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Lithia store owner finds personal transformation along the Appalachian Trail

LITHIA — Most people would agree that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

For Lithia resident Bonnie Karet, however, the journey began not with a single step but with a single goal: finding herself by hiking the complete Appalachian Trail.

When she completes the trek next month, she will have taken 5 million steps to complete the 2,189.2-mile trail that begins in northern Georgia and ends in Maine. The unseen steps she has taken to complete her personal transformation will be just as important.

The journey began for Karet in the form of a midlife crisis. Turning 50 in 2014, she assessed her life. She had some great accomplishments: three wonderful children, a supportive husband, a successful business and the establishment of her own charity.

She also had some disappointments. She was 50 pounds overweight, had unhealthy eating habits, lacked motivation to exercise and had fallen into a self-described Netflix addiction.

"Every diet failed," Karet said. "Every workout plan fizzled. I was aware every single minute that I was not being a good example to my kids."

She decided to completely change the direction of her life both physically and mentally by hiking the Appalachian Trail.

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Karet's motivation went beyond personal goals. She wanted to use the hike to raise awareness and money for two organizations: A Kid's Place of Tampa Bay, a shelter for abused and neglected kids in Brandon, and her own Big Big World Project, which helps Vietnamese kids who don't have parents.

"Children without parents are a cause close to my heart," Karet said. "I feel like with all the odds against them, they find a way to survive and make it. Nobody can do it for them. It's a lot like hiking the AT, you can have people encourage you along the way, but it's your walk. You're the one who has to start and finish it."

On her wedding anniversary, March 23, she took her first step at the AT trail head in Springer Mountain, Ga., leaving Art Monkey, her art studio/ice cream/coffee shop, in the hands of her husband and her three children.

For Mark Karet, Bonnie's husband, initially there were objections and many obstacles. They still had a 14-year-old at home — her other children are 25 and 18 — and who would run the studio? In the end, the whole family rallied behind her and helped keep the studio going.

"I decided to stop focusing on the obstacles and help make it happen," Mark said. "When she left, I didn't know how long she'd be gone: two days, two weeks, the whole six months? At this point, she's accomplishing her dream, I'd be disappointed if she didn't finish."

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The beginning was difficult. Karet knows now that her preparations were minimal.

"The mountains were big, it was cold, and I was in no shape to do this," Karet said. "The support and fun- loving nature of fellow Florida hiker (trail name) Katwalk kept me on the trail. On Day 2, facing my first major climb up Sassafras Mountain, I received the best advice that I use to this day: take baby steps and rest often.

"I did that and baby-stepped across the mountains of Georgia. My legs got stronger, my steps got bigger."

Looking back on those first days, Karet learned that hiking and completing the trail wasn't about physical preparation.

"As one thru-hiker put it, 'It's the gear between the ears that counts.' "

Keeping that in mind, hiking the trail has been a perfect place to redefine herself. It is a solo journey of willpower, physical strength and mental toughness. She has lost 35 pounds while enduring the lows of difficult weather and painful falls and the highs of spectacular mountain views and graceful wildlife.

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For Karet, the most inspiring part of the hike came from the people she has met. Learning that everyone on the trail has "trail names," she began to understand the transformational nature of the experience during campfire chats with folks such as "Reset" and "Crossroads."

"I have met young veterans, walking off the war," Karet said. "Their campfire stories are heart-wrenching and make me realize that some things can never be unseen. I have met cancer survivors and have been blinded by the light of their human spirit. I have met folks at the end of their cancer journeys, with no more avenues to explore.

"I have met young people just out of college, looking for a grand adventure before the business of work, marriage and kids begin. They don't know that the grandest adventure is still ahead of them in those very things they now consider mundane."

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Many people don't realize the trail is supported by people known as Trail Angels whose only desire is to help and facilitate those hiking the trail. They meet the hikers at stopping points and provide them with supply rides to a nearby town, access to washing machines, lunch or dinner at their house or just a cold drink.

To date, Karet has raised more than $4,000. She is due to arrive at her final destination in Mount Katahdin, Maine, in mid-September.

Contact Leda Eaton at Follow her @ledaeaton.