HINCKLEY — Kaylin Brown could not fall asleep on her pillow Saturday night. It was the 18-year-old’s first night home after finishing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. For the greater part of the past six months, a pillow was a forgotten luxury.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said, laughing. “I moved it aside.”

Brown, a Winslow resident who graduated from the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences this year, is the third student from the charter school who has completed the 2,192-mile trail connecting Georgia and Maine, according to Grace Hilmer, a teacher at the school and a supporter of Brown’s trek.

The teenager said she was inspired to complete the long-distance trip after hiking Mt. Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus, with her father three years ago.

“After that first hike, I started researching and it was just something that I fell in love with and wanted to do really badly because I love hiking,” she said.

Brown worked diligently to complete her coursework early so she could spend her senior year on the trail. It did not come as a surprise to her teachers when Brown completed her graduation requirements a year early, at the end of her junior year.

“She’s an amazing student,” said Susie Bright, of Oakland, who used to teach math at the school and was Brown’s adviser for four years. “She came in and sized the place up, and from sophomore year on, she started doing a lot of projects.

“One time, she said she was going to build a boat and then she actually came in to school with a boat that she had built. She’s always looking for opportunities. But the first response everyone said when she said she wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail was: You’re going to do this alone?”

At the time, Brown explained she would not actually be alone on the journey, which turned out to be true. In addition to the friends who joined her for part of the trip, she said people on the trail tend to develop a sense of community.

“Her maturity and self-confidence made us believers,” Bright said.

Brown met a range of fellow thru-hikers, including the Maine family who gave her the trail name, “Moxie,” a coveted tradition among the foot travelers. There was also “Butters,” who was known for eating sticks of butter, and “Dropsticks,” the girl who tended to drop her hiking poles, Brown recalled.

While she was away, Brown shared updates about her trip on Instagram, and her father physically mapped out where he thought she would be each day. Brown started April 1, and said her goal was to walk between 15 and 25 miles a day, though there were days that she dedicated to resting.

Her parents would ship supplies to post offices along the route, and Brown carried three- to four-days’ worth of food — mostly bagels, candy, tortillas and rice — before having to restock in a local town.

One of the hardest days on the trail was the day her family left after visiting her in Virginia, Brown said.

“When they left, I didn’t want to hike anymore,” she said. “I wanted to go home. (But) I just kept hiking. The next day, I was at a hostel surrounded by other hikers, and they made me feel less lonely.”

The determination Brown had to muster in moments like this became one of the most important takeaways from her time on the trail, she said.

“I learned (about) not giving up,” she said. “Because it was hard a lot of the time, but I had to keep going. I feel like that might help with things in the future not hiking-related.”

Brown said that despite being in the middle of her journey, it was important to her to attend graduation with her 34 classmates. She was able to fly from Massachusetts to Maine in August to attend the ceremony, where she was a senior speaker. After the celebration, she hit the trail again.

Grace Hilmer, right, a teacher at the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Hinckley, at a campsite with Kaylin Brown on the morning Brown summited Mt. Katahdin. Courtesy of Grace Hilmer

“To me, (Brown’s completion of the Appalacian Trail) is an example of how experiential and project-based learning can foster growth, independence and confidence in students,” said Hilmer, who used to organize experiential learning opportunities for students and has taken Brown on several field trips across the state.

“Our model allows students to take control of their education, and this is a really fantastic outcome of that.”

Hilmer was one of three teachers who camped with Brown on Friday, the evening before she finished her hike. Two more teachers joined to hike part of the way up Mt. Katahdin.

Others visited her at various points of the trip — including Bright, who met up with Brown in North Carolina in April. Brown said it meant a lot to her that her teachers showed up to support her.

“It’s not every school where teachers are willing to meet you at random places to (support what you’re doing),” she commented.

“I’m so proud of her,” Hilmer said. “I think it’s important to feel inspired by our students, and she’s certainly one to easily feel inspired by.”

When Brown summited Katahdin at about noon Saturday, she said it felt surreal.

“I got up to the sign and I just cried,”Brown said. “A lot of people don’t understand. It was just amazing, kind of un-explainable.”

Reflecting on her trip, Brown said Sunday the journey helped teach her to be happy living with only a few things — what she could carry in her backpack — and reminded her the importance of slowing down to enjoy life’s pleasures once in a while.

“If I could inspire someone to go do what they want to do,” Brown said, “that would be really awesome.”


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