Shilletha Curtis was awarded a Backpacking Light Diversity Grant in 2020 to help her prepare, acquire gear, and train for her next dream: hiking the Triple Crown. She will start with an attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in spring of 2021.
We caught up with Shilletha for a quick interview.
What’s your background – what notable parts of your childhood / life-to-date led you to who you are today?
Orlando, Florida, became my symbol and my icon of what dreams lay ahead of me.
Disney World gave me hope and opened my mind to worlds I couldn’t even fathom as a sheltered eight-year-old girl. I visited Epcot, Magic Kingdom, and my favorite park of all – Animal Kingdom.
The day my aunt and great uncle took me to Animal Kingdom, the sun kissed my brown cheeks and welcomed my presence. The temperature was tropical, to say the least. Hot to others, but just perfect for a little thin girl with anemia. The sky was a canvas painted with hues of baby blue and calm, white cirrus clouds. I walked around with my uncle as my aunt stayed back at the resort as she wasn’t feeling too well.
Everywhere we walked, there were habitats for creatures of every kind – amphibians, birds, and primates just to name a few; however, I found my niche among the arthropods. As I walked through the enchanting forest that was Animal Kingdom, I found myself extremely drawn to a ranger in the park that was holding an insect in her hand. My curiosity got the best of me and I picked up my pace and headed over to the ranger.
I looked in her hand and saw a brilliant three-inch insect which boasted a royal blue exoskeleton, four translucent wings, and two huge black eyes which nearly took up all the space on its head. I later found out through research that the dragonfly was blessed with being the symbol of maturity (both mental and emotional) and depth of character, in addition to power and poise!
What are your wilderness ambitions, and why?
Years later, I emerged from the water with mighty wings and some sense of direction.
Nature captivated my path and swooped me up like an autumn leaf rustling in the wind. Since I was a child, I dreamt of working in the sciences as a marine biologist or a veterinarian. The winds changed course and I ended up graduating from Rutgers University in 2014 with a Bachelor’s in Social Work. I had always helped people behind the walls but then coronavirus hit me like a roaring wave.
Furloughed and eventually terminated, I set sail for the woods and found the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey. Since then, it has been my goal to prepare for the AT and aim to accomplish the Triple Crown.
Favorite place to hike right now and why?
From Dunnified Creek to High Point, I have visited various parts of the AT but have fallen in love with Worthington State Forest. There is something so tranquil and mysterious about Worthington and all its wonders. Although it is less strenuous than other parts of the AT, it provides versatile terrain and surprises around every turn. Racoon Ridge is mind-blowing and provides spectacular views and a comfort that I cannot explain.
What do you like to do when you aren’t hiking?
When I am not below treeline or above the clouds, I spend my time writing, drawing, and hanging out with my girlfriend. I like to stay busy as idle hands are the devil’s playground. Tactile activities suit me best as they provide visual and mental stimulation.
Most days off-trail, I pitch my tent or hang my hammock in my yard and enjoy the beauty that life brings. Life is an adventure and I am ready to ride it, no matter where I am. But of course, ninety-five percent of the time you will find me in the depths of the forest.
How has your background in social work influenced your relationship with nature? To what extent do you see our connection to nature as critical for our personal or social mental health?
My background in social work has influenced my relationship with nature in the sense that I can truly appreciate nature for its healing power. I have learned the true meaning of empathy and to look at situations and nature as a whole. Everything from the slimy grotesque slugs to the glimmering green leaves that sway in the crisp wind has a part in the forest.
As someone who is a strong advocate for mental health and lives with depression, anxiety, and ADHD on a daily basis, I can tell you that nature is medicine for our souls. Nature has a tranquil way about it and creates an atmosphere where we can be us in our most vulnerable forms. Trees, mountains, and wildlife do not judge the human who seeks peace.
Feeling connected to the Earth, I believe creates a sort of grounding and rejuvenation within one’s soul. Many seek the forest for its silence and answers that only the trail can provide. And trust me, the trail will provide.
The trail gives an unspeakable peace and escape from the distractions of our daily life and other humans. Working, dealing with racism, and immeasurable pain and suffering without self-care can be detrimental to our physical and mental well-being.
What are the biggest challenges you face as you plan for your AT hike?
I would have to say gearing myself up mentally as well as understanding base layers.
As I have heard before, the Appalachian Trail is a mental game. Our bodies adapt over time but the mind, now that’s a different story. Mentally, I am a strong woman and I have been working on learning more about myself through solitary 10-11 mile hikes about twice a week. I know that nothing can ever fully prepare to walk 2,186 miles but at least I can learn by practicing now, how to embrace the bad days and revel in the good.
A friend that I met from the Appalachian Trail group online told me I have three options when I am having a bad day: Cry, Quit, or Continue. He said “You will cry, I cried, but you can’t quit-you have to continue” and that is what I plan to do.
Base layers are a whole ‘nother story!
I will start my thru-hike as winter is ending and I have been warned of the cold temperatures. Knowledge is power and so, I decided to do copious research on base layers and as I collect clothing it becomes increasingly more confusing. Nearly everyone recommended Merino Wool so I went and brought a midweight baby blue long-sleeved shirt. Bad idea! Every inch of my arms felt like chiggers were burying their fiery red bodies into my flesh! It was so frustrating! Luckily, I got the Patagonia Nano Puff on sale and have accomplished that part of my clothing journey (an insulating layer) with ease. It’s a work in progress, but one day I will have it down perfectly.
What are you working on right now in terms of backpacking skills? What areas do you feel like you need to work on more?
Right now, I am working on lowering my base weight and figuring out how to shave weight where I can.
When I started this journey in March, I immediately knew that I wanted to go ultralight. Now, when I say that don’t get me wrong, I will carry weight that is necessary. Winter gear, for instance, is usually heavier but currently, my cold weather setup is weighing in at a measly 10.1 pounds!
I am willing to sacrifice more weight for items like warmer clothing because I am anemic and sleep cold. At the same time, I want to keep my base weight under 12 pounds because I had a back injury three years ago. It’s not for everyone but I do find that my ultralight setup is working well for me thus far.
Every day, I go out with my gear and do shakedowns and I am learning that it is crucial to listen to your body. Going up steep inclines, I am realizing that every 3-5 minutes that I need to take a rest and that’s okay. Drinking sufficient amounts of water and snacking along the way are things I need to be more cognizant of as I have gotten severe headaches and fatigue on long treks.
Being okay with my pace and trying not to be superwoman is a constant lesson that I am figuring out.
What’s your favorite piece of ultralight gear you are using right now and why?
There is nothing I adore more than my ULA Circuit backpack.
Best piece of gear, hands down! I received my pack as a donation from a kind soul who supports my journey for diversity and inclusion on the Appalachian Trail. That in itself is one of the reasons I hold my pack so dear to me. Weighing in at only 2.9 pounds with all the attachments, this beauty has changed the way I backpack.
At first, I was a little reluctant about having a 68 Liter pack but I have no regrets. After, learning how to adjust the straps, I love the way this pack adheres to my body and how supportive the aluminum stay is for my fragile back.
The hip belt and pockets are convenient and the pack sits comfortably on my hips. The side pockets are perfect for my Big Agnes tent stakes and poles as well as Smartwater bottles. One disadvantage though, is that I have to take the pack off to reach the water bottle, but I may MacGyver some type of holder in the front.
Internally the small purple pocket makes a great space to stash my headlamp and water filter and I am a huge organizer. Knowing where my gear is in my pack makes me a happier hiker, and having two removable internal pockets plus the front mesh pocket gives me bliss.
The ULA Circuit is extremely comfortable all around and I really dig the cushioning of the shoulder straps. All my gear compresses nicely in the pack and I even have extra room (that I am not tempted to stuff!). I really cannot complain and I will note that I removed the hand loops as I saw no need for them and inner hydration sleeve as I am not using a bladder. Being highly customizable and having the ability to add and subtract gear pieces is necessary for me as it lets me control what works for me. Overall, I love the ULA Circuit and I plan to carry it not only on the AT but also the PCT!
We’ll keep you posted on Shilletha’s quest for the Triple Crown, and look forward to having her join our authors’ corps as she documents and shares her experiences along the way!
Follow Shilletha on Instagram @_dragonsky__.
DISCLOSURE (Updated November 7, 2019)
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