Eric and KristinaKristina Dean was 31, with a good job and a mortgage. But she gave it all up to fulfill a dream: thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“I knew that once I traveled on foot for seven months that I could go anywhere and do anything,” she said.

Dean started backpacking in 2001, as therapy. Only 25, the Seymour, Tennessee native was divorced and coming off a bad rebound relationship. Her job as a technical writer was stable but flavorless. Then one weekend, she dragged her dad up Tennessee’s Gregory Bald to watch the Leonid meteor shower.

“The next morning, I made a pact with myself to do every trail in the Great Smokies National Park,” Dean recalls.

As she hiked the Smokies, Dean criss-crossed the A.T. “Every time I got to the ridge, huffing and puffing, I would look to the left or right and think: Maine? Georgia?”

But the thought of doing a thru-hike on the A.T. was still an impossible dream. Elbow-deep in bills, she couldn’t afford the time off. Then her brother and sister-in-law helped her develop a financial plan which would enable her quit her job in two years.

“I dreamed about the A.T. in my cubicle, and I backpacked every weekend and vacation I could muster,” says Dean.

Just before her hike, Dean visited Serenity Shelter, a program in Knoxville, Tennessee, for single women who suffer from drug addiction and domestic violence. She felt a connection to the women at Serenity. Like them, she had made bad choices, just different ones. Dean decided to publicize her A.T. thru-hike as a charity walk, and she ended up raising $5,000 for the shelter.

In May 2007, Dean finally quit her job. Some girlfriends drove her to Maine, taking her picture on a foggy day atop Mount Katahdin. Then she started southbound, alone.

“Backpacking is like a time machine,” says Dean. “I was drinking out of creeks and cooking dinners surrounded by trees. Now when I come home and turn on the faucet, it makes me so much more thankful and grateful.”

Along the way, Dean caught the attention of Eric Toombs, another southbound thru-hiker. They met in the Shenandoah Mountains of Virginia, “and by the time we got to Tennessee, we were smitten.”

Dean had been struggling with the loneliness of long-distance hiking just a few days before meeting Toombs. Meeting Toombs answered her prayers. It also proved she could go it alone, but didn’t have to.

“Sharing time with Eric made the experience so much more meaningful,” says Dean.

One year after they completed their thru-hike, Dean and Toombs were married.

The most important lesson Dean took from her journey is to just let things be: “There’s not much you can control on the trail. Weather, climate, heat—there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re low on food and you’re out in the woods, you gotta ration. There are so many times I’d get stressed out and try to control, but then I’d realize that I couldn’t control anything—except my own reactions.”

There’s nothing she would do differently, either. Otherwise, she says, she’s afraid that she might not make the same mistakes.