In the great outdoors, Dr. Jared Champion found a hobby for which he hungers, a community of support, and the love of his life.
An assistant professor of writing and interdisciplinary studies in Mercer University’s College of Professional Advancement, he enjoys spending his summer and sometimes winter breaks backpacking and visiting U.S. national parks. As of this summer, he had logged nearly 4,000 miles on foot and been to 51 of the 63 national parks.
“The experience of hiking a trail is never the same,” he said. “On the Colorado Trail, I’ve done 1,800-2,200 miles of hiking, and it still feels brand new to me because the weather changes or you hike it at a different time of day. There’s something about the novelty that I just love.”
A hobby is born
Dr. Champion’s enthusiasm for the outdoors was sparked about a decade ago when he was in graduate school at Boston University. Working in residence life, he had to move out of campus housing during the summer. So he bought a motorcycle and spent about four weeks and 10,000 miles driving to 10 national parks. The next summer, he was gone for about three months and visited even more sites.
But traveling by motorcycle limited Dr. Champion, since he couldn’t leave his vehicle to hike, and he started feeling a pull toward the “more backcountry stuff.” By the next summer, he had bought a small car and began doing short and then longer backpacking trips.
“It’s a hobby that doesn’t come easily to a lot of people,” he said. “There are so many things that people are worried about or there are physical limitations. I’m no athlete. It didn’t come naturally to me. But that’s where it really started. I fell in love with it, and there’s sort of a hunger that grows every year.”
Dr. Champion now focuses mainly on long-distance trails, also known as “long trail.” Some of the most notable ones he’s hiked are the Colorado Trail; the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California; the Collegiate Loop in Colorado; the Rae Lakes Loop in Kings Canyon National Park, California; and the Dodson Loop in Big Bend National Park, Texas.
In the future, Dr. Champion plans to tackle the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail — also known as the Triple Crown of hiking — Superior Trail in Minnesota, Long Trail in Vermont, and Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.
In addition, he has been to all 50 states, 48 national parks in the contiguous states, Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and Hawaii’s two national parks. He hopes to later cross two newly designated national parks, New River Gorge in West Virginia and White Sands in New Mexico, and the remaining Alaska parks off his list.
Dr. Champion was backpacking on the John Muir Trail when he received his job offer from Mercer about five years ago. He said he tried to call his department chair from the top of Mount Whitney to accept the faculty position but didn’t have enough battery power. So, he had to delay his acceptance until he reached the town of Mammoth Lakes a week later.
As a new Mercer professor, his first research project took him to Yosemite National Park. He found an unpublished autobiography manuscript in the Yosemite archives by Laura White Brunner, chronicling the two summers she spent hiking in Yosemite Valley.
In 1917, Brunner became the second woman to climb the park’s challenging Half Dome rock formation, a feat she accomplished as a teenager, with her skirt pinned up since she wasn’t allowed to wear pants and barefoot since hiking boots weren’t made for women. Safety railings were installed on Half Dome as a result of her climbing it. “The Cables on Half Dome” hike, as it’s now known, is on the bucket list of many hikers.
Brunner tried for 30 years to publish her memoir with no luck, and then her daughter Alma tried for 25 years. It was eventually passed on to the National Park Service, where it sat dormant in the archives.
Dr. Champion and the University of Kansas Press ushered the manuscript through the proper channels, and The Cliffs and Challenges: A Young Woman Explores Yosemite was published in 2019. Dr. Champion provided editing, contextualization and the introduction for the book. Brunner’s family was pleased with the book and how it portrayed her, he said.
“Her story is really interesting,” he said. “I study gender and the environment, gender in pop culture. That was a driving force for me to get there. It’s a terrific read. She was a professional writer. It’s a shame it wasn’t published in her lifetime.”
A creative outlet
Diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in graduate school, Dr. Champion’s outdoor adventures have become a way for him to recharge and reduce stimulation.
“When you’re hiking, you can see all the tasks ahead of you. It really is healing for me after a whole school year of trying to keep everything going in the right direction,” he said. “But it’s also great because it’s leveling. The beauty is second to none. But the emotion you feel is not as powerful — it’s kind of like an IV drip instead of a direct infusion. It really helps me resettle my brain.”
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Champion began a YouTube channel as a creative outlet to help fill his needs as an extrovert as well as for his mental health, since backpacking often means a lot of time alone.
His channel, called “Outside Comfort Zone,” now has nearly 100 videos and 1,200 subscribers. The videos merge Dr. Champion’s love of teaching with his love of the outdoors. He covers helpful tips, profiles his experiences on particular trails, and interviews other hikers during live streams.
“I started making these videos that were very much practical but meant to make people more relaxed,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that people who were new to the hobby felt comfortable and confident. There are a lot of unfounded worries that hikers have.”
For instance, one video focuses on best practices for restocking supplies and another describes how to handle a portion of a trail that has no shade or water due to a forest fire in the 1990s.
Snacks and dad jokes
Viewers can also expect plenty of “dad jokes” thrown into the YouTube videos created by Dr. Champion, whose love of snacks earned him the nickname “Snack Box” from the hiking community.
He explained that when people are on a trail long enough, they eventually are given a “trail name” that’s indicative of their personality or habits. That community is one of the things that Dr. Champion loves most about this hobby. It’s a group of people bonded by a shared passion, and everyone is quick to offer support as well as friendship.
“I’ve never set foot on a trail and left without making a lifelong friend. I have friends that I keep in touch with once a week, and I think I met them for an hour six years ago on a trail,” he said.
The hiking community also led Dr. Champion to his future wife, Patti, whose organization and planning skills earned her the trail name “Details.” She has her own YouTube channel called “GIRL plus DOG Adventures.” The pair connected online in 2021 and eventually met in Denver, where she lived at the time, and they hiked portions of the Colorado Trail together.
“I was in love right away. We started talking in late April/early May (of 2021) and by Oct. 30, we were married. On Oct. 19, we had our first son, named August,” Dr. Champion said. “We both met hiking on this trail and through those YouTube channels. The whole thing has been a wild ride that I didn’t know could be this good.”
Feature photo: Jared and Patti Champion are pictured at the base of Lake Ann Pass at mile 203 of the Colorado Trail on the Collegiate West route. Photo courtesy Jared Champion
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