Q&A with Elsye “Chardonnay” Walker: Likely the First Black, Female Triple Crowner
The ATC, the PCTA, the CDTC and the ALDHA-West—the organizations that oversee the long-distance trails we adore—don’t recognize any qualifier in front of the term “thru-hike.” They also don’t recognize any qualifier in front of the term “thru-hiker.” That has never stopped people from adding them, though. Last year, Dale “Greybeard” Sanders became the oldest hiker to thru-hike the AT in a highly publicized attempt, while the Quirin family—Kanga, Roo, and Sherpa—made baby Ellie the youngest to traverse the trail. We have been keeping track of this stuff, even if the organizations that give us our thru-hike certificates do not, because it’s important to us to remind ourselves anyone and everyone can and does thru-hike.
Elsye “Chardonnay” Walker relatively quietly made her own significant mark on thru-hiking history this summer when she completed her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. She is (very likely) the first African-American woman to finish the Triple Crown.
“People who end up as ‘first’ don’t actually set out to be first. They set out to do something they love.” – Condoleezza Rice To become a designated Triple Crown hiker, you must successfully hike each of the three longest trails in the United States: the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Throw in being black and female and you’ve got an anomaly. Being the first African American woman to Triple Crown is humbling, cool and weird I’m not gonna lie. I’m really just a tutu wearing hiker that happens to be black and female. I’m grateful to have gotten to experience the true beauty of this country the land and the people. The trail tested my strength and brought me to my knees. I couldn’t have done it without help from my family, friends, hiking peeps and random strangers. Can’t thank ya’ll enough. On the trail, as in life, I made some questionable choices, took some risks and things didn’t always workout as planned. Lessons were learned……..I’d do it all again. wandering, wine and nature…..herstory continues…. #melaninbasecamp #unlikelyhikers #diversifyoutdoors #outdoorafro #blackgirlstrekkin #blackgirlmagic #blackexcellence #becauseofthemwecan #blackwomenhike #sheexplores #forceofnaure #hiking #ulaequipment #neverstopexploring #PCT #Appalachiantrail #CDT #nomadnesstribe
To hike the Triple Crown is to thru-hike the three most prominent United States long-distance trails: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. It’s very, very hard to do. ALDHA-West (American Long-Distance Hiking Association, which tracks and recognizes Triple Crowns, not to be confused with the Appalachian Long-Distance Hiking Association) has just 334 Triple Crowns on the books.
Chardonnay got her trail name while bike packing in Iowa, long before she first hit the PCT. Just a glance at her Instagram or blog will tell you she got that name because she loves chardonnay. But the name works on multiple levels—she seems like someone you’d want to drink a lot of chardonnay with. Her blog is positive but always honest. Her Instagram is full of images of packed-out wine. She has hiked in a tutu, a butterfly dress, and a fur tail, and all of her outfits have more miles on them than anything most of us have hiked in.
Chardonnay graciously answered our questions about Triple Crowns, our preconceived notions of who thru-hikes, and the trucker-hat epidemic on long trails.
You started with the PCT. What made you want to hike that trail initially, and at what point did you realize you wanted to Triple Crown?
I stumbled onto information about the PCT while looking for local trails to hike in San Diego. But when I read the stories of Carrot Quinn and Heather Anderson, I was so intrigued I wondered if it was a challenge I was up for. There was only one way to find out… I had to try. During my CDT hike I realized I wanted/needed to Triple Crown. By then I knew I had gone too far to settle with good enough.
Did you grow up backpacking, or was it something you fell into later in life?
No, I did not grow up backpacking. I started later in life with bike packing—they called it bagging when I did it in Iowa. I didn’t start backpacking until my mid 40s; midlife crisis, ha, maybe.
When you decided to Triple Crown, did you realize you would likely be the first African-American woman to do so?
I joked with another hiker about it on the PCT since we had seen so few black people on the trail. However, at the time I couldn’t fathom doing another trail or that nobody else had done it. On the CDT I was aware it was a possibility, but ALDHA-West does not recognize qualifiers such as age, race, or nationality. That being said, who could know for sure? Luckily my desire to Triple Crown didn’t hinge on that.
Following your Instagram and blog, you were pretty clear the AT was especially challenging for you, and you got off the trail in your initial attempt. Did you feel any pressure knowing that was your last trail to complete?
Yes, I brought it on myself. Quitting the AT on my first attempt was a hard choice I struggled with long after I got off trail. On the CDT I knew I would go back or it would nag at me. Plus, there were a lot of people that supported and believed in me, I felt I was letting them down. Personally, I had to come to terms with my feelings about the AT. It was just not my trail, I didn’t love it and that is OK.
Since you started on the PCT in 2015, communities like Unlikely Hikers have sprung up in an effort to change preconceived notions about what a thru-hiker looks like. Over the time you spent hiking each of the trails, have you felt a shift in other’s expectations resulting from those efforts?
“I’ve always been into things that many other POC around me weren’t. I go regardless of representation. I go because I want to…”
In my experience, thru-hiking is still pretty vanilla. People are surprised to see a female, black thru-hiker, or maybe it’s the tail I wear . At an outfitter recently, a guy asked if I was thinking about doing a thru-hike. When I told him I had done all three trails, he said, “Oh, I never imagined.” It didn’t matter if he imagined it; I imagined, believed, and did it. It’s not about what people expect or think a thru-hiker looks like. It’s about what is true.
There is a small but growing community of POC who thru-hike. As for me, I’ve always been into things that many other POC around me weren’t. I go regardless of representation. I go because I want to and never think, “Man, there are too many white people.” (I do think there are too many trucker hats. Jk.) It won’t help with pack weight, but leave your preconceived notions at home.
You title a lot of your blog posts with song titles. If you had to pick one song to represent your experience on each trail, what would they be?
PCT: Present Tense – Pearl Jam
CDT: Keep On Movin’ – Soul II Soul
AT: Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
I ask this of every thru-hiker I interview: What’s your biggest food fantasy while hiking? In your case, did it vary from trail to trail?
My relationship with food on trail has been different than most. Hiker hunger still eludes me. The minute I hit the trail, my appetite/food desires disappear. So I fantasize not about food, but about eating (whatever) at a table with a cloth napkin, real silverware, and chilled chardonnay. Weird, but true.
This is a horrible question for anyone who just finished a thru-hike, but what now? Any other adventures on the horizon?
I’d love to say I have some concrete plans or that I have set some big hiking goals, but nope. Since the PCT I been living pretty organically and I tend to end up where I need to be. At this time I am interested in giving back to the hiking community. Finding out where my skills can be put to use helping others take that first step into long-distance hiking I’m sure will be its own adventure. I hear the Arizona Trail is nice in the fall… just sayin’.
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