What does it mean to leave a legacy? And how does one do so? Certainly, it is not something one can achieve quickly, or without commitment and care for the outcome. A legacy is created over time, little by little, with constant passion and dedication. At AGC, our understanding of a legacy and how one achieves it, has been defined by watching Jan Latham.
Jan has shared her love of travel, hiking, and lightweight backpacking with the AGC Community, and has created an inspirational legacy for all women in the outdoors. Her enthusiasm for lightweight backpacking on the AT and inspiring hundreds of women to join her, is a wonderful gift that has enriched many women’s lives. And her dedication to providing women with the tools necessary to feel confident and able to craft their own adventures is truly legendary.
“I have been able to share my love of travel and specifically hiking and backpacking with hundreds of wonderful and adventurous women in some pretty spectacular places. My favorite activity is backpacking and my favorite way of backpacking is lightweight backpacking.” - Jan Lathan from the ‘Introduction to Lightweight Backpacking’ Guide
Jan’s legacy is intrexibly tied to the Intro to Lightweight Backpacking on the AT program with so many participants who have completed it and gone on to achieve their outdoor dreams as well. If you ask Jan Latham why and how the Intro to Lightweight Backpacking trip developed, her simple answer is that she “wanted to backpack the AT and did not want to go heavy!” Her full answer, however, is more nuanced.
When she discovered Adventures in Good Company and then started guiding, she had already been pondering a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. She had read every book available and had been carefully planning and plotting. 1999 rolled around and in true Jan style, she decided she “needed to do it or stop talking about it.” She left for her first fabled AT trip immediately following her daughter’s college graduation party. Jan took her then 16-year-old son with her, started in Damascus, and completed the section from there that included Mount Rogers. Shelters and the distance and support options were good in this neck of the woods and that trip proved a success. Becoming part of the AGC community was a match made in heaven; Jan could research and scout for new backpacking trips while also getting to personally check off more sections of the AT.
Through her own trial and error, she quickly realized that the ideal way to establish a trip series along the AT would be to start with an ‘Intro’ itinerary. Throughout her preparations, she got hooked on the lightweight backpacking concept. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, lightweight backpacking was still a novel and somewhat unrefined concept. There were pioneers who laid the foundation, like Grandma Gatewood who thru-hiked the AT in 1955 with only a small duffel bag thrown over one shoulder and sneakers, and Ray Jardine whose book Beyond Backpacking in 1999 inspired the next generation of long-distance hikers to reduce their equipment weight. Otherwise, we were still a few years away from minimalist internal frame backpacks, carbon fiber trekking pole tents, and Altra trail running shoes. For the most part, Jan had to learn from the unforgiving teacher of experience.
Thus, a general ‘Intro to Backpacking the AT’ trip evolved into an ‘Intro to Lightweight Backpacking’ itinerary.
"Jan was so passionate about the "lightweight" part of the experience. I bought an over-the-shoulder water-bottle holder just before we got on the van to leave for the trail. She saw it and gave me this concerned look, like "I can't believe you just bought that, I might have to take it away from you." I also remember Jan teaching us the two different methods of how to pee in the woods (sit on the log, or lean against the tree.) I've used that skill many times since! It's very liberating." - Julia Williamson 2013 Intro to Lightweight Backpacking
In 2001 Jan discovered AGC as a participant and was launched on a path toward 20+ years of adventure with the organization. A mountaineering guide friend was leading a climbing trip in Joshua Tree for AGC and encouraged Jan to join the trip. Jan had never gone solo on a group adventure before and was hesitant but agreed to the adventure. Fortunately, Jan met Marian Marbury there, and by the end of the trip, Jan thought to herself “I can do everything that leading this trip requires” so she asked Marian if she could be hired! The next year, in 2002, Jan traveled again to Joshua Tree National Park, but this time as the basecamp manager.
Joshua Tree became the jumping-off point for Jan’s expansive guiding career. From there, Jan went on to lead a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters with Deb Malmon, and after that, there was no stopping! As her time at AGC continued, her years were filled with frequent adventures in guiding; Jan would often lead nine or ten trips a year with over 100 in total over two decades.
For many years, Jan guided all of the Intro to Lightweight Backpacking departures, all of the AT section itineraries, and many of the AT slackpacking trips. Other trips in her annual lineup included Lodge to Lodge on the Appalachian Trail, Hut to Hut on the Appalachian Trail, additional trips in Smokies, and a number of international trips. The extensive research, planning, and organization of the ‘Intro’ itinerary, the section trips, and almost all of the slackpacking sections were developed exclusively by Jan while she was a guide. That passion and gumption need to be noted as we relay that Jan was not getting paid to create those trips! She selflessly volunteered her own time because she loved the process and loved getting to guide these trips.
"Jan was fantastic! Her knowledge of the trail, history, plants, the environment, first aid—you name it—was unsurpassed. you can tell this program is "her baby" because the pride shows through. I'm certain that in preparing for succession to allow others to take a primary guide role is hard, but you can sure tell that she values what she developed and sees how participants gain an appreciation of backpacking light that any hesitation in succession has more to do with loving what she does than her faith in the other guides' skills. Bravo!!" - Mary Ursul 2017 Intro to Lightweight Backpacking
Jan’s trip development and program expertise eventually led her to a role amongst the small AGC office staff. In 2012 the company only had one other employee besides Marian. She proposed to Jan a part-time, flexible, work-from-home position to round out AGC at 3 employees and Jan quickly agreed. After a crash course orientation in logistics and software, Jan went on to make a huge difference in program operations as she created forms and workflows that became foundational to how AGC operates. While in the office, Jan also continued to think up and plot out more amazing adventures that are still on the AGC schedule today.
Jan created a wonderful gift that has enriched many women’s lives beyond just the ‘Intro’ program. There are numerous people who are grateful to Jan for her contribution to AGC. The motto in the field amongst many of the guides is: “What would Jan do?”. Jan has been a go-to for advice and mentorship, from always making time to talk about trips or guiding in general, to sharing her in-depth experience about both domestic and international trips. She taught leadership and to take charge—but always with a smile. She taught the secrets of setting out lunch while finishing breakfast and prepping dinner. Her guiding style was patient and calm, organized and fun. The food she produced was raved about, regardless of whether it was just-add-water meals on the AT or home cooking. Participants from one trip to another ask about Jan and mention how much they loved having her as a guide—and how much they learned from her.
Jan will be retiring later this year and ‘working on not working’ over the next few months. There are many women far and wide who will be forever grateful for her encouragement and enthusiasm, and for sharing her love of travel, backpacking, flowers, food, and friendship.
As a new chapter unfolds, it is with a heart full of gratitude for the legacy Jan’s created and the generosity she has given AGC with her time, wisdom, and kindness. Few people leave a legacy and we are forever thankful to be a part of Jan’s.