By Kira Córdova

Derick Lugo, also known by his trail name Mr. Fabulous (or simply Fab to those who know him personally), thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) back in 2012. His 2019 memoir, “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker, chronicles that journey. 

I first met Derick as a student in a National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) Partners in the Parks program on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in May 2023. NCHC President and Virginia Tech faculty member Christina McIntyre, who created the course, had crossed paths with Lugo through the AT community and invited him to co-lead it. Lugo was gracious enough to let me interview him later in the summer. 

Lugo and Kira Córdova during the Partners in the Parks AT program 

“Anyone and everyone should enjoy the outdoors. It’s not what you look like, who you are, your culture, what you think about nature … just get your butt out there!” exclaims Derick Lugo, a thru-hiker and author with a pair of books in the pipeline.

Before setting foot on the Appalachian Trail, an endeavor that led him to six months of non-stop hiking, Lugo had never backpacked — or even camped. Inspired after reading about the Appalachian Trail, he took a leap of faith that tested his resilience and has fundamentally remade his life and career. 

Thru-hiking one of the “big three” trails in the U.S.: The Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, or the Continental Divide Trail, all more than 2,000 miles long, means months of backpacking, briefly dipping into towns along the way for much-needed rest and resupply.

The Appalachian Trail (AT), which Lugo thru hiked in 2012, spans nearly 2,200 miles, traversing 14 states on its way from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine

Since completing the AT, the now-sponsored professional hiker and storyteller completed the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in 2020 and is working on a children’s book and a sequel to his memoir about his experience on the CDT. 

Lugo, his memoir, and his signature shades

Becoming The Unlikely Thru-Hiker

Lugo, a native New Yorker who identifies as Nuyorican and Black Latino, worked in the bar industry before setting out on the AT. 

“My life before the AT was so different. I’m from New York City. The outdoors for me was Central Park or going to the ballpark or Coney Island,” he says. “We didn’t go and hike in the woods. The woods [were] something that was scary to us. [We heard] lore, the history of what happens in the woods to people of color… In movies, the scary stuff is in the woods.” 

Growing up, venturing into the outdoors wasn’t an option for Lugo’s family. 

“I didn’t grow up camping because we couldn’t afford it. Normally, kids that grow up camping, a lot of the equipment and gear gets handed down from family member to family member. We couldn’t afford it. We were just trying to survive living in New York City, so I knew nothing about the outdoors.” 

For Lugo, writing about his experience as a thru-hiker brings his story full circle; he formed the idea to hike the AT after a friend loaned him A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a comedic book detailing the author’s experience on the AT in 1996. 

“The one thing that really stuck out was this trail that he made [it] sound so hard,” Lugo recalls, which only deepened his desire to get on the trail. Still, he never believed it would actually happen. “It was a pipe dream, [I was] wanting to travel around the world, run marathons, or hike the Appalachian Trail.”

But while he might not have been running marathons, Lugo was already traveling around the world. He lived in Italy for a year in 2011, and when he came back, he set his mind on discovering the United States. 

“I want to do something very American,” he remembers. And then it hit him. He describes the scene: “I was lying in bed, and I said, ‘What about the Appalachian Trail?’”

He quickly jumped into action.

“I looked up the best time to [start] hiking the Appalachian Trail. [The answer] was March, springtime, and it was the beginning of March,” he recalls. “Within a week and a half, two weeks of deciding that I wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail — I didn’t even know if I liked hiking — I was on the trail. It was nuts. I went and bought all the gear, [and] I was on the trail with zero experience.”

Lugo had always been a writer, working on stories and poetry, and he always knew he wanted to publish his work, but until he hiked the AT, he wasn’t sure what form that would take. 

“When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, halfway through it, I decided I was going to write about it, and I knew that was going to be the first piece of work that I was going to get published,” he says.

When he finished thru-hiking the AT, he started giving talks about the experience, emphasizing that anyone can get outdoors. He started catching the attention of journals and publishers.

Eventually, he connected with the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which publishes stories related to the AT and the outdoors. Within three months of its release in 2019, “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker” became the best-selling book that AMC has ever published. 

Lugo returns to the start of the AT for the first time since thru-hiking the trail in 2012, May 2023)

An Experience for All Ages

Now, Lugo is working to build off the success he attained with “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker” to complete a children’s book, tapping into his personal experience discovering the outdoors to tell the story of a young kid from New York who has their first adventure in the woods.

Like Lugo, the kid is an avid reader. He’s also from Harlem. 

“He discovers a book in his dad’s library, and he pulls it out, and it’s “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker,” Lugo explains. “He asks his dad, ‘what’s going on with this book?’ And his dad’s like, ‘I can’t believe I never spoke to you about this,’ and he starts teaching him about the outdoors.” 

“Everything that I experienced — how to use all my gear, how everything in the woods scared me, how meeting people was amazing, this outdoor community, all these things — this kid is going to experience, but on a grander scale,” elaborates Lugo.

The CDT Sequel 

But that’s not the only project Derick has in the works. In the afterglow of finishing the AT (joining an exclusive club; only about 20,000 people have completed the whole hike since the trail’s completion in the 1930s), Lugo had no intention of thru-hiking again. 

He intended to write a novel after publishing “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker”. When he gave talks, though, he would joke that if he found a sponsor, he’d consider tackling another long-distance trail. 

“I would joke around and say, ‘if someone paid me to do it, and if there was a story behind it, I would do it.’ Sure enough, Oboz was like, ‘look, we’ll sponsor you,’” Lugo says.

That was the start of his Continental Divide Trail (CDT) journey. The CDT stretches roughly 3,000 miles (some sections of the trail are not completed, so hiking the full trail requires some wayfinding) along the highest points of the continent between the United States’ borders with Mexico and Canada. 

In addition to Oboz, Lugo added three more sponsors to his team and set out west in 2022, this time with significant hiking experience under his belt — and the explicit intent to write a book chronicling the experience. 

The CDT presented new challenges to Lugo, like getting up early to tackle those notorious Rocky Mountain afternoon thunderstorms. 

“On the CDT, you need to do more miles because you don’t want to be caught —not just out there during the day out on top of a mountain —but also you don’t want to be there in September because the snow starts rolling in during September, so I had to quickly adjust and learn to get up early in the morning,” Lugo says.

He also averaged significantly more miles a day. Even though the CDT is about 900 miles longer than the AT, Lugo finished the hike in five months, a whole month less than it took him to complete the AT. 

He’s currently translating his time on the CDT into a sequel to “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker” and living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he’s staying at a friend’s cabin on 10 acres in the woods. 

“I have a working title called The Good, The Bad and the Fab, and then the subtitle is A Continental Divide Trail Journey because my trail name is Mr. Fabulous, but it evolved into [just] Fab,” he reveals. 

The CDT

Amplifying Unlikely Stories 

In addition to his writing projects, Lugo also continues to work on his podcast, the Unlikely Stories Podcast

At his core, Lugo believes that “the outdoor community is made-up of a bunch of different communities, not just one,” so he aims to tell a wide range of stories. 

“I want everyone to feel a connection to at least one of the stories,” he explains. “I wanted to talk to people that were unlikely to do outdoor stuff, and it wasn’t just hiking, but anything outdoors, and I wanted to talk to people with stories you would probably [not] hear about that needed attention.” 

The diversity of the show’s guests, whom Lugo primarily recruits, speaks for itself.

“I had the first African American or Black person to summit Mount Everest not just once, but twice. His name is Sibusiso Vilane. Great conversation. He ended up [speaking about] how he wishes more people would reach out to him to share his story,” says Lugo.

“Then I spoke to Pattie Gonia,” recalls Lugo of his conversation with the backpacking drag queen and staunch environmental and LGBTQ+ activist who has established a significant online following. “He wasn’t in drag, though, so he was a he. Amazing human being. I had one of the best conversations with him.

Pattie Gonia (source: Greenmatters)

Lugo also spoke with Jennifer Pharr Davis, a renowned long-distance hiker and author who has hiked more than 14,000 miles, including setting the speed record for the Appalachian Trail in 2011 at just over 46 days, a benchmark that has since been topped.

“I [also invited on] an older guy, in his 70s at the time — one of my heroes. His name is J.R. Harris. He has a book called “Way Out There”. He was one of the first black members of the Explorers Club,” says Lugo.

Harris is known for his extreme, often solo adventures in over 50 countries — on every continent except Antarctica (yet). 

Across the board, Lugo’s guests are recognized for making waves in the outdoor community, pushing for change in a space that can all too often feel monolithic.

Harris and the women who sponsored his entry to the Explorers Club fought hard to shatter the good-old-boys club the Explorers Club and the outdoor community can often represent.

Pattie Gonia speaks loudly on the climate crisis, weaving together climate and queer activism in an effort to make the environmentalist and outdoor communities a safer place for LGBTQ+ people.

And finally, in addition to his groundbreaking mountaineering expeditions, Vilane champions access to education by using his platform and speaking gigs to raise money and awareness for organizations like The Imbumba Foundation.  

J.R. Harris after returning from Alaska in the 1980s (source: Afar)  

An Unlikely Audiobook 

Available for free on Audible, Lugo recorded the audiobook version of “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker” in 2021. Much like his journey on the AT, it was something he never intended to do. 

When his memoir came out in 2019, Lugo hosted a release party on his birthday. Among his community in NYC, he’s friends with a professional romance-novel narrator, who was tasked with read the first few chapters of the book as a birthday present.

Lugo was ecstatic, but there was one problem. It just didn’t sound like him. 

“It just sounded like a guy reading a book,” he recalls, adding, “He doesn’t sound like Derick Lugo, who ends up [becoming] Mr. Fabulous, my trail name. He’s not the person of color that’s on the trail and growing throughout.” 

Lugo’s readers echoed that idea; at events, they told him how they loved how he made them feel like they were on the trail with him, and they wanted to hear his voice. 

Lugo sat on the dilemma of who should record the audiobook for a year and a half before he reached out to AMC and told them he would do it. AMC contacted Audible, who launched the recording process in January 2021. 

“They sent me a big case. It looked like one of those top secret cases. I opened it up, and it had two laptops, a microphone, and headphones. It had all these different gadgets. I put it together, put it in my ear when they wanted me to, and it was like they were doing a movie. I had a producer, I had a director, [and] I had an audio engineer,” he remembers. 

“It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was almost harder than hiking the Appalachian Trail. I think it may have been harder,” he says of the four-day recording process.

When the audiobook came out, though, it quickly became the number one new release on Audible, which Lugo credits to his devoted readers. 

“I already have the following, the readers that want my story. The outdoor community is huge, so when they got the audio book, people were just hungry for it,” he expands. Ultimately, he’s happy with the results; he got to tell his story his way. 

“It was a challenge,” he concedes, “But I was glad I did it, and the people that now listen to it, they’re like: ‘Dude, I hear you!’” 

On being a Black thru-hiker 

When Lugo hiked the AT in 2012, he didn’t know it at the time, but he was the only thru-hiker of color on the trail. But that’s not how Lugo wants to center his narrative.  

“When I told my story, it wasn’t about me being a person of color on the trail,” he notes. “If you’ve read my book, you’d understand that I’m sharing my story as just a human being. I mentioned my background because when you’re reading about a character, you want to learn as much as you can about that character.” 

“People were happy that I was out there,” he qualifies, adding, “The AT and the organizations, especially the ATC [Appalachian Trail Conservancy], they’ve been wanting to diversify the trail even before Black Lives Matter. Let’s be real. They’ve been doing it for a very long time because they want everyone [out there].” 

Derick says he felt comfortable within the on-trail community, something he credits with his experience growing up in New York surrounded by many different communities of people. 

“I’m from New York City, the mixing pot of the world. We’re all different types in New York City, and to say that I don’t see color, that’s not true, but I will say that, for me, it’s not a thing. It’s not. I’m so used to it. I lived in a Black neighborhood growing up, and I was a Black Latino, so I was different there, and I went to a white school, so I was always different, but I was able to mix in and be a part of everything.” 

But that’s not to say Lugo didn’t have some uncomfortable moments on the AT.

“When I was on the trail and people would say that [I was the only person of color there],” Lugo recalls, the mood instantly shifted. “All of a sudden, it was a real thing for me, and I noticed a lot more how I stuck out instead of just blending in and being a part of a group — and it wasn’t a bad thing, but it was sad for me.” 

Throughout his months on the trail, the people closest to him were worried about his physical safety.

“My brother, my family, thought I was crazy for doing [the AT],” he remembers, adding, “My friends thought I was too citified. They were like ‘there’s no way you gonna survive out there.’” 

His brother went so far as to suggest he carry a machete for self-defense. 

“It was very impactful that I was a person of color, and it still is to this day,” Lugo admits, but that’s ultimately not how he wants to frame his experience in the outdoors — or his new career. 

“I wanted to write my book because I wanted to share my story and let people know, because of my background, because I didn’t know anything about the outdoors, that’s one reason why I was unlikely. But also, I was like a city dude that was just trying to look fly all the time, getting manicures,” says Lugo.

“I couldn’t imagine being out in the woods. I went from that to living in the woods for six months. That’s what I wanted to showcase, that anyone and everyone should enjoy the outdoors. It’s not [about] what you look like, who you are, your culture, what you think about nature … just get your butt out there!” 

Lugo doing trail work on the AT

What comes next for Mr. Fabulous? 

In the future, Lugo would love to tackle an expedition with J.R. Harris. 

“Every time I ask him, he says, ‘you come up with something, and we’ll do it,’” he says about the potential of planning an adventure with his hero. 

“I would love for us to go to Africa somewhere,” Lugo adds, “I would love to immerse myself in a culture where I can not only learn about their traditions but also gain a deeper sense of humility because, in America, we take for granted what we have here.” 

Derick also wants to continue testing himself in new environments, adding “I would like to do something where it’s scary to the point that I’m scared for my life every single day.”

But it’s not all about the intensity of the experience. Lugo hopes to bring his signature humor with him on the adventure, too. 

“I’m hoping to hang out with the kids [wherever I go], make them laugh, even if they don’t understand what I’m saying. I love that challenge of trying to communicate with people, although they may not know what you’re saying. To make someone laugh, and they don’t know your language? That’s my goal. I don’t know if I’ve ever made someone laugh, and they didn’t understand what I’m saying. Being able to do that is my dream.” 

As for another thru hike in the states, possibly out west once more? Don’t count it out, as Lugo envisions “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker” as a trilogy.

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