When 15-year-old Neva “Chipmunk” Warren finished the Appalachian Trail on October 22, 2013, she became the Youngest A.T. Thru-Hiker ever. Six months and 22 days earlier, she had begun in Springer Mountain, Ga., at only 14 years old. Thru-hikers often cite a significant growth in personal development as one of the main changes they experience. During her hike, Neva did turn a year older and gained wisdom well beyond her years, but she still remains a kid at heart. Photographs from her journey depict a bright-eyed girl smiling wide between a set of rounded cheeks (for which she received her trail name), proudly sporting a keychain of her favorite One Direction band member, Niall Horan, on her hip belt.
Some have asked, “What the heck were her parents thinking?” Neva is the youngest in her family, and her parents have adventurous tastes. In 2011, the trio set off on their bikes for a 3,842-mile tour around the eastern United States.
“My parents are awesome,” Neva says. “They were very supportive when I said I wanted to do the Appalachian Trail.”
Prior to Neva’s trip, she had had no hiking experience. The idea came to her in the fall of 2012 during a three-mile hike in Shenandoah National Park.
“It was raining and cold,” she says, “pretty miserable conditions for a first hike, but I found that I was pretty good at it. I knew that I was coming into an entirely different part of my life where I’d have to start thinking about college and a job and a car. I needed some time to think about it all and I figured there was no better time for that than while doing 12 to 14 hours of physical labor a day.”
Neva began training for her trip, hiking regularly on the Suncoast Trail in her home state of Florida. Although she eventually grew strong enough to hike more than 12 miles in a day on the Suncoast Trail, she assumed the Appalachian Trail would be just as flat.
“As I was climbing Springer Mountain on day one, I realized that there were roots and rocks and difficult things that make it so much more than a dirt path,” she says. “It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, and I was a bit scared.”
Because Neva is homeschooled, her parents were able to work around their personal schedules to ensure that she not only kept up with her schooling, but that she would also have the necessary support to be successful on her hike. While Neva was on the trail, her parents drove to road crossings with a camper. They cooked dinners, updated friends and family on a blog, and offered support whenever Neva would come in for the night. She seldom camped in the woods, and when she did she was rarely alone. In fact, the first night she spent in the woods by herself would not come until she was in Maine.
“The toughest mile on the A.T. is called the Notch,” she says. “It took me two hours and 15 minutes to go through the jumble of boulders, and at the end of the Notch there was a campsite. I didn’t think about being scared. I just thought, ‘I really hope I don’t have to do that again tomorrow.’”
Neva will be the first to admit that she encountered a number of challenges during those nearly seven months on the trail. From physical ailments like blisters and rolled ankles to the mental battle against the “Virginia Blues,” Neva says that after partnering with Hike for Mental Health, she was really able to put her experience into perspective.
“The organization’s goal is to eliminate the stigma of mental health,” she says. “I’ve had some problems with depression in the past, so it felt really good to be able to raise money for them.”
Due to impending bad weather and the closure of Mt. Katahdin’s summit, Neva caught a ride with her family to Baxter State Park so she could reach the northern terminus before the end of the season. She returned to her stopping point and finished the remaining 100 miles in under a week.
“One of the most important things I learned was that tackling something huge doesn’t have to be tackling something huge,” she says. “You can’t think about hiking 2000-some miles. You just have to go day by day. I think that’s going to help me later in life when I’m trying to get through college.”
Neva says that life post thru-hike has been equally demanding. She’s been staying busy with her schoolwork and plans for the future. She says those months spent hiking and pondering about life in the woods led her to consider creative writing—and even hairstyling—as options for her collegiate studies. In addition to furthering her education, Neva says her thirst for adventure is not quite satisfied.
“In my lifetime, I’d like to do 12 Herculean tasks,” she says. “I really don’t know what’s next but I know it’s going to be great.”