KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Gretchen Pardon is a computer programmer, wife, YouTuber and avid hiker.
On Thursday, Feb. 20 in Amicalola Falls, Georgia, she begins a journey she has been dreaming about for several years.
She is thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail solo.
Pardon has always been active but started hiking and backpacking as a serious hobby more than 5 years ago.
"I previously, before I started hiking, was a runner. So it just kind of fit in with the whole exercise thing," Pardon said.
During that time, she met her husband, became a 900-miler in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and created a YouTube channel called "Hiking With Braids," which comes from her signature hairstyle and unofficial trail name.
"I feel like I can do something where I give back to others [on the YouTube channel]," Pardon said. "I have a lot of people who will say, 'Because of you I started hiking; because of you I've gone to the Smokies and you're inspiring and you've taught me to do things I would have never done.'"
One goal loomed above all others, the Appalachian Trail. The 2,192-mile trek stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin Mountain in Maine and usually takes 6-7 months to hike from start to finish, also called a thru-hike.
"I definitely am very goal-oriented. So I do like setting goals for myself and then accomplishing my goals. It was kind of a natural thing for me to want to do this really even just for that reason," Pardon said.
A year ago, she decided it was time to take on this goal. Getting ready for this journey would require a lot of sacrifices.
"I get this one life and I want to make the most of it and I don't want to just think about doing things. I want to actually do them so I'm doing it," Pardon said.
Pardon and her husband started saving money anywhere they could. Pardon stopped buying new clothes and makeup. They even downsized into a 950 square foot apartment to lower their rent and simplify their lives.
Scariest of all, Pardon left her job as digital media manager at Visit Knoxville at the beginning of February.
"My boss was just like, 'Oh my gosh, this is the greatest thing. This is so you,'" Pardon said. "Just to see them be so supportive of me. It made me just feel like I was doing the right thing."
During that time, she was planning and packing for the trip, especially since she will essentially be carrying her closet, kitchen and bedroom on her back for the next 6 months.
With all of this planning, Pardon said she will be taking the trail one day at a time and listening to her body.
Though she is doing a solo hike, Pardon won't be completely alone on the trail. As a massive "Star Wars" fan, her daughter made her a small Baby Yoda plushie to accompany her on the journey.
"I just love that my daughter made that for me because she's actually away at college. So this will be the first one I'll have not seen her at all for 6 months. So it's kind of extra-special, on top of it being Baby Yoda," Pardon said.
She plans to document Baby Yoda's journey with her on the Instagram account she created for it called @BabyYodaontheAT.
We will be checking in with Gretchen and Baby Yoda on their Appalachian Trail adventure over the next several months. We plan to have updates from her every week with tales and images from the trail.
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