Habitual Hiker: Local writer Leonard Adkins and his adventures in the wilderness

Outside were the low, rolling hills of Chesterfield, yet inside the Chester library Wednesday evening were glimpses of a foreign landscape – colorful bundles of exotic wildflowers and majestic mountain summits – evoked by local writer and international outdoorsmen Leonard Adkins.

Part of a series created from his numerous hiking expeditions, Adkins, 59, a self-described “city boy” from Charleston, W.Va., shared memories and images of his adventures along Canada’s Continental Divide. But according to him, his job as a full-time outdoor/travel writer and speaker isn’t to entertain people with his storytelling.

“First of all, I just enjoy sharing my experiences and getting people enthused about what’s out there,” he said after the presentation. “Hopefully, it will also make a change in them that they’ll want to get out there in the woods …and realize what’s out there. What’s at stake a lot of times is that the modern world encroaches in on the natural world.”

Later, at his residence in the Meadowbrook area, Adkins recalled his experience 30 years earlier after failing to complete his first “thru-hike”,  hiking just 900 of the Appalachian Trail’s 2,000 miles. But shortly after heading to his then home in West Virginia he felt the urge to finish what he had started. Weeks later, he headed back to Georgia for his second attempt.

Ten days into that trip, he met Laurie, now his wife of 24 years, at the first shelter along the trail just north of the North Carolina border. His second time around wasn’t an easier challenge by any means, he said, but his new mentality – and his new company – helped him move briskly through wilderness all the way to Maine.

“I just looked at the trip as a day hike, a one-day hike after another,” he said. “And the next thing I knew I was in Maine long before I wanted to be.”

According to Adkins, this mentality helped him immensely during his writing career which kicked off as he wrote a number of feature articles for various publications about his expedition north during the hike.  In retrospect, the change he experienced has had lasting impressions on his life perspective.

“From my own personal life I’ve learned first of all, that if I can walk from Georgia to Maine or from Canada to Mexico, I can do pretty much anything I set my mind to. The same goes with books. People say, ‘Well how do you write 500 pages?’ It’s the same when you walk 2,000 miles – you take one step, then you take another step, then you take another step,” he said.

However, the first book idea emerged after the young couple sailed around the Caribbean with Laurie’s father. When they returned to the states, Adkins searched in vain for Caribbean guide books.

“So I thought I would write a book and share it,” he said, since many people visiting the Caribbean had expressed to him how “bored” they were during their trip, not having any real adventure.

While writing “The Caribbean: A Walking and Hiking Guide”, Adkins sent sample chapters to publishers, ultimately being published by Hunter Travel Guides. Since then, he has dedicated his life to writing about his beloved outdoors, publishing 16 books, penning 100s of columns and articles for various magazines such as Blue Ridge Outdoors,

The Roanoker and Islands, and newspapers like Colorado Daily and Charleston Gazette.

Adkins, who believes the best part of writing hiking guides is the foot research, also believes in hiking as a way for people to understand the interconnectedness of the universe, or the “web of life,” as he calls it. In paraphrasing a quote from his favorite writer, Mark Twain, to validate this point, Adkins asserts that travel is a way of building bridges among people.

“In other words, he was saying that people who travel meet other people and realize that we’re all the same,” said Adkins. “I think getting people out there and seeing other parts of the world, and meeting other people just leads to a better world understanding.”

Since establishing a career as a writer, Adkins has spoken for the last 20 years to various groups, including occasions with: Boy Scout troops, L.L.Bean, corporate retreats, colleges and universities and teachers with VEA (Virginia Education Association) on how to get kids reconnected with nature.

As Laurie works full-time as a physician’s assistant, Adkins works at home on his writing projects. “I think she appreciates that other people are able to get out there in the woods and learn things from what I do.” When the time comes for her to retire in a few years, the couple eagerly anticipates hiking as much as possible.

“I think he likes the experience of it. It’s that adventure at the end,” said Laurie who proofreads his work. “Writing a book is a little bit like the trail, you got a big project ahead of you; you have pages and pages to write and each chapter in a book is like hiking a state on the trail. You can relate everything to baseball and you can relate everything to the Appalachian Trail.”

Currently, Adkins is working on a pictorial history of the Appalachian Trail and is planning to update his “Blue Ridge Parkway Hiking Guide” because new trails have invited him out there. He is also the outdoors columnist for Roanoker, and the hike columnist and blogger for Blue Ridge Country.

Continuing the series with the Chesterfield Library system, he will be speaking about his book “Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains” on March 29 at Bon Air, March 30 in Chester and April 6 at Midlothian. All library events are free and books will be available for purchasing. For a schedule of his upcoming speaking events, and general information about his works, visit his website at www.habitualhiker.com

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