LYNCHBURG — Kristen Musselman has long been a big believer in the wellness benefits of spending time outside.
A Northern Virginia native, Musselman has spent most of her life enjoying nature. She grew up with easy access to the nearly 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail and rediscovered her love of nature while she was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia.
Her first year, she took a club trip to Big Bend National Park that “really just transformed my view of myself and my view of the ways I can connect with other people and nature.”
She eventually moved to Colorado, where she became a wilderness therapy field guide and also worked for a suicide prevention program before learning of a new position at Devils Backbone Brewing Company, bringing her back to her Virginia roots.
This summer, Nelson County-based Devils Backbone introduced Musselman as its chief hiking officer, a six-month job that involves hiking hundreds of miles of trails along the East Coast.
Already with six weeks under her belt, Musselman will spend the next several months making her way up and down the East Coast, hiking a goal of 2,000 miles of lesser-traveled trails. Rather than sticking to the original plan of doing a thru-hike — traveling from end-to-end continuously — of the Appalachian Trail, the company pivoted in light of safety and public health measures.
Musselman will instead tackle the Appalachian Trail in pieces, among the other trails she will call home until late August.
“I sort of have the free reins to decide what trails I want to be on each day and how to really construct this trip,” she said.
Depending on the day, Musselman says she might hike anywhere from two to 10 hours per day. Or she may take a rest day.
In addition to hiking and camping, Musselman will be taking video and photos for the brewery. There also will be an educational component to her content, showing how to set up shelters, prepare for emergencies and practice good environmental protection principles.
“Some of my big-picture goals is how can we get more people outside to access benefits of outdoors and how can we talk about how spending time outside really benefits our own mental health and wellbeing,” Musselman said.
She also has a goal of connecting with others while out on the trail. Musselman said this was the “perfect opportunity” for her.
“The big thing that appealed to me was getting to spend more time at my own roots. I’ve always wanted to thru-hike the [Appalachian Trail] and I thought why not do it in 2021, this year would be the perfect year to do that,” Musselman said.
Hayes Humphries, COO of Devils Backbone, said the motivation behind the position was to document and share the experience of connecting with nature and share the stories of how people change throughout their wilderness adventures.
“We really wanted to try and export that experience that we had watching people take on this adventure and transform and be able to make that more accessible to more people and share that adventure with a wider audience,” Humphries said.
Humphries said the team received more than a 1,000 applications for the position, but what set Musselman apart was her love of the outdoors from a young age and her specialized skills in the wilderness.
While there are no solid plans for the position in the future, Humphries said Devils Backbone — tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains — has made a commitment to be a steward of environmental causes, and Musselman will be documenting the importance of those causes.
For those who want to conquer their own solo hikes, Musselman, who is tackling the next few months alone, said she recommends starting with smaller hikes surrounded by “people who know more than you” do. But at a certain point, she said it was necessary to jump off the deep end.
Musselman posts her adventures to the company’s social media sites.