L.L.Bean employees discover the transformative simplicity of a long hike on their Appalachian Trail relay
Jessica Kanciruk hit her stride three days into her first 110 mile-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Kanciruk and her hiking partner, Ethan Minier, worked together at L.L.Bean’s Colonie Center store in Albany, New York, and when the company announced that it was looking for employees to participate in a relay to complete the famed 2,180-mile trail, they’d jumped at the chance. Early May of 2018 found the pair traversing the Roan Highlands, along the Tennessee-North Caro-lina border. The views were gorgeous, but Kanciruk had been struggling. “I had been hiking constantly to get ready for this, but in three hours I was looking at these hills and thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’” she says. Minier, an experienced hiker, reminded her that she needed to eat—constantly. Routines fell into place; things got easier. “By the third day I felt like I got it,” she recalls.
The Relay was the brainchild of Steve Johnson, who had his own transformative experience on a hundred-mile Boy Scout hike with his son in New Mexico. “It’s amazing what two weeks in the woods will do to your mind space,” he says. “It’s very restorative. You don’t have the other things to clog your brain. It’s about getting from point A to point B. That trip changed who I was; it made me decide to come work for L.L.Bean.” He joined the company as a fishing expert in 2006, and now manages outside-of-Maine experiences for L.L.Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Programs. His biggest worry in launching the employee relay was that they wouldn’t be able to find enough hikers to complete it. “Well, boy, was I wrong,” he says. “I was worried about getting 20 teams—we got 463 applications. A project like this is in our DNA. It touched a nerve within the company.”
Johnson and Kanciruk worked together on a store opening years ago, and he’s witnessed her conversion into an avid and accomplished hiker. “She lives to hike now. It totally changed her life. Every free moment she has, she’s out in the woods. It’s inspiring to see.” “When I got hired, I was not an outdoorsy person,” says Kanciruk. “I liked the outdoors, but I couldn’t tell you I spent a lot of time in the outdoors.” She started day hiking following an experience at a company conference, and after finishing her section of the A.T. relay, she returned to the trail whenever she could, meeting up with other L.L.Bean hikers, stepping in for injured relay participants, and offering to introduce newbies to the art of hiking. “I put it out there, if anyone wants to go on an overnight hike, I’ll teach you to where to put up your hammock, how to hang your bear bag, filter your water,” she says. She logged 300 miles of the trail in 2018 and continues to hike sections whenever she can. “It puts you in a very different frame of mind,” she says. “I learned that I really enjoyed the simplicity of that routine. Take care of yourself, eat, drink, know when you need to get water. You can turn off your brain and walk. Just walk.”