A big, laughter-loving Australian of 6 foot 3 inches, working as a telephone company draftsman by day, Paul Evans preferred to spend his downtime either leading a troop of Boy Scouts or exploring the outback. More than anything else, he delighted in nature. In fact, when his bride-to-be, M’Lynn Markel, left California in 1998, one of the first things the newlyweds did together was go camping. The decision was fortuitous: The couple fell in love with being outside together, and made a pact to hit the trail whenever possible.
For about six years, Paul and M’Lynn spent the bulk of their weekends and vacations outdoors and, preferably, in the wilderness. Life was good. They were wildly happy. Then, like a freight-train, came the problems.
First, Paul’s mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. With his father suffering from Alzheimer’s, 42-year-old Paul took on the role of caretaker. Four years later, his mother passed. Meanwhile, his father’s condition continued to worsen. The gaps between hiking trips grew and grew.
In the interim, Paul’s health deteriorated. By the end of 2014, he’d suffered a series of heart attacks. The damage was so extensive, a walk down the block demanded numerous breaks. Hiking became out of the question.
However, even as his body failed him, Paul began to pack for a trip he’d dreamed of completing but never gotten around to—a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Listening to the Dirtbag Diaries podcast series, he was thrilled with its tales of gritty thru-hikers weathering the elements and overcoming mental and physical obstacles to achieve their dream of finishing the trail. Inspired, he ordered guidebooks. Plotted routes. Packed his backpack. Organized gear. And, lastly, placed his hiking boots beside the door.
Only, on July 23 of 2015, just two weeks before his 53rd birthday, Paul passed away.
Shattered by the unexpected loss, raw with grief, M’Lynn wrote a letter to the producers of podcast, asking if they could help get her late-husband’s boots onto the A.T. The company said yes, and, after partnering with REI, did just that.
From March to late-September of 2016, a group of 28 hikers banded together to carry three separate pairs of ‘Paul’s Boots’ along the entire length of the Appalachian Trail—over 6,600 miles, collectively. Known as Paul’s Protectors, participants ranged from age eight to 70, from newbies to last-shot veterans. Along the way, they recorded their experiences with GoPro cameras, posting reflections and photos to social media so that M’Lynn could follow along from home.
What was it about the Paul’s Boots project that appealed to you and made you want to participate?
Bonnie Elozory, age 50
Protector through Shenandoah National Park
I’d dreamed of thru-hiking the A.T. all my life. When I turned 50, it hit me that I’d better do it now, because this old body was never going to be any more able than it was today. Knowing Paul missed his opportunity just slayed me. I was overcome with sadness. When I heard Paul’s story, I knew that if my daughters and I carried his boots, the act could give M’Lynn and his family the same kind of healing being on the trail gave us.
Matt Maszczakl, age 40, REI employee
Protector from Sage’s Ravine in Massachusetts to New York
When I heard Paul’s story, I could imagine myself in his boots. I turned 40 this year. I’m out of shape, and I’m always too busy to do what I really love. But I dream about it a lot. I make big plans, but don’t always follow through. I felt like I got Paul. I had to do this because, if I didn’t, nothing amazing would happen. If you want amazing, you gotta get off your ass and go get it. This was my chance to do that.
What was it like actually carrying the boots?
Alex Newlon, age 28
An epileptic Thru-Hiking with Paul’s Boots
The boots are heavy—I mean, they’re a size 13! With no way for me to wear them along the trail, I hung them on the side of my pack. However, I did put them on and walk around in them when I was in town taking a zero day… And when I was on the trail, I thought about Paul all the time. I’d ask him what he’d like to do, what he’d liked to eat, or even which campsite he preferred. In that way, carrying the boots was like having a guardian angel, or a really great friend along for the ride.
Brittany Leavitt, Smithsonian educator
Protector from Ashby Gap, VA. to Harper’s Ferry, W.VA.
I was honored to be able to help someone accomplish a dream. Meanwhile, in doing so, the experience taught me what true love is really about. M’Lynn wanted to make sure Paul’s dream came true. It was amazing to see how many people came together from all over to make sure his boots made the full thru-hike. It just goes to show you how amazing the outdoor community truly is.
Tricia Nesser, age 51, Physician’s Assistant
Protector through the Presidential Peaks in the White Mountains
To be honest, I’m extremely scared of heights. Like, crazy scared. So whenever I was crossing water on planks, or climbing up and down ladders, I’d ask Paul to give me strength. Every time I asked, I’d feel this surge of courage, I’d keep going. Similarly, when the weather report was bad, or there was rain, it didn’t faze me—I knew Paul was watching over and protecting me. His presence was very tangible, very real. I knew he wanted me to succeed.
Describe your best experience on the trail with Paul’s Boots?
Newlon: Cowboy-camping on top of South Kinsman Mountain in New Hampshire, I had the opportunity to show Paul the Milky Way Galaxy. I’m not sure if he’d ever seen it before, but I know we had a great time together on top of that mountain. All alone in the middle of nowhere, staring up at the stars all night—it was the type of experience that can change you forever.
Maszczak: My biggest revelation came on day three. I was exhausted, broken, empty—I had a moment where I just wanted to quit. Then, suddenly, the trail opened up, and the sun came out, and that special kind of natural magic that only a hiker knows, began to buzz all around me. That’s when I thanked Paul and M’Lynn for kicking me out the door. I knew I was right where I was supposed to be.
Elozory: One day, we met a group of 10th graders out on a four-day hike. They were complaining about the hardships of hiking. The kids couldn’t believe that my daughters were hiking to honor a request from “some dude’s family [they] didn’t even know.” I told them that whatever dreams they have, they shouldn’t let them slip away. That time passes quickly. When we got home, I received a beautiful letter from those kids telling us the meeting had changed the whole feeling of the trip. The kids started to accept the conditions and find the beauty in what they were doing. Paul’s dream was fulfilled in an unexpectedly different way.
Your worst experience?
Newlon: There was one rough day along the trail when I was climbing up a mountain, beaten-down, just staring at my feet. Then Paul’s boots kicked me in my left arm. I looked up and saw a deer standing in the middle of the trail just staring at me. It was as if Paul was trying to show me something. He was telling me to pay more attention to the beauty of the world around me.
Elozory: Near the end of our hike, the shelters and surrounding areas were too crowded to comfortably camp. Eventually, we decided we’d just hike out to Rockfish Gap. With the darkness and our tired legs, the hike seemed to go on and on. We ended up walking about 30 miles in total. At one point, exhausted and hungry, my daughter began to cry. She was totally spent. I was singing songs and telling stories in an attempt to cheer her up. She asked how I could continue to be so cheerful, and I told her it was because I was so happy to be alive, to be here with her and to be carrying Paul’s boots.
What did you take away from the experience?
Maszczak: When I signed up, I thought this would be a great way to honor someone. Now, I realize that it was so much more. The A.T. is like nowhere else in the world. It’s the only place I’ve ever been where I instantly felt like I belonged. When people heard what I was doing, they smiled and nodded. They weren’t surprised. It made sense. You know, the thing about this life, the normal one we all succumb to, it hardly ever makes any sense. But life on the trail? That life has meaning and honor, and it just makes sense in every single moment. And I learned that because of Paul.