Hiker Arlette Laan's doll-making career funds her long-distance treks
There have been times when Arlette Laan has questioned her adventurous spirit.
Once, while hiking solo on the Continental Divide Trail over Mount Taylor in New Mexico, Laan wound up stuck in the deep snow at close to 11,000 feet. She hadn't brought snowshoes and paid the price. Every time she tried to take a step, she plunged through the thin crust and sank to her thighs. Finally, after thinking she might never get off the mountain, she was able to scoot carefully -- and slowly -- over the crust on her rear end until she could walk again. Then she headed downhill rather than follow the trail to avoid getting "really stuck."
Then, last year, she was hiking the 800-mile Hayduke Trail in the Southwest when she opted for an alternate route through a narrow canyon. Once in, she found it flooded from recent rain with huge rocks and slides that blocked the way. Unwilling to backtrack, she continued with wet, frozen feet, scrambling over boulders and even using some canyoneering moves she'd never tried. Each obstacle was followed by another.
"How am I supposed to get over? I can't do this," she recalls thinking.
But she did. "That was really crazy. Challenging," she says, laughing. "But you think, 'I survived that. I'm never going to do that again.'"
Except she probably will. Maybe not in that same Utah canyon or on that New Mexico mountaintop, but somewhere new she can't help from exploring. Laan is a passionate long-distance hiker. The 46-year-old doll-maker, photographer and guide in New Hampshire's White Mountains has completed the triple crown of American long-distance hiking: the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Appalachian trails. She's also completed long regional hikes on the Pacific Northwest Trail, the Arizona Trail, the Grand Enchantment Trail, the Florida Trail and the Benton MacKaye Trail, among others, and the Te Araroa Trail of New Zealand, an 1,850-mile route from the bottom of the South Island to the tip of the North Island.
Her first long-distance hike was the 210-mile John Muir Trail in California's Sierra Nevada in 2002. In the almost 16 years since, she's completed 12 long-distance trails and hiked some 20,000 miles.
Laan grew up far from mountains in the Netherlands, but she got her first taste of real hiking in Switzerland at 18. After moving to the U.S. in her late 20s, she settled in California and started hiking the Sierra Nevada. "You're on a day hike and you wonder what's over the next pass, so it graduated into backpacking so you could continue on over the next pass and the next town," she says.
She'd done just a few overnight backpack trips when she did her three-week trek on the John Muir Trail. A year later she did the Pacific Crest Trail, which took her five months. She's been doing weekslong and monthslong backcountry hikes since.
Laan and her husband, Rich Gambale, live in Lowell, Massachusetts. They are self-employed, live simply and don't have children. They have the flexibility to take off big chunks of time to hit trails. Laan has a business making whimsical, colorful sock dolls, which she often photographs in wild places on her adventures. About the only time she can't break away is before the holiday season, when demand for the dolls is high.
Even when she isn't long-distance hiking, though, she hikes one to two days a week, even in the New England winter, often heading to the White Mountains. "I try to stay in shape that way," she says.
Her trail name -- the name many long-distance hikers know her by -- is Apple Pie. It started out as Dutch Apple Pie (of course) because of her love of sweets and baked goodies.
"I love my desserts," she says. "When a friend and I hiked the northern section of the North Island in New Zealand, everybody was like, 'Oh, you're not going to like it. It's not very wildernessy.' My friend and I were like, 'Well, we're just going to hike from bakery to bakery and coffee shop to coffee shop.'"
Laan's love of hiking includes "peak bagging" -- checking off a group of summits she has "bagged." There are 48 4,000-foot peaks in New Hampshire, and she hiked them all in September 2014. She'd read about people doing it unsupported, in one swoop, and thought she could perhaps do it in 10 days.
After mapping out a plan of attack and reading how others did it, she gave it a go. She admits she's not a speed hiker, but one who likes to stop, check out the scenery and take photos, so this was different for her. She hiked at night, got as little as five hours of sleep, and went hard, but missed her goal, finishing in 12 days. Part of that she attributes to being unfamiliar with many of the trails and taking wrong turns or taking longer routes to avoid fording rivers by herself.
"What I now know is once you're behind schedule, you're probably not going to catch up in a situation like that," she says. "But it was a good learning experience. Always in the back of my mind, maybe I want to try again. I think I can go faster because I made a lot of mistakes the first time."
Now, with the huge popularity surge in long-distance hiking on the Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails, in particular, Laan and her husband have focused on regional trails that are less traveled, less maintained and offer new vistas over the next pass. In recent years, for instance, they've done the 335-mile Pinhoti Trail in Alabama and Georgia and the 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail in the Appalachians as well as the Hayduke that was almost too challenging -- but rewarding. It pushed her out of her comfort zone.
"That's why I like doing different trails and the stuff that probably scares me," she says. "Then when you do them you're like, 'Oh my God, I just did that.' That's very rewarding. You get to discover all these trails. They become real to you after just reading about them."
Laan also enjoys being unplugged from the fast pace of the world, which she says can be "kind of overwhelming to me."
"Your focus is on, 'Where's my next water source, how much food do I have left, where's my next resupply?'" she says. "And then you've got to figure out when it's going to get dark and if you can find a place flat enough to set up a tent or just sleep out. You don't have to worry about many things. It brings you back to the basics. It's something different every day. You're outside in nature, living. I love it."