By following established trails, Garrett and Landen Napier blazed a new one.
When they set foot on the U.S.-Mexico border on Nov. 4, the brothers became the first identical twins to hike the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail in consecutive years.
Securing long-distance hiking’s “Triple Crown” in such manner put the two West Virginians in rarefied air.
“They say more people have been in outer space than have completed the Triple Crown in three consecutive years,” Garrett said. “Only 400 to 500 people have done the Triple Crown, total. The number that did it in three years is really small.”
And, as far as the brothers have been able to determine, none of those who completed the triple-triple were twins, let alone identical twins.
The Napiers, who hail from tiny Ottawa, in Boone County, hiked the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail in 2018 and knocked off the 2,653-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2019. They put the 2,800-mile Continental Divide Trail on their to-do list for 2020.
Then COVID-19 happened.
“Just our luck,” Landen said. “On the [Appalachian Trail], we had the highest rain year on record, on the [Pacific Crest Trail], we had the highest snow year, and, of course, this year we had a global pandemic.”
The brothers, paramedics for the Boone County Ambulance Authority, volunteered to man the agency’s “COVID truck.”
“We lived in a camper by ourselves, and we made calls to homes where people were suffering from COVID or from flu-like symptoms,” Garrett said. “We were on duty 24/7.
“The equipment in our truck was completely wrapped in plastic, and we were dressed in full hazmat suits with gas masks. In 46 days, we worked more than 1,100 hours, which was about as much as a person working a 40-hour week would work in a year.”
The long hours, though difficult, had a hidden benefit.
“We went back to our regular shifts when the COVID numbers started going down, but we didn’t have much hope of being able to hike the [Continental Divide Trail] this year,” Landen said. “But then we found out the CDT Coalition was allowing people to through-hike, as long as they followed all the state COVID guidelines and regulations.
“The CDT is more remote than the AT or the PCT, so we figured it would be easier to stay away from towns and from other hikers. We gave our bosses two weeks’ notice, and on July 4, we started.”
The twins decided to hike the route southbound, starting at the Canadian border in Glacier National Park and ending at the Mexico border near a place called Crazy Cook. In Glacier, their grand adventure got off to a flying stop.
“To hike the trail through Glacier, you have to pass through the Blackfeet Nation Indian Reservation,” Garrett explained. “But the tribal leaders had closed off the reservation to outsiders, to prevent COVID from coming in.”
The Napiers ended up having to trek 100 miles around the reservation and reacquire the trail near East Glacier Park Village. Once there, however, they ran into another problem.
“We finally got to the trail and, within the first mile, we ran into miles and miles of trees blown down across the trail,” Landen said. “There had been a big forest fire a few years back, and it seemed like all the dead trees from the fire had been laid over the trail.”
Trail maintenance, as it turned out, isn’t the Continental Divide Trail’s strong suit.
“We had heard how unmaintained the CDT was,” Garrett said. “We joked that, on the AT, they would have had a trail crew out there before the first tree even fell.”
Their spirits picked up a little farther south, when the trail entered the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
“We absolutely loved ‘The Bob,’ ” Landen said. “It’s so beautiful and remote. We felt like we were really alone out there. We saw fewer than 25 other hikers on the trail while we were in Montana.”
“Which is crazy,” Garrett added. “We would see that many in a day on the AT or the PCT.”
The brothers didn’t get lonely, though. Garrett’s girlfriend, Kelley Guimont, whom he had met on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2019, accompanied them for the entire trip.
Montana is grizzly-bear country, and all three hikers carried bear spray, in the event of an unfriendly encounter. As it turned out, they saw two grizzlies and a black bear, none of which were aggressive.
“Part of that was because we avoided cooking while we were in Montana and Wyoming,” Garrett said.
“Instead, we ‘cold-soaked’ our freeze-dried food. We’d put it in a container with some water and let it rehydrate while we were walking. By the time we got to camp, it would be soft enough to eat.”
They passed through southern Montana and northwestern Wyoming during the height of the forest-fire season. At Old Faithful Village, in Yellowstone National Park, they saw a column of smoke and asked a ranger about it. He told them it was from fires in California and Colorado.
Encouraged, they hiked 4 miles farther along the trail and set up camp.
“We were just getting settled in when a ranger came along and told us we’d have to leave because there was a fire only a quarter-mile away,” Garrett said. “We hiked back to Old Faithful Village, and we figured we’d end up sleeping in a ditch that night.
“As it turned out, though, they had a room at the Old Faithful Inn that they kept open for folks like us. It was great. Our room had a perfect view of Old Faithful.”
After passing through Wyoming’s Wind River Range, the hikers dropped down from the mountains and, after a stop in the town of Lander, set off across part of the Great Divide Basin.
“It was like a desert,” Landen said. “It was really flat, with lots of sagebrush and wild horses.”
Part way across the basin, the trio got hit with a surprise snowstorm.
“We had seen there was a cold front blowing in so, while in Lander, we purchased gloves, beanies and other cold-weather gear,” Garrett said. “The first day out on the basin was great.
“On the second day, the wind started blowing 50 to 60 miles an hour, constant. It was cutting through us, so we found a semi-sheltered place in a little dip where we set up our tents. The next morning, I woke up and noticed the roof of the tent was almost touching my feet. I looked out and could only see the very top of Landen’s tent. It had snowed that much during the night.”
Wyoming turned out to be the loneliest portion of the entire hike. From Yellowstone all the way south to the Colorado border, the Napiers and Guimont didn’t encounter another hiker.
From the flat country of the Great Divide Basin, the trail rose steadily into the high mountains of Colorado.
“Through Colorado, the trail ranged mostly between 11,000 and 13,000 feet,” Landen said. “We hiked up Mount Elbert, the second-highest peak in the lower 48 states. At 14,439 feet, it was the first ‘fourteener’ we’d ever done.”
“Colorado was unreal,” Garrett added. “The aspens were turning yellow and, everywhere you looked, it was pretty. We saw moose, and huge herds of elk and pronghorn antelope.”
The final leg of the Continental Divide Trail passes through New Mexico and, by that portion of their adventure, the brothers were pushing to finish by Nov. 6, their birthday.
“New Mexico really surprised us,” Landen said. “We were kind of figuring it was like the high desert we saw on the northern end of the PCT. As it turned out, there were really cool rock formations and stuff.”
Much of the trek through New Mexico, though, turned out to be on roads. Only 70% of the Continental Divide Trail is an established footpath. The rest of it is dirt roads and, in some places, paved roads.
“After Mount Taylor, most of New Mexico was sagebrush and dirt roads,” Garrett said. “But there was one 15-mile stretch along the Gila River where we had to wade the river 50 times. The water was waist-deep and freezing cold.”
On Nov. 4, the hikers broke camp for the final time and walked the remaining 5 miles to the concrete monument at the Continental Divide Trail’s southern end.
“Even now, it doesn’t seem real that we did it,” Landen said. “In three years, we got the Triple Crown.”
Including side trips, the brothers hiked almost 8,000 miles to accomplish that feat.
“That’s almost the diameter of the Earth,” Garrett said. “So we like to say we’ve hiked the diameter of the Earth.”
In the future, the Napiers say, they’d like to run the length of Spain’s 500-mile Camino de Santiago trail. Until then, they’ll continue their work as paramedics.
Currently, they’re in Texas, providing relief where they’re needed at hospitals slammed with COVID-19 patients. Eventually, Garrett wants to go to nursing school, and Landen wants to become a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.
Whatever they do, though, their three long-distance treks will likely remain their crowning achievement — or, perhaps more precisely, their triple-crowning achievement.