Neva Warren plans to complete 12 Herculean tasks in her lifetime. And at age 15, she is already on to her second epic challenge: to become the youngest solo thru-hiker to complete the Appalachian Trail.
Starting at the trail’s southern end in Georgia on April 1, Neva followed the white-blazed trail north — through Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Now, all that stands between the young hiker and the trail’s end is miles and miles of Maine wilderness.
“[The AT] shows you what your body can do,” Neva said on Oct. 3, while taking a break from trail at the Lakeshore House, a hiker-friendly lodge and restaurant in Monson. “It’s not often when your body is pushed to the absolute limit, where you just feel you can’t take another step, you’re completely exhausted and then still doing 6 more miles. It feels really good and very powerful. I mean, you’re not enjoying it as you’re going through it, but afterward it’s like, thank god it’s over. Good job. I did it. It makes you feel a lot of pride.”
On the trail, Neva is known as “Chipmunk,” a trail name given to her by a fellow thru-hiker in reference to her “chubby cheeks,” she said.
“I expected to run into a lot of issues [on the AT] because you come onto the trail, and it’s a bunch of big bearded men who look pretty scary,” said the 5-foot-2 teen, her blond hair fastened in a braid. “But they’re honestly some of the nicest, most generous, kind people I’ve ever met in my entire life. It’s just really taught me that you can’t really judge people by their appearances.”
Nevertheless, as a teenage girl traveling through the woods alone, she takes precautions.
Though her parents never hike with her, they follow her with the family camper, the “Chip Mobile,” which is decorated by the trail names of hikers Neva has met on her journey. Using a Spot GPS Tracker, Neva can communicate her progress to a website watched by her parents, who are on standby for emergencies.
“And I have Mace, obviously, and have become very good at hitting things with my poles,” Neva said with a burst of laughter.
“It’s hard to let your daughter go out on the trail for months,” said Neva’s mother Tammy, who’s known for using the gift of crispy treats to bribe thru-hikers to keep an eye on her daughter on the trail.
Most nights, Neva has been able to hike to a road crossing before dark, so she sleeps in the camper with her parents and her dog Coco (known to thru-hikers as Mama Chip, Papa Chip and Chocolate Chip). But there have been at least 20 times during the long journey when she has had to stay in AT shelters with the rest of the hikers.
No matter where she ends up at night, she always carries a full backpack, with food and shelter for a few days. She doesn’t want anyone arguing that she isn’t a true AT thru-hiker, she said.
Born in New Jersey and homeschooled since first grade, Neva hasn’t had the typical upbringing. At the age of 4, she convinced her parents to buy her a BMX bike after seeing races on television. She was soon competing at the national level, traveling in an RV with her parents to races throughout the country.
She celebrated her 13th birthday while riding 3,842 miles on the east coast with her mother and father to promote BMX racing — a trip that Neva considers to be her first Herculean task.
“All three of my children, three different personalities, and when they come to me at that time of their lives when nothing seems impossible, I want them to know that nothing is impossible,” said Tammy Warren. “So when they come to me and they have an idea, we figure out a way.”
That’s how it went when Neva, after hiking a 3-mile loop in Shenandoah last October, decided she wanted to become the youngest solo AT thru-hiker. Her parents supported her without pause. After all, time was of the essence.
“BMX racing is a quarter mile going as fast as you can. Hiking the AT is 2,000 miles trying to eat as much as you can,” she said, smiling. “But both can give you a lot of adrenaline.”
Neva doubled up on her studies and hit the trail by April 1. She was hiking through Virginia by her 15th birthday in June, and she stopped for a few days to celebrate — paint her nails, shop for dresses, that sort of thing.
“People don’t realize how important nail polish is on the AT,” said Neva. In Monson, her fingernails were painted neon orange, pink and green; and a keychain of the boy band One Direction dangled from her heavy Osprey pack, along with Crocs for fording Maine’s many streams and rivers.
“I don’t think a lot people realize I’m an average teenage girl. Like I have to be superhuman or something. So I’m an average teenage girl and I’m hiking the AT,” said Neva, with a tone that carried the unspoken challenge, “What of it?”
“People will say, ‘Oh she’s a tomboy,’” said her dad Jay Warren. “And we were like, ‘No. She loves dresses. She sews her own dresses. She loves her makeup. She loves her nail polish. She likes to cook. But she also likes to hike. She likes to bike. She likes to rock climb.’”
In Monson, Neva planned to enjoy one final taste of civilization (including ice cream) before heading into Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness, the longest stretch of the AT without major road crossings.
“I think a lot of the time, when you don’t do big adventures like this and you don’t spend a lot of time alone — when you’re sort of on your phone or talking with friends — you don’t really learn how to entertain yourself,” Neva said.
“When you’re alone for 12 hours and have nothing to do but walk,” she said, pausing mid-sentence. “I’ve learned a lot about keeping myself from getting bored without the help of electronics.”
Chipmunk is known for singing while she hikes — Green Day, Lana del Rey, the “Friends” theme song, anything that comes to mind. She also dreams up plans for the future, which includes writing fan fiction and attending beauty school.
After six months of hiking, with 215 miles left of the trail, Neva’s spirits are high, but that doesn’t mean her trek has been without hardships and challenges.
On her first day on the AT, she twisted her left ankle; on the second day, she twisted her right ankle; and on the third day, she bought a new pair of boots — Vasque Breeze 2.0s — which have kept her upright for the remainder of the trail. She’s now an official ambassador for Vasque.
Like many AT thru-hikers this year, Neva fell victim to the norovirus. And in “Rocksylvania,” her upbeat attitude started to wane.
“I started feeling really bummed about my hike there,” she said. “But I just pushed through it.”
Experiencing the mental and emotional challenges many thru-hikers face, she began raising funds for HIKE for Mental Health.
Some of the challenges she faced had to do with her age, she admitted.
“I don’t really get taken seriously a lot of the time,” she said. “When you’re adult, you sort of take it for granted that people will take you seriously and not really laugh in your face when you say you’re hiking the AT. So I’ve had some challenges socially like that.”
Nevertheless, she’s earned respect and friendship from many fellow hikers as she’s pushed northward.
“I came out on the trail and it was completely different from what I expected, but it was still an amazing experience and probably even better than I could have imagined,” she said. “It’s been really, really enjoyable.”
The 100-Mile Wilderness will bring her to Baxter State Park and the trail’s northern terminus at the top of Katahdin. But that wouldn’t be the end for her. Neva skipped a section of the trail in Maine to reach the park before it closes on Oct. 15. Therefore, she’ll have to backtrack and finish the section she missed, and only then will she become the youngest solo thru-hiker to complete the 2,180-mile AT.
After that, her family will return to Florida to start planning and saving for their next adventure, or in Neva’s case, her third Herculean task.
Follow Neva’s AT journey on Warren family website at ridethenation.org.