While Jen is working her way across the state, she’ll be interviewing the people she encounters along the way. Today: Karen Chávez, longtime outdoor recreation writer and editor with the Asheville Citizen-Times. 

Karen Chávez didn’t grow up in North Carolina, but she has spent the past 17 years of her life in Asheville working as an outdoor recreation reporter and editor for the Asheville Citizen-Times. She has logged countless miles of running, completed marathons, and she wrote a book about hiking across the state with her favorite trail companion, a black lab named Shelby.

Karen didn’t grow up hiking and backpacking; in fact, she grew up in the Bronx. But a summer spent at a rustic nature study camp in the Berkshires, which culminated with a three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, encouraged Karen to pursue a career in the outdoor industry. She started as an interpretive ranger with the National Park Service, working at different sites across the country, including Yellowstone. Then she went to school in Montana to earn a master’s in journalism. She is a former member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Karen was the first person to walk a mile with us on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. She brought her niece and two nephews to Clingmans Dome to start the trail with us. After knowing Karen peripherally for years through the outdoor scene in Asheville, I enjoyed learning more about her on the trail. I was excited that she brought her family with her, especially since her niece Phoebe motivated Charley to hike much faster than usual – and with fewer M&M bribes. I was also impressed with Karen’s drive and resiliency to continue working and hiking throughout being diagnosed with breast cancer, undergoing treatment and multiple surgeries.

We had planned to walk four miles, but after getting started a little later than anticipated, we went three miles and ended the hike before supper — and before any meltdowns. Success!

Here’s what Karen had to say about life, hiking and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail:

I haven’t met many female, Hispanic, outdoor writers from the Bronx! Have you had to overcome many barriers to get where you are?

I don’t think I had any more barriers than other women do in the working world, although those are many. I just kept forging a path following what I love to do – writing and being outdoors. I never knew of anyone working in this field when I was growing up, so I didn’t have any role models. I just sought out experiences that challenged me and made me happy.

Karen’s boots

I know that you used to run a lot, but since undergoing breast cancer treatment you have mainly kept to hiking. Is it hard to go slower? What do you like most about hiking?

When I trained for and ran marathons, I stepped back from hiking for years. Breast cancer treatment – chemotherapy and radiation and eight surgeries in less than three years – sucks the wind out of your lungs, saps your muscle strength and takes the joy out of living. I can no longer run the way I used to, and I get winded easily. That brought me back to the woods and to hiking. I have fallen in love with it again, because I can go slower, but I get to see more, breathe more freely and feel more fulfilled. And it gives me just as much of a workout as running.

How has spending time outdoors helped you overcome some of life’s greatest challenges?

It’s hard to explain, even though I’m a writer. It has always been a place of comfort for me. When I was trapped indoors for so long, painfully sick, I thought about being in the woods.

Do you have a favorite section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail?

I love the Tanawha Trail, a 13-mile section of the MST in the Grandfather Mountain area off the Blue Ridge Parkway. I especially love the Rough Ridge section, which has sweet, sweeping mountain views. It is incredible in the fall. But I’ll have to add the first mountain section of the MST to my list now – Clingmans Dome to the Fork Ridge Trail, because I’d never hiked it before, it’s beautiful and sparsely traveled, and I got to spend time there with my family and new friends.