Into the woods

The path Jackson Parell '18 took to self-discovery.

Adam Loyd
July 26, 2022

Jackson Parell '18 and Stanford classmate Sammy Potter hiked roughly 8,000 miles of trail across 22 states in one calendar year.

The fanfare along the roadside near Etna Summit, in Northern California, was minimal. No cheering crowd, no news crews, no breaking of finish-line tape. Just a small family celebration. And that’s how Jackson Parell ’18 wanted it.

A lanky 20-year-old with a wide smile and blond mop of hair, Parell had put foot to ground more than 10 million times over the past 10 months and in doing so had quietly become the youngest person to complete one of the rarest feats in distance hiking, the Calendar-Year Triple Crown. It’s a challenge that requires hikers to walk the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail between New Year’s Day and New Year’s Eve of a given year. That’s roughly 8,000 miles of trail across 22 states with an elevation gain equivalent to hiking to the summit of Mount Everest 100 times.

Parell documented his final day hiking with an Instagram post. The caption read: “It’s good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end,” a quote by writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Remarkable as the end of an experience, he says, the day itself held no more significance than the 294 days that preceded it. Each day started and ended in a sleeping bag with thousands of steps in between and provided fulfillment. The title Parell now carries, simply a byproduct of committing to something that provided clarity in uncertain times both for himself and the world at large.


The ambitious plan to complete the Triple Crown was born in the early stages of the pandemic. After contracting COVID-19 in 2020, Parell and a group of his Stanford classmates, including Sammy Potter, were sent off campus to quarantine. While in isolation in Jackson, Wyoming, the two sparked a friendship. Later that year, as Potter was back home in Maine and Parell was vacationing at his family’s cottage in New Hampshire, they reconnected, spending a day together hiking in the White Mountains. On that trip, Potter floated the idea of devoting a year to doing little else but hiking. Within weeks, Parell and Potter had committed to it, and for the next seven months they trained, planned their routes and researched every facet of what the journey would entail. On Jan. 1, 2021, Parell and Potter set off, eventually hiking through fatigue, bouts of giardia, blisters, boredom and even wildfires to become just the 11th and 12th people ever to complete the Calendar-Year Triple Crown.

We caught up with Parell, now back at Stanford, to hear about his adventure and how he might never have taken the first step without his Exeter experience.

For most, completing just one of these trails would be a major accomplishment. What made you want to hike all three?
I think in part there was the allure of this challenge, which was really appealing. The other side of it, and maybe this is something that people who attended Exeter can identify with, is that when you get out of Exeter, you enter this great big old world with a lot of things that you can do. I ended up flip-flopping around on majors and extra-curriculars and ideas for my career. I was starting a lot of things and not really finishing them. I wanted to have a very finite challenge that I could start and finish and feel as though I accomplished something. … Also, I knew this was the only time in my life that I would have the luxury of a year off, as well as the physical ability to be able to undertake something like this.
Have you always been a hiker?
Actually, I had done little to no hiking before I came to Exeter. In Florida [where I grew up], of course, your main connection with the outdoors is the ocean. My first intro-duction to hiking was through a program at Exeter. During spring break, Mr. [Jason] BreMiller led trips to Utah with the National Outdoor Leadership School. We spent 10 days in Utah, and I remember falling in love with being immersed in nature. I was surprised by how quickly I was able to form lasting connections with the 12 other people on the trip. … We were all working together toward a common goal and there was no other distraction. Exeter is a place where you can get pulled in every direction, but those 10 days really just let me focus on the relationships around me and brought me closer to everyone that was there.
Did you and your partner, Sammy, hike together the entire time?
We walked together maybe 15 percent of the time because we had completely different paces. I like to take my time during the day. I walk at a slower pace but take fewer breaks, whereas Sammy hikes quickly and takes longer breaks.
Did your differences in hiking styles, personalities or habits cause friction?
We were mutually invested in making sure that both of us got to the finish line, so there was never any conflict. I think it ended up being a special partnership. Ten months hiking alone in the wilderness can get really lonely; having someone out there who is sharing the same emotional and physical burden is important.
Even with the mutual support, I imagine there were highs and lows.
There were some days that were the best days of my life. And then there were others that were just the absolute worst.

And maybe some days that were both?
I remember one day hiking through the Smokies, and there was about a foot and a half of snow on the ground. We woke up that morning [to climb Clingmans Dome] and it was subzero. At breakfast, our oatmeal was freezing as we were eating it. We got above the cloud layer at right about sunset and watched the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. There was a sea of clouds in every direction and a couple of mountains poking up and over them. We could only spend five minutes up there because we wanted to get down below 6,000 feet before it got dark.

By the time we got to a connector road, the temperature had dropped another 10 to 15 degrees and it was snowing, so we decided to sleep in a public restroom. It’s funny. Earlier that day I had been in this incredibly euphoric state watching the most beautiful sunset; then I’m sleep-ing on the floor of a public restroom. I think that kind of captures what the experience was like. In the same day you can have both of those things happen.

What would you do if you felt sick or got hurt?
A month in, I had the most searing back pain. It probably had something to do with how much we were carrying. All of that weight, between 25 and 35 pounds, depending on conditions, resulted in this stitch in my back that honestly made it hard to breathe. I had to do a little bit of trail medicine. I took a rock and put it between my back and my backpack, and it just relieved the pressure on the muscle that was in pain. There was so much adrenaline rushing through my body. There was so much excitement for what was to come, I was not going to let a stitch in my back take me out. I think it’s funny that the rock is what saved me.
Did you ever want to quit?
There are moments on trail where that is all you want to do. At the end of the day, it’s a deeply personal experience. You’re out there for yourself. In moments of injury and moments of doubt, it was always turning inward that pushed me forward.
What does it feel like to finally be done?
It’s a little bit anticlimactic. We walked for so long and so far that it had become our life. To fathom not having to get up and walk 32 miles a day, when I took that final step, it was pretty inconceivable. What made it special was that most of my family was there the day we finished. My dad brought beads and all these Mardi Gras celebratory accessories, and we got to share a beer together. I think that finishing only hit me in the weeks and months after-wards when I was like, wow, I get to just sit on this couch and look outside or eat whatever I want, whenever I want. That’s amazing. All those little realizations slowly culminated into a feeling of closure.

Was it difficult reassimilating to life as a student? I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a really tough adjustment. The way I was able to approach life out there is so much different than when I’m at school. [At Stanford,]

I feel pulled in every which direction, much like I did at Exeter. It was nice to have a single goal and a very clear way to accomplish that goal, which was just to get up every morning and walk.

Can you share one thing you learned from this journey?
That there is no one, clear path that can lead to a fulfilling experience in life. At Exeter, there can be a mindset that there is one clear track to finding fulfillment and that is: finishing up high school in a really good way that puts you in a good place for college, that puts you in a good place for a job, then you have a family and then, I don’t know, you grow old and die. I realized that getting up every day and walking could bring me as much fulfillment as almost anything else in my life. That was a really cool thing to realize and has shifted my perspective of the future. 
Editor's Note: This interview first appeared in the summer 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.