Kevin and Kelly Haddock had hiked and backpacked many miles together, but they needed something more, a challenge that would shake them from the inside out.
"We were sitting in Crested Butte, and I was looking for an escape, or something," Kelly says.
Their search led them to the documentary, Mile... Mile & a Half, about five friends who chose to hike the John Muir Trail, a 215-mile ribbon that twists across the pitched roof of the High Sierra Mountains in California. The photography of a rugged, beautiful landscape, the story of ordinary people who made extraordinary discoveries, was irresistible.
"I was like, I can take a month off," Kelly says.
The trip began at that moment. They hustled home and applied to hike the Muir Trail (johnmuirtrail.org/permits.html, or Google "Muir Trail Applications.") Like so many back-country locations, the Muir Trail is in high demand. They applied and were turned down every day for two weeks before they secured a permit to backpack the whole route.
"The planning took six months," Kelly says. "It was a lot of nights of sitting at Poor Richard's, eating pizza and drinking beer and looking at maps."
The trail is named after John Muir, the Scottish-American advocate for wilderness preservation and founder of the Sierra Club. His sentimental writings of the natural world lead us to wild places in nature and in ourselves.
He wrote: "I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."
There are several access points for the Muir, but the main trailhead is in Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park.
The Haddocks started there and headed south. The High Sierras include some of the most rugged backcountry on the continent, a place fit for great discovery. The first day included 15 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain. There are 13 mountain passes and 80,000 feet of climbing on the Muir. About 80 percent of the trail is above treeline.
In Colorado Springs, the Haddocks own Synergy Physical Therapy and are well known in the outdoor community. Their backpacking trip began on July 21, 2015. Training for the tough miles started in January. With loaded packs slung across their backs, they'd hike nearly every day after work. On the trip, Kelly's heaviest pack weighed about 32 pounds, but on most days she carried about 22 pounds. Kevin's pack averaged 35.
"The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness," Muir wrote. And the landscape along the Muir Trail did often resemble another planet, with new and beautiful views revealed with each twist in the path. The area attracted photographer Ansel Adams, who captured many of his iconic black-and-white images there. The trail passes through the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
"The meadows and the wildflowers... you can't be in a bad mood on the Muir Trail," Kelly said. "And the people you meet, they made it special."
Kevin said hiking and backpacking is the best way to experience the mountains.
"It goes by nice and slow," he says. "We're hiking at a quick pace, but you have time to look around. And there is so much to see. Some of these places, there is a waterfall to your right that is just the most splendid thing you've seen since yesterday's waterfall, which was the most splendid thing you had seen. And then she'd say, look over there, and it was like, holy cow, I would have missed that waterfall while I'm looking at this one."
They spent 18 nights in the tent, and were invited by new friends on the trail to share a cabin one night at Muir Trail Ranch. They finished the adventure in 20 days.
Kelly cooked and dehydrated all their food, working for weeks in advance to complete their vegetarian menu. Dehydrated food allowed them to carry more meals, though they picked up supplies — including a bottle of wine — at two stops along the way, Muir Trail Ranch and Tuolumne, which includes little more than a post office.
With the purchase of new gear and an expensive dehydrator, the trip cost about $4,000, but they agreed that two people could do it for $2,000 or less.
Though they hiked at the peak of summer, nights were chilly. Kevin slept in a sleeping bag rated for 40 degrees and said he "spent several nights shivering."
The trail can produce pesky swarms of mosquitos, but the Haddocks didn't have a problem. "I don't think we even saw a bug," Kevin says.
As the miles rolled by, they found the escape they initially desired.
"I feel like we get along better on the trail," Kelly says. "We're in our element. Out in nature, I'm at my best. I feel like we become one. He gets up and starts cooking breakfast and I start breaking down the tent. No communication is needed, we just know what needs to be done."
At picturesque Palisade Lake, Kevin surprised Kelly with a necklace of purple tanzanite stones, more rare than diamonds.
"I just wanted her to be able to wear the necklace and remember how beautiful it was there," he says.
The trail officially ends at the summit of Mount Whitney, 14,505 feet, the highest summit in the lower 48 states. It was there that Kevin pulled out the matching tanzanite earrings. (Well played, Brother!)
But the Muir left a deeper impact. Their search will continue in 2018, when the Haddocks plan to sell their home and embark on a five-month backpacking trip on the 2,658-mile Pacific Crest Trail.