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Hiking through: First hiker to trek the Lakes-to-Ocean Trail straight through makes stop in Kokomo

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SHELTER FOR THE NIGHT — Allison Irion, a long-distance hiker, seeks shelter at Valerie Gordon’s house in Kokomo last Wednesday night. Gordon’s home address was listed in the guidebook Irion was using as a place where hikers could stay for a night of shelter as they pass through Kokomo on the trails.

In 2013, hiker Scot “Taba” Ward came to Kokomo to chart new territory by interlinking the City of Firsts’ trails to pathways to the north and south to create the Lakes-to-Ocean Trail, a trail that makes it possible for adventure-seekers to trek from Lake Michigan to the Atlantic Ocean.

Ward released a guidebook the following year that maps the system of pathways, and he touted it as a brand-new type of trail, one that allows hikers to really get to know America.

The Lakes-to-Ocean Trail passes through major cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville, Frankfort, Lexington, and Knoxville, but it also weaves through smaller towns, farmlands, deep-trench gorges with caves, forests, streams, piedmonts, swamps, and beaches.

Lakes-to-Ocean Trail

JOURNEY - Allison Irion followed legs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 to end the hike in Awendaw, S.C. She chose that route as she already had hiked much of North Carolina. 

“I interlinked all these trails because America needed a new kind of trail. We needed a discovery trail because there’s no place to put a new trail in America, so the only way to do it is to do it the way I’ve done it where it’s roads and forests, a blend of each. You actually get to know America, and America gets to know you,” Ward said.

Now, five years after releasing the guidebook, a 28-year-old woman has completed the Lakes-to-Ocean Trail, making her the first person to walk it straight through. Last week, she passed through Kokomo as she finished the last leg of the 1,700-mile hike.

Allison Irion, a Cicero-Native, started the hike on April 1 in Morgan-Monroe State Forest in Martinsville, Ind., and walked through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and landed in Awendaw, S.C., before hitching rides north to Chicago where she got back on the trail to finish the journey back to Morgan-Monroe State Forest, completing the Lakes-to-Ocean Trail.

Last Wednesday, she hiked 49 miles from Rochester to Kokomo where she used Ward’s guidebook to find shelter at Kokomo-resident Valerie Gordon’s home. Gordon housed Ward in 2013 for a few days while he worked to map the city’s trails and agreed to be listed in his guidebook as a “trail angel,” someone hikers could call and request a night’s stay with as they completed the hike.

Irion arrived at Gordon’s home in the early-morning hours Thursday, and she said entering Kokomo and crossing the glowing-blue bridge over S.R. 931 at night was “just the light of my evening.”

“It was beautiful walking through and seeing how maintained the Industrial Heritage Trail was and the Nickel Plate coming right in there was,” Irion said. “It was lit up. It was beautiful. It made me feel safe.”

Irion stayed at Gordon’s house that night before leaving the next day to continue on her journey. She donned a hat, long sleeves to protect from the sun, sunglasses, two long hiking sticks, and a large backpack full of gear.

Allison Irion selfies

ON THE MOVE — Allison Irion takes selfies along the Lakes-to-Ocean Trail. She started the 1,700-mile journey on April 1.

While Irion hikes as an adventurer, she completed the Lakes-to-Ocean Trail while promoting mental health. The back of her backpack was marked with “hikeformentalhealth.org.” This trail, she said, was perfect for promoting the cause.

Passing through towns and cities, she was stopped many times and heard stories from people across America who have been affected by everything from losing a loved one to suicide to struggling with depression themselves and everything in between.

While she was walking into the Perspective for an interview, she was stopped by a person at the door, who asked if he could buy her a cup of coffee afterward to discuss her cause. She knew by the semi-colon tattoo on his wrist that he was affected by mental health in some way, as the symbol represents support for those dealing with mental illness and suicide.

“This trail, because it incorporates wilderness, road-walks, greenways, and rails to trails, it gave me the opportunity to challenge myself in more than just surviving in the wilderness, but walking through big cities and towns I heard testimonials about different people’s lives and how they were affected by mental health.

“It’s really been eye-opening. I realized it was an issue, but I didn’t realize in almost every town, whether it was a McDonald’s or a nice restaurant, I met someone who was affected,” she said. “From the types of people that I’ve met, from homeless people on the street to people driving Mercedes, they’re all affected.”

While the Lakes-to-Ocean Trail hike was coming to an end, Irion said she intends to continue promoting the Hike for Mental Health organization, which raises funds to provide grants to enable scientific research and fund programs aimed at alleviating suffering from mental illness.

Allison Irion sign

This hike marked one of many that Irion has completed. She’s hiked the Pacific Crest Trail — the longest trail she’s completed at 2,600 miles — the Appalachian Trail, parts of the North Country Trail, the Superior Trail, Central Arizona Trails, and trails in Badlands National Park, Montana, and Idaho.

Next, Irion plans to either hike the American Discovery Trail, a 6,800-mile trail that zigzags across America, or hike in India, Nepal, and Mongolia.

Ward said he was “extremely proud” of Irion for being the first person to hike the Lakes-to-Ocean Trail straight through.

“It took five years since I got the book written, but finally someone has done it. I’m extremely excited. All the hard work that I put into it myself, finally I see that it’s possible, that other people will enjoy it,” Ward said. “I’m so excited that she’s chosen to do it. Hopefully it will shine a light on the Lakes-to-Ocean Trail and raise awareness for mental health.”