomed leaving. She asked me to consider if those were actually deal-breakers or if I was making excuses. I spent the next few months considering if a hike was feasible and if it was what I wanted to do. I was hesitant to talk about it to friends and family, thinking they would view the trip as irresponsible as I did at first. The more I considered it though the more I believed this hike would be my unique way of healing and that the opportunity may not present itself again. So, while the decision was mine to take on this trip, I would never have given myself the permission to consider it without this push from an unexpected source. After working out several logistical challenges and scoring a hard-to-get PCT southbound permit, here we are!

As I reread some of my old posts for the first time in years, they reaffirm the way I still think about my time on the trails before. Hiking was always more fun for me than anything else. I didn’t need anything emotionally from the trail and my posts at the time reflected that and were very lighthearted. I still imagine my posts will include all the silly and fun that the trail entails, but I also think there are more layers to it for me this time around.

I’m excited to be Sparky again, to take in beauty and challenge each day, to make lifelong connections, to have time to process this past year. I hope you enjoy taking this journey with me, nice to meet you!

hiking dog

Thanks for sticking it out to the end of this post! As a reward, here’s a picture of Champ, my happy little hiker pup.

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 10

  • Nancy Matthews : Jun 18th

    I’m sorry for your loss and I hope that the hike helps you find what you need. I encourage you to take one the challenge. However, I also pray that you, and all the other hikers out there taking dogs with them, have studied dog physiology, understand their cooling mechanism ( dog don’t sweat!) and think carefully as to whether they should be with you or waiting for you when you return and write your book. Water will be a precious resource. A dog would not choose the journey on its own, but will go and give it’s life if need be. Please, please…with the record heat and drought conditions the west is facing; think about what you are asking of your pooch. I worry about Dirt Devil all the time and any other dogs out hiking. Again…find yourself in nature and let it heal you. Good luck on your journey.

    • Ellie : Jun 19th

      Thank you! And don’t ’t worry, Champ isn’t coming with me, I know he’s way too young for an adventure this big. He’s staying with a friend while I’m gone.

  • pearwood : Jun 19th

    God bless you, Sparky.
    I flew Army helicopters back in the 1970s, so the burn-pit deaths hit close to home.
    I’m glad you’re back on the trail.
    Steve / pearwood

  • JhonYermo : Jun 19th

    No way I could not have finished your post. Touching, lovely, tragic, courageous. And what a super trooper your dear Mom.
    Thanks for letting us meet your pup, Champ.
    Looking oh so forward to following your SOBO PCT. Not too much longer, que no?

  • JEFFERY JONES : Jun 20th

    Really heavy snow year in WA and Northern Oregon. Bring boot chains for snow, a 7 mm rope for belaying snow bridges, an ice axe, and maybe a short light pair of skis to make better time on some sections. Wear a shoe/boot with a firm sole for a better platform to walk on snow.

  • Erin : Jun 22nd

    I am sorry for your loss. What a powerful story you have- thank you for sharing it with us and allowing us to see your healing journey! Happy hiking!

    • Kat : Jun 23rd

      Hi Ellie,

      I’m so sorry for the loss of your wonderful mother. What jumped out at me were 2 things.
      1) that despite presenting nicely outside, inside is very sad
      2) a medium’s advice gave you advice, and to find yourself from their advice

      I don’t want to be abrasive, rather, only kind & hopefully helpful & supportive for you, especially at an unspeakably difficult season of life.

      I, too, am able to present nicely on the outside, however on the inside, for different reasons than you, I feel very sad.

      I also during this sadness, have grown closer to God again, mainly with the help of listening on my phone/tv to Pastor Matt @ Sandals Church, based in California. He’s seriously a game changer and is actually a very talented speaker and is actually funny somehow, too lol.

      I fell out of my spiritual practice of being a good, as in, actually good (wholesome, not like a crazy Christian) Christian. I stopped praying, and never read my bible any longer for many years like I once had (I’m 32). And I’d wondered over my pre teen, teen, hs & college years of hardship, continued persistent sadness, and feeling lost and hollow, I was never sure what else was missing or how this was possible to still feel low some or most of the time.

      So, perhaps finding advice at such a tragic, and also delicate time in your life from a medium is a dangerous idea, as this can potentially allow for a path down dark roads (figuratively, lol) and shape your thinking when you must find God at this impossibly trying time

      Let it be known, that by all means, I’m supportive of the fact you did mention the medium is the source of your desire which inspired your beautiful article here, and also your upcoming hike journey- wow! Good for you!!

      But since the source was said, I can even more than ever since your mom passed, and you must seek comfort from only wholesome sources.

      Perhaps, all I can ask, is to either bring a mini Bible on your hike, whichever is lightest, as I’m sure not being a hiker like you.

      According to the epic thru hiker girl that I watch Homemade Wanderlust on YouTube channel about less weight in & of your pack & the pack itself, and the importance of always either being effectient, or doing without.

      That said, a regular size bible might be too much.. lol. Or, the holy bible app. I use a daily bible app that is a brown book with a cross as the app picture logo.

      Sandals church on my phone, the daily bible app, reading the bible each night briefly, and prayer once again, have all been improving my life so far since I’ve taken it back up again. My sadness and anger sometimes get the better of me, in which case, mj helps which the bible does say to keep a sober mind, and that is something I must bring before God about but thought it would be best to include for when life just feels so unbearably hard, overwhelming, sad, or I’m just not happy with myself how i reacted harshly or something, again.

      The bible teaches that this life will not be easy, and to have faith through the good and bad times. It also tells us to seek rest and peace in God. All who are weary, can come to God and find rest. And to know Godly peace.

      I do hope this may help you gently. I am truly very sorry for the loss of your mother, and to thank her in Heaven for her service. I don’t think it was only luck, rather a blessing/miracle your trip got pushed back & you were able to be together in her passing. I hope you may find peace & loving support in my words, rather than finding frustration, disgust, or laughter in these words of my comment. I have read your amazing beautiful story here, and I want to extend an olive branch that this may be a help to you as you embark on your journey. Best to you, and warm blessings.

  • Connor : Jun 22nd

    This article resonated big time. I lost my mother, who is my hero too, in the past year . I found myself being called back to nature and out door experiences too. I hope you find what you’re looking for out there!

  • Emily Shaw : Jul 18th


    I was so sorry to hear of your mom’s passing. What a truly spectacular and strong woman she was. I am so proud of you for taking on the challenge of the PCT! Remember to hike your own hike, and don’t be afraid of trying out a new trail name for a new trail and a new journey! I hiked NOBO ~1,500 miles in 2018, so I am so excited for you!

    Hike on!
    Emily (aka Superstar)

  • Andrea : Jul 19th

    Sounds like a strong woman, your mother, trained you to be a strong woman too! Not to get to far off subject but, yes, our country uses our soldiers and then throw them to the wind. They all deserve so much better than they get. There should never be a homeless vet after what most the these brave people go thru for our freedom.

    Let your mind and body reset on your hike! Happy trails!


What Do You Think?