Beauty Beneath the DirtIf you’ve ever thought about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, say I.
“I!!!!”
As part of OMM’s Sit Down Series, featuring interviews with “ordinary” folks that pursue the extraordinary outdoors, I’d like you to meet Kate Imp. Her pack of 3 set out to not just hike the length of the AT trail, but to also film their experience, and create a documentary about it. What I love most about their story is they aren’t seasoned hikers that grew up in Boulder, Colorado, nor are they professional filmakers with a degree from NYU. They’re just three people who wanted to do something BIG, and CRAZY, and MEMORABLE.

The documentary they created, Beauty Beneath the Dirt, is raw, honest, and packed with emotion. It’s what every adventure should be – a rollercoaster. There’s tears, laughter, fighting, love, challenge, disappointment, anticipation, frustration, peace, beautiful views, and silent moments packed with meaning. And more than anything, their film and Kate’s answers in this interview, show us that the moments in our lives that test us, that force us to embrace the present moment and confront difficult situations, and that are an absolute circus, also show us who we truly are and all that we’re truly capable of. 

Without further ado, meet Kate Imp of Beauty Beneath the Dirt. – Lauren 

1. While physically completing the AT is an incredible challenge, preparing for it can be just as tough. What did you guys do to prepare for it mentally and physically?

Hitchhiking the AT TrailPhysically, err, nothing. Ha. I had every intention of exercising before the hike, but I instead put all of my waking hours into the Illinois bar exam. I believe Brandon spent some time on an exercise bike before the trip, and Emily is a serious biker and longboarder so she also had some strength before the trip began. You don’t need to be in shape, you just have to pace yourself during that first month until your ‘hiker legs’ take form.

Mentally, I had been preparing for years. I knew that I wanted to make a film, so during pre-production I watched every documentary I could get my hands on. I also read books to get a sense of what stories had already been told so I didn’t repeat history. We also created a blog and picked up a number of food and outdoor clothing sponsors before the hike. I think it was these kinds of preparations that separated us from the hikers that dropped out early.

2. Being on camera and putting together a film is not something that most people do while doing a thru-hike. What was it like?

dinner on the AT Trail
Terrible, exhausting, ostracizing. Hilarious, exciting, meaningful. There are two sides to every coin and we experienced both. The great part about filming our experience is that it gave us something to do besides hike. There are a number of times I recall turning on the camera to capture a beautiful view, and then Brandon, Emily, and I would jump in front of the camera and just … dance. Or play house. The bus scene in the film is, by far, my favorite memory and favorite footage, and there’s no way we would have done what we did without the camera rolling.

On the other hand, the camera created a HUGE stress that no other hiker had. We had 80 hours of footage. 80 hours. And that is just the time that the camera was rolling. A simple 2-second hiking shot would take, at a minimum, 45 minutes when you account for pulling the camera out, setting up the tripod, white-balancing, checking sound, getting all of us in frame, and pressing record. It was exhausting.

The camera also added an odd and unexpected social dynamic that I definitely had not anticipated. Essentially the camera became a fourth (and eventually fifth) member of the Traveling Circus. We’d confess all of our true feelings to the camera, than turn it off, return to the rest of the group, and talk about food and miles. It kept the peace at camp, but covered the cracks with band-aids…

3. While the ‘Traveling Circus’ name is pretty self-explanatory, where did your other trail names originate? 

Thru Hiking the AT Trail TeamThe name ‘Traveling Circus’ originated from a criticism we received on the Internet. Someone said, and I quote, “Documentaries, schedules, bios, blogs? Is this a thru hike or a traveling circus? … I think this little party will dissolve after a few days on the trail.” Haha, you can’t take the Haters seriously in this business if you want to survive, so I took that attack and changed it into a trail name. Our individual names, Ringleader, Monkey, & Lightning, are derived from some quirk or personality trait. I was in charge, Brandon was the comedian, and Emily was fast as lightning.

4. After about a month on the trail you guys had your first real differences. Is this something you were anticipating before the trip began? 

DifferencesWhen you spend a lot of time with people, in a foreign environment, deprived of modern conveniences, problems will ensue. That is the basic formula for every reality show ever created. I knew this would happen, but I also knew that hiking in a group with Brandon and Emily would be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. So, to keep us from having a Jersey Shore situation, I tried to keep things as even as possible– sleeping, town time, social time, food. There are so few rewards on this hike that it’s very easy for jealousy to ensue if one person gets more “play” time than another. This, of course, was impossible when we all hiked at different paces and wanted different things out of the trip. And those differences began to seriously wear on us as the hike went on.

5. Before the halfway point you started hiking with Brandon much more. What do you think was the cause of that and how did that change the trip from that point on?

Hitchhiking the At TrailThere are a number of things you expect to feel when you thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, but abandonment is not one of them. It was a feeling that we all experienced at some point during the trip, but I was the first. At the beginning of the trip, I hiked alone, last, every day. And every time I’d stop to film, I’d fall farther and farther behind. And it gave me a sense of abandonment, which is a deeper pain than loneliness, especially with that abandoment comes from the people you love. Neither of them intended to make me feel this way, but it became clear as the trip went on that we’d have to change that 1-2-3 hiking dynamic so that no single person would ever have to bear the weight of being last 100% of the time.

When Brandon started to hike with me, the dynamics of the trip changed forever. He changed his hiking pattern mostly because I wanted to film during the day, and when there was something to capture, neither of them were around to be in it. But having him around made me SIGNIFICANTLY happier, even if we didn’t speak during that time. It seemed that we had found the best of both worlds– Emily could do her thing and speed ahead, Brandon and I could spend some time getting footage, and no one would have to hike last.

After awhile it became clear that this dynamic also didn’t work, so we began spending every waking moment together. This led to some of our happiest moments on the trail, but that blissful equilibrium was again disrupted when, as seen in the film, a fourth person joined the Traveling Circus.

6. You met quite a few people while on the trail–some gave you ice cream and some certinly added to conflict within the group. What ‘stranger’ will you remember most that you spent time with throughout your hike? 

My favorite ‘stranger’ was a curmudgeon, old man named Bill. We stayed at the ‘Mayor’s House’ in Unionville, NY and he was the cook. He liked to appear grumpy and mean, but he secretly loved spending time with hikers. After I gained his respect by taking a shot of whisky, he talked to me about life. He said, “Zelda (he didn’t feel like learning my real name), make a good picture.” And I said, “Bill, I’ll do my best.” We actually made a special stop in Unionville, NY on our G2M Tour last summer and donated all of the proceeds to the town. Bill loved the film.

7. After going home for your graduation ceremony you seemed to take on a different outlook of the trip. What did you see that weekend that changed your perspective? Did you have any doubts about completing the trip while you were home?

On the AT TrailI never had any doubt that I would complete my thru-hike; the only question was whether I’d enjoy it while it was happening. Ironically, we left ‘the real world’ to get away from ‘real world problems,’ but real world issues followed us to the trail. We never had any problems surviving in the wilderness; that was the easy part for us. The hard part was balancing the needs and wants of three different people … that had completely different needs and wants at any given time, AND trying to stabilize that dynamic, while hiking 20 mi/day, and making a professional-looking film … without a cameraman. Those factors are what nearly destroyed my soul. I knew that Brandon and Emily loved me, but I didn’t really feel like I had anyone on my side. It was like an unspoken truth at camp. And I began to doubt my decision to make this film and hike the trail in a group. At graduation, my friends reminded me why I loved Emily and Brandon so much, and why they were perfect people to experience this adventure with. They also reminded me why I set out to make this film, and that no matter how it turned out, my goal of inspiring people would one day come to fruition. And most importantly, they reminded me that I have people at home that love me just as I am. And that love and support from back home was all I needed to, not only get the job done, but also enjoy the rest of my trip.

8. Obviously the physical demand of thru-hiking the AT is an entire challenge in itself, but the mental and emotional challenges bring in an entire different aspect. What part did you find most challenging?

Hike ChallengesThe AT is physically demanding only because of its longevity. I remember my cross country coach telling me, back in the day, that long-distance running was only 20% physical and 80% mental. The same holds true for this trail. Anyone can hike it, some easier than others, but you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete … or an athlete at all. You just have to listen to your body and put one foot in front of the other. I found the lack of new inputs to be the most challenging part of the hike, particularly in the beginning. My brain was so used to working at high speeds it didn’t know what to do when the only input was trees. My brain was like a radio tuner on the highway, trying to find a station but unable to find anything to latch on to. The only thing left was emotions, which became excentuated because, aside from being physically exhausted, we had nothing else to think about. About 2 months into the trip, I began to have more control over my thoughts, and I found a sense of calmness and peace that I’d never felt before. After awhile, there wasn’t a single thought that went through my head over the course of a 12-hour day.

9. When you began your trip, did you see yourself finishing the way it did?

Kate with cameraI knew that I would finish this hike, even if I had to crawl up Mt. Katahdin, but I didn’t know who would be standing at the top with me. Emily, Brandon, and I are very different, but one thing we all have in common is a love of adventure and a desire to break stereotypes. There were a number of people on the Internet, placing bets on which one of us would quit first, and whether we’d make it to Katahdin together. Haters would attack us anonymously, and fans would send us food. It was like Hunger Games without death, ha, but for competitive people like us, it only fueled the fire. I’ll say this, I think the trip ended in the only way it could … and despite our ups and downs, I wouldn’t change a thing.

10. You and your brother Brandon became very close throughout your trip. What do you see in him now because of your experience that you didn’t know before?

Thru Hike Team
I see love. And compassion. My brother and I have always gotten along, but we were never close. And before this trip, I hadn’t see him in 2 1/2 years. I think we both had a little of the ‘I don’t hang out with people like that’ syndrome. We knew that we both enjoyed (1) travel, (2) adventure, and (3) Survivor, but we didn’t see eye-to-eye on anything else. I think our lack of connection hurt us during the first half of the trip, but the events of the second half provided a catalyst for change. As the days went on, the bond became solidified, and now we talk every day. I see what an amazing man he is, I’m so proud of him, and I can’t wait to share more memories together.

11. Is the film available to watch somewhere? What are you up to these days?

Yes. In 2012 we launched two film tours, the Georgia-to-Maine (G2M) Tour and a University Tour. These tours brought the film to theaters, community centers, and colleges/universities near the trail. Though we have booked a few screenings/appearances for 2013, our next step is really promoting our digital distribution outlets. To learn more about our trip, or to actually watch the film, check out our website at http://beautybeneaththedirt.com.

Appalachian Trail

About The Author

Lauren Rains is the editor at large of Outdoor Minded Mag. She is struck by wanderlust, and spends most waking hours of her life either exploring the outdoors around the globe or working on various passion projects be it film to microadventures to cooking chili. You can read about her adventures in life, biz and travel on her blog TheMadToLive.com, and catch up with her on Twitter at @LaurRAINS.