I first met Derick Lugo, who went by Mr. Fabulous back in those days, on the Appalachian Trail in 2012. We were both bright-eyed thru-hikers with our sights set to Maine. He was not yet an author and I was not yet a blogger.
While I don’t recall our first encounter, I do recall the most memorable one. I had entered Grayson Highlands State Park outside of Damascus, Virginia. Hikers know of Grayson Highlands for its population of wild ponies, just as much as the wild ponies know of the hiker population for their snacks.
I took my pack off for a little break just as Mr. Fabulous sauntered up the trail. Wild ponies approached us and began licking my backpack for the salt from my sweat. When one tried to approach Mr. Fabulous, he gave a little squeal and pushed me between himself and the wild creature.
We both took photos of the ponies and shared a few laughs as he tried to tease a pregnant pony. Then he and his gigantic backpack were on their way up the trail once more.
Now he is the author of The Unlikely Thru-Hiker, a tale of his journey along the Appalachian Trail. Upon reading his book, I was happy to see that his humorous, bright personality shines through. Luckily for all of us, Derick has graciously agreed to answer my burning curiosities in a public format.
In what way did the Appalachian Trail call to you to thru-hike?
I traveled all over Europe throughout the years, and after living in Italy for several months, I was a bit homesick and eager to find ways to explore more of my country and the AT seemed like a good way to do such a thing.
You had a pretty sharp learning curve upon reaching the trail, in that you had never been camping before. Can you share one of your big bloopers from being an inexperienced hiker? What would you tell someone who wants to try backpacking for the first time?
I was carrying about two weeks of food on the first day of my thru-hike. I had several packets of ready to eat Indian food, which contained water and were quite heavy.
I would tell first time backpackers to not do what I did. I suggest that you start slow, with short weekend trips and gradually work your way toward longer trips… and for crying out loud, find out if you even like backpacking. I jumped in not knowing, but fortunately, I fell in love with it.
Do you find it difficult to stay connected with nature while living in NYC? How do you incorporate the A.T. lifestyle with the city lifestyle?
I found it really difficult to connect with nature in NYC. Running through Central Park was the closest I would get. However, I must say that writing and doing talks all over the country about my AT thru-hike always kept the AT lifestyle fresh in my heart and mind.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail and writing an entire book both take diligence and commitment. How do you find motivation to accomplish such goals when the reward is in the distant future?
I can honestly say that I was not thinking of future rewards for telling my AT story. I was riding so high off my AT adventure, that I wanted to put it down in words. I didn’t know how I was going to get it published or how to market it. That was not a concern for me at that time. I wanted to tell a well written story and I felt that if I focused on how I was going to get it to readers, then the story would have suffered.
Thru-hikers often speak of their trail names providing a sort of alter-ego. How was Mr. Fabulous on the A.T. different than Derick from NYC? What elements of Mr. Fabulous did you take home with you?
Mr. Fabulous seemed to draw attention during his thru-hike, which in turn gave him many opportunities to interact with strangers and to begin building long lasting relationships.
Derick the New Yorker loves meeting interesting people, but all that comes with living in the city; the responsibilities and distractions left him with less freedom to be the people person he wanted to be.
It’s been 8 years since your thru-hike. What big life lessons or profound moments have stuck with you?
The hiking community has given me a more positive perspective of the human race. People are actually pretty decent and I’m now a lot more open with others and the word love is now freely and easily expressed by me.
Do you have any desire to do something of this scale again? If so, what will it be?
Hmmm… I do have the PCT in my sights, but I also have a lot more responsibilities now than I did 8 years ago. That being said, celebrating a ten-year anniversary of my AT thru-hike with a PCT thru-hike sounds pretty epic.
What sort of response have you gotten from your readers? Have you inspired other people to do their own thru-hikes?
I get messages from readers expressing their interest in a thru-hike or that their kid is now interested in hiking. I really enjoyed hearing those stories and ones of past thru-hikers saying that ‘The Unlikely Thru-Hiker’ brought them back to the trail.
Can you tell us a bit about your process of writing a book and getting it published? What have been the biggest struggles and rewards?
I went all in when I first started writing ‘The Unlikely Thru-Hiker’; I made a point to write 1,000 words a day and then it went up to 1,500 words. I didn’t worry about spelling, punctuations or grammar during the first draft. I just wanted to get the story down. If I worried about all the writing errors during those early drafts, then the word count goal would have been much harder to achieve. Once I had my entire manuscript written, then I would go back and clean it up.
I do a lot of talks at hiking events and the word got out that I was writing an AT memoir. A couple outdoor organizations with publishing departments reached out to me with interest, but the people at Appalachian Mountain Club Books were the ones I felt would give my story the best chance to be heard.
My biggest struggle was to actually allow the book to be done. I could have gone several more years revising ‘The Unlikely Thru-Hiker’, but I knew if others were ever going to read my story, then I had to step away from it. There’s a quote by Leonardo Da Vinci that rings true to me, “Art is never finished. Only abandoned.”
The biggest rewards that have come from writing ‘The Unlikely Thru-Hiker’ is that I am given more opportunities to share stories of the wondrous Appalachian Trail and the amazing activity called hiking.
What’s next for the journey of Mr. Fabulous? Which famous actor would you choose to play you?
Mr. Fabulous will do more firsts, several more trails and continue bringing awareness to hiking.
I joke that Captain Jack Sparrow and Mr. Fabulous seem to have the same fashion designer, but I would have to say that Donald Glover would be a good choice. I feel like he can pull off the light heartiness of my story and add the right humor.