After raising rabbits, Willett hits the trails and eyes big adventure on the open road

by Randall Rigsbee, Correspondent

Crystal Willett is widely known as “the Rabbit Lady,” a moniker the 54-year-old Chatham County resident earned, and embraced, in the years she operated The Chatham Rabbit, her farm in Bear Creek.

For a decade or so, until a couple of years ago, Willett operated the one-woman business, raising rabbits and selling them throughout central North Carolina to restaurants that featured the locally-raised protein on their menus. She even delivered them herself, loading her pick-up truck to make daily delivery runs.

Having raised rabbits as a teenager, she knew the trade well and she made a good living that way.

“I’m still called ‘the rabbit lady,’ and people still call me for rabbits,” Willett said.

But in 2018, Willett gave up The Chatham Rabbit as foreign competition began eroding her local business and muddied the business path forward.

She took another job, working from her home for Bridges for Hope, a mental health care provider.

And in her off hours, she undertook something else: hiking, which appealed to her love of outdoor open spaces and discovering new things. And, it got her out from behind a computer.

These days, removed as she is from rabbits and farming, Willett is maybe more apt to be known as “the Trail Lady.”

‘Something just clicked’

“I started hiking about two years ago when my oldest son took me to Linville Gorge,” she said.

The “Grand Canyon of the East,” as it’s sometimes known, Linville Gorge Wilderness area in the mountains of western North Carolina is part of Pisgah National Forest. It boasts rugged, steep terrain.

Her initial hike was, as it turns out, a sort of trial by fire as she and her son, 32-year-old Shane, together tackled Linville Gorge’s challenging conditions.

“I thought it was going to kill me,” she said of the experience, laughing. “But when I was done with it, I was so excited about hiking. Something just clicked. I realized there’s so much out there to explore and I wanted to do more hiking.”

And, simultaneously, something else clicked. Not only was she energized and eager to get her feet on more trails, she also wanted to capture her hiking experiences on video, and share them.

She was initially inspired to film her adventures on the trails as a way to help a friend whose legs were lost to complications from diabetes and thus couldn’t hike herself.

“I told her,” said Willett, “‘I’m going to go hike and go explore, and you can watch it on video and go hiking with me.’ That’s how I started with the videos.”

From those initial hikes and early forays into recording, Willett soon launched her own YouTube channel chronicling her travels and her solo hikes. Called “A Traveling Addict,” the channel features videos of Willett’s adventures filmed throughout North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Virginia, West Virginia and Florida.

She’s hiked, so far, 276 trails, logging just over 500 miles on foot.

Her YouTube channel is growing, too.

“Right now, I’ve got almost 200 subscribers,” she said, “which isn’t all that many in the YouTube world. But, it’s growing. And, it’s exciting.”

A movement afoot

Willett, of course, didn’t invent hiking—it’s grown into a popular pursuit over many decades—but like many other people who’ve tapped into its appeal, she has embraced hiking and made it an essential part of her lifestyle.

“At the turn of the 20th century, hiking for pleasure was a relatively new concept,” according to the website of the Forest History Society. “America was largely rural until the mid-1800s, and most people lived near open fields and forests. Walking and nature were a part of daily life. With increased industrialization during the 19th century, however, a walk in the woods would become a luxury for many people, and it wasn’t until the end of that century that hiking was recognized as a recreational activity.”

More recently, there’s been an explosion of interest in hiking. For this phenomenon, some sources point to what they call “the ‘Wild’ Effect,” citing Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, “Wild,” which recounts the author’s 1,100-miles solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Washington state. “Wild,” as well as its movie screen adaptation of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon, is credited with turning on a lot of new hikers to the pursuit.

A self-described “wanderer,” Willett said the appeal for her of the open trail was rooted in her lifelong desire simply to “explore something new.”

She doesn’t, for instance, hike the same trail twice.

“There’s just so much out there to discover, so much to explore, so much diversity, even just here in North Carolina,” she said. “I’ve hiked at the Great Dismal Swamp, and the mountains, and you have the flat land out east. It’s just amazing, the great diversity of the land, and that’s what I want to see.”

Her favorite hike so far?

“Probably the one I just did,” she said. “Compression Falls.”

Although less than a mile long, the Compression Falls hike in North Carolina, near the Tennessee border, is considered a difficult hike by those who undertake such adventures.

“It’s very dangerous,” Willett conceded. But, she loved the challenge of the hike, and found the mountain scenery rewarding.

She said she hasn’t yet experienced a “least favorite” hike.

“I try to take each one as it is and try to find out what’s good about it, for what it has to offer. You may find a beautiful waterfall on one, and not on another. Or a great view. And you may not find that great view on another trail. But they’ve all got something to offer. I’ve not hiked a trail yet I didn’t like,” she explained.

Learning more on every hike

Each new hike—Willett hikes solo year-round, though she prefers to avoid snowy conditions, and limits herself to day hikes only—builds upon her previous experience and sharpens her skills. She hikes at least a couple of new trails every week.

“Every hike I do,” she said, “I learn something new. And that gives me more confidence…I was on one hike where I had to cross a creek and I was scared to do it. But I did and then I was like ‘Alright. I can do that!’ Later, I was on a hike that had 36 creek crossings. So every hike kind of builds on the ones before it. You keep learning and developing your skills and you gain confidence as you go.”

She’s not only learned a lot on the trails in the last two years and, but also as a leader for Goldston’s Boy Scout Troop 900, where her 16-year-old son Danny is a Scout. Willett is currently sharing her hiking expertise, instructing the troop’s Eagle Scouts as they work towards earning their hiking merit badges. “We have to take 1.5 mile hike, three 10-mile hikes, a 15-mile hike and a single continuous 20-mile trek,” she said.

One dream hike she’d like to undertake is the Trail of Tears, which commemorates the forced removal of the Cherokee and runs thousands of miles across nine states.

She’s also gotten healthier. Since she began, she’s lost 35 pounds.

‘Don’t skimp on shoes’

For hiking novices, Willett suggests a few important essentials, beginning with footwear.

“Don’t skimp on shoes,” she said. “Get a really good pair.”

Also essential: a trekking pole, to help maintain stability on rocky or heavily rooted terrain and avoid falls. “[Using a trekking pole] has saved me I don’t know how many times,” she said.

In her backpack, for every hike, she carries rain gear, a dry pack for her camera equipment, a lighter, flashlight, first aid kit, snacks and water. She also carries a water filter “so I can get water out of a mud puddle if I need to,” she said.

“I always plan in case I get stuck out there for any reason that I can make it through the night,” said Willett.

She also carries a can of bear repellant, though she’s never had to deploy it.

“The only close call I’ve had was with a tick,” she said. “And that almost killed me. I got Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, about a year ago, and almost died.”

And she carries pepper spray.

The road ahead

While Willett has spent much of her time the last two years hiking, she’s also been planning her next steps for the years ahead.

“In two years, when my son [Danny] goes to the university, I’m buying a van and turning it into a home,” she said. “I’m going to travel the United States. What I’m hoping for is to continue to build my YouTube audience and share with them all the things I’m exploring around the country.”

She’s been gradually preparing for this major lifestyle change.

She moved from her farm in Bear Creek and “downsized to a little apartment [in Pittsboro],” she said. “And most of the stuff in that apartment my son can take to his dorm, or wherever he’s going. I’m excited. I can’t wait.”

There is, she said, a large community of thousands of people who are “doing this right now,” and she’s preparing to join them.

She plans to buy a high-top conversion van and “turn that into a house. They’ve got bathrooms, a shower, a bed, kitchen and they can go anywhere. I’ll just explore.”

She’ll also keep her job, which she can continue to do anywhere, as long as she has access to the internet.

As for returning some day to Chatham County, which she’s called home since moving here in 1983, she may not.

“I’ll play that by ear,” she said, “but I don’t plan to. I plan to do this full time. There’s so much out there to see. It will take years.”